A City That Takes Planning Very Seriously

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The 2013-2014 Daniel Rose Fellows began their San Francisco Study Tour yesterday with a session at the city’s planning department, introducing the city’s uniquely challenging planning and development climate.

“Planning is a bloodsport in San Francisco — and the planning department often gets bloodied in the process,” begins John Rahaim, director of the City of San Francisco Planning Department. “It’s a city that takes planning very seriously.”

Indeed, the issues faced by San Francisco make it an ideal venue to inaugurate this year’s class of fellows. They will spend the next year studying development issues in several U.S. cities and gaining insight into the unique land use challenges of their individual cities.

“The city has a long history of people being very attached to what it looks like and feels like and acts like, Rahaim explains. “People fall in love with it and want it to remain exactly the same as it was when they arrived … people are always pushing back against change.”

But change is indeed coming to San Francisco, and rapidly.

“The primary factor is the interest of what some call the Millennial generation — those in their 20s and 30s — to live in the city and not own cars,” Rahaim continues. “The number of miles driven by cars here started dropping even before the recession.”

Every type of approval in San Francisco is discretionary, rather than administrative … signs being the only exception, ironically. According to the city charter, any permit — not just building permits, any permit — can be appealed. We are as close as we can get to how the rest of the world [outside the United States] operates. Development is viewed as a privilege, not a right.

John Rahaim, Planning Director, City of San Francisco Planning Department

“Google runs one of the biggest transportation systems in the city,” Rahaim says, referring to the elaborate network of private shuttles the growing Mountain View, Calif. company uses move its workers to and from San Francisco residences. Other Silicon Valley employers operate similar services.

But why are employees of these companies choosing to reside in San Francisco in such large numbers?

“This is the second most dense city in the country,” begins planner Steve Wertheim. He contrasts San Francisco’s “walkable, transit-oriented” urban fabric with that of other Bay Area cities. “People don’t care about jurisdictional boundaries — they choose to live here because they want that kind of lifestyle.”

“It’s an interesting time here. The demographics are changing fast,” Rahaim acknowledges. “But the flip side is, it’s creating an enormous housing crisis. We have perhaps the least affordable housing stock in the country.”

“The city does what it can to limit evictions, but there is state law that trumps city law … a building owner, for example, can evict tenants if he or she wants to sell the building.”

“Housing is a regional issue, employment is a regional issue, culture is a regional issue, and yet we have 99 other jurisdictions doing what they want … what we can do is often very limited.” adds San Francisco planner Steve Wertheim.

“I see a growing tension between the haves and have-nots, necessitating a growing conversation about equity in San Francisco,” says fellow Patrick Quinton, executive director of the Portland Development Commission, when Rahaim admits that bus services such as Google’s are raising real estate values in the neighborhoods they serve. “I think San Francisco is a little ahead of the curve on this,” Quinton continues, “It’s only a matter of time before we see this in Portland.”

“The federal and state governments are not always interested in cities,” concludes Wertheim. “We’ve had to figure a lot of this out for ourselves.”

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