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Politics & Policy

Despite housing crisis, San Francisco just made it harder to build in some neighborhoods

Supervisor Aaron Peskin with his hand on his hand looking forward during public comment.
San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin introduced a measure to enact density controls in historic neighborhoods on the Northern Waterfront. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

After a string of state and local policies meant to spur the building of bigger and denser housing in San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors passed a measure Tuesday that would effectively do the opposite: It imposed density limits in several historic neighborhoods on the Northern Waterfront.

Passed with an 8-3 vote, the ordinance introduced by Supervisor Aaron Peskin enacts density controls for most development in the Northeast Waterfront Historic District, the Jackson Square Historic District and the Jackson Square Historic District Extension, reverting it to previously established limits connected to nearby residential areas.  

Projects that are part of the city’s office-to-residential conversion program are exempted from the new rule. 

Peskin, whose district includes the North Beach, Telegraph Hill and Fisherman’s Wharf areas, said he was inspired to introduce the ordinance after seeing high-rise development proposals he considered to be outsized for those historic areas of the city.

One example is an effort by Aralon Properties to upsize its planned residential development at 955 Sansome St. into a 24-story, 132-unit building by utilizing new state laws and the state density bonus, which allows for high building heights and more units than is normally allowed under typical zoning. On the site currently sits a two-story garage.

Another is a plan to demolish a three-story, 116-year-old office building at 1088 Sansome St. and replace it with a 17-story building, which would include 112 new homes. Michael Moritz, who is chairman of The Standard, is an investor in the project.

building at the corner of green and Sansome
There are plans for a 17-story residential and commercial tower to be built in place of the current historic office building at 1088 Sansome St. in San Francisco. | Source: Juliana Yamada for The Standard

Somewhat ironically, the ability to build that big was enabled by previous legislation introduced by Peskin to help usher in more commercial-to-residential conversion projects. “Once we realized this unintended consequence, I introduced legislation to reimpose density limits,” Peskin said at Tuesday’s meeting.

This ordinance comes at a time when San Francisco has agreed to state-mandated requirements to approve 82,000 new homes by 2031 and reduce barriers to getting housing built. 

Peskin argued that the ability to build dense high-rises in those specific historic neighborhoods is not part of the city’s state-mandated housing plan.

“We need to figure out ways to make sure we don’t end up with a series of Fontana Towers along the Embacadero,” Peskin said, referring to the pair of 18-story waterfront condo buildings adjacent to Fort Mason that were built in 1963. “I don’t think we have to destroy the city to save it.”

Neighborhood groups in the area, including the Telegraph Hill Dwellers and the Neighborhoods United San Francisco wrote letters in support of Peskin’s measure. The groups have successfully combatted high-rise developments in the area for years. 

Frances Schreiberg, a retired attorney who owns a three-unit building on Vallejo Street, said she would support affordable housing projects on her block, but that she feared her community would come to resemble Miami Beach, with its wall of expensive high-rises.

However, not everyone was swayed by neighborhood preservationists’ arguments.  

woman in purple suit sitting
Supervisor Myrna Melgar opposed the ordinance to limit density in the Northern Waterfront neighborhoods, characterizing it as an individual carve-out. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

YIMBY Law, the legal arm of the pro-housing development movement group, opposed Peskin’s ordinance, arguing that the measure violates state law SB 330, which forbids local jurisdictions from downzoning unless they upzone an equivalent amount elsewhere.  

“This will result in fewer, and therefore much larger units, which are unlikely to be affordable,” said Brian O’Neill from Patterson & O’Neill PC, which represents YIMBY law, in a letter to the board in opposition to the ordinance. 

Supervisor Myrna Melgar, who was one of three dissenting votes along with Supervisors Matt Dorsey and Joel Engardio, said while she agreed the ordinance was technically compliant with the housing element, she didn’t feel it met the spirit of the previously agreed-upon framework to add more housing. 

“I fear that if one supervisorial district can carve out an area, others can as well,” Melgar said at the meeting. “Perhaps not with the same mechanism, but we will be creative and find others.”

Clarification: This story has been updated with a new description of Telegraph Hill Dwellers and the Neighborhoods United San Francisco.