Planning the City's Future

An update on the 2004 AIA/SPUR agenda for reform

SPUR Report July 1, 2007

San Francisco's planning and building-review processes continue to need additional reform. In March of 2004, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association and the American Institute of Architects San Francisco published Planning the City's Future: An Agenda for Change in the San Francisco Planning Department and Department of Building Inspection. That report cited the significant deficiencies in each department and made specific recommendations on how to fix them. Three years have passed since the report was first published. It is time to re-evaluate these critical city departments, note where progress has been made and identify where work still needs to be done.

When our report was first published, both departments had been experiencing extremely challenging times. Three years ago, public support, staff morale and the degree of trust the Board of Supervisors had for these departments were at historic lows. Since that time, as a result of efforts within both departments, significant steps to correct these problems have been made. Nevertheless, much remains to be done. Attachment A contains a "report card" that compares the action that has been taken against the recommendations in our 2004 report.

It is imperative to build on the progress that has occurred. We are at a historic juncture as the face of San Francisco goes through dramatic change, with new, higher-density developments proposed and under construction. The increasing conflicts between the desire to preserve the best of the past while accommodating the growth needs and building types of the future need sensitive resolution. Despite a significant increase of housing units both under construction and in the pipeline ready to begin (a record 11,000 units in two years), San Francisco continues to suffer from the highest housing prices in the nation and a shortage of units the majority of its citizens can afford to purchase. This problem is critical as we try to find ways to keep lower- and moderate-income individuals and families from having to move out of the city.

As part of evaluating the status of each department to determine what is working and what needs further attention, a task force consisting of members from SPUR and AIA San Francisco met with interested parties, senior staff members from each department, and members of the planning and building inspection commissions.

Our goal remains the same as what we outlined in 2004: Propose reforms to each department's management, work process, funding and governance that will assist the mayor, the Board of Supervisors, commissioners and department directors in developing a better working model for these departments. This will allow a more comprehensive and thoughtful approach to meeting San Francisco's preservation and development challenges in the future and will enable the provision of more efficient and effective service to those applying for planning and building permits under the adopted development rules.

Highlights of the Recommendations

Major themes of the report:

  • Provide the new planning director the necessary tools and support to restructure the organization to better manage the department.
  • Improve the working relationship between the planning commissioners and senior department staff.
  • Enable the Planning Commission to focus more on the emerging area plans and longer range planning policies and less on judging Discretionary Review determinations. Reduce the number and types of conditional use cases that must be heard by the commission.
  • Add planning staff to provide skills in transportation planning and "public benefit" planning and implementation
  • Invest more resources in planning staff development and training, including a better understanding of compliance with the Planning Code and Building Code, and building design. Provide time-management training and management tools to manage work performance
  • Reform the environmental-review process. Expedite document preparation. Adopt a fair process for appeals to the Board of Supervisors. Take advantage of simplifications that can be adopted locally and support state law changes that would make the California Environmental Quality Act process more suited to a developed urban area.
  • Continue the increase of General Fund support to the Planning Department.
  • Make updating the General Plan and keeping it current a priority. Complete and adopt a Preservation Element.
  • Support the efforts of the new director of the Department of Building Inspection to reorganize the management structure of the department and implement reform.
  • Continue to enable the budget of the Department of Building Inspection to allow for improvements, including the restructuring of the organization and the information-technology systems.
  • Support the ongoing training program at the Department of Building Inspection.
  • Fund an integrated permit-tracking system for the Department of Building Inspection and the Planning Department.
  • Continue to improve the interdepartmental coordination between the Planning Department, the Department of Building Inspection, the Fire Department, the Department of Public Works, Muni and the Recreation and Park Department by enabling contacts beyond the dommissions and directors to the level of senior and intermediate staff.
  • Hold both departments accountable to finish work on time and on budget. Scrutinize those programs that are being under funded or being sacrificed as a result of department deficits.




The most critical unresolved issue facing the Planning Department had been the unfinished task of appointing a new permanent planning director. This issue is about to be resolved with the appointment of a new director. It is our hope that the analysis of what has transpired over the past three years, as well as the recommendations of this report, will be assist the new director as a road map towards implementing new policies for the department.

Shortly before the publication of our report in 2004, Dean Macris, who had served many years as director some years ago, was brought in to serve again as director until a permanent director could be recruited and hired. As interim director, he has done a great deal to restore morale to the staff and rapport with other City departments and the Board of Supervisors. As a consequence, the mayor and the Board of Supervisors are providing more funding support to the department and staffing levels have been increased by some 38 positions. Long-delayed planning projects, such as Rincon Hill and Market-Octavia have been completed. Others are finally being staffed and consultants are being funded and are moving toward completion. Major new planning projects at the Transbay Terminal, Japantown, Fisherman's Wharf and the Southeast Waterfront have been started. A "Better Streets" program has been initiated.

The Planning Department added a senior-level chief administrative officer to handle the department's finances and personnel. Formerly vacant positions have been filled to address the backlog of project reviews and invigorate the code-enforcement capabilities of the department. A planner has been assigned half-time to serve as a training director and begin a professional training program. The department has been restructured to give mid-level planners (at the Planner IV level) greater decision-making authority, and responsibility to manage projects and subordinate staff. While considerable progress has been made, much remains to be done to improve the department's output and performance. This will be one of the primary responsibilities of the new director. Some of the issues to deal with:


  1. The structures of the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors create complexities in the governance of the department. In a sense, the department must serve 19 masters: seven commissioners, 11 supervisors and the mayor.
  2. Conflicts have emerged between some planning commissioners and department staff. Some staff members feel the commission does not respect the staff's professional judgment and some commissioners feel that they are inadequately informed and involved. There is disagreement over when commissioners should be engaged in the review of long-range planning programs and individual projects and the content of the staff reports. Some planning commissioners are asking to participate during the early phases of the development of area plan projects and the review of specific building projects. Rather than reacting to staff reports where the area plans and building project reviews have been substantially analyzed, there is a desire to provide input prior to them being completed. Some planning staff believe that they need to properly frame the salient issues of an area plan project or building project before turning them over to the commission for consideration. We believe the Planning Department should better inform the commission about upcoming projects and area planning projects prior to the completion of the staff review. There are ways of handling these requests, without the commission becoming a design-review board or further clogging their calendar to a point of gridlock.
  3. The Planning Commission continues spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on specific projects, mostly during Discretionary Review hearings. This sacrifices the time needed for bigpicture planning concerns as they relate to larger and higher-profile projects. While equal time appears to be given to smaller projects whose impact is significant to immediate neighbors but not necessarily to the city as a whole, cumulatively more time is spent on these than larger projects whose impact may affect a larger sector of the city. The commission cannot have it both ways, where smaller projects are given more weight than larger planning initiatives, while attempting to tackle both with an equal amount of scrutiny. It must reform its time management to allow proper consideration for larger projects and programs that compete for their attention with smaller projects. It needs to provide greater clarity during its deliberations on policy so that the staff may follow its leadership and the public has a better understanding of its positions.
  4. Exacerbating the problem is how the commission conducts its business. The commission's calendar often does not place projects with similar issues in the same hearing. Without case reports referencing projects being heard with similar projects that have been previously reviewed, the result is often the penchant for establishing policy on a project-by-project basis rather establishing a more consistent message and policy. During their deliberations, commissioners do not always share the reasoning behind their votes on a given project, lending confusion to staff, project sponsors and the public regarding what policies are relevant to the matter at hand. While there is conscious courtesy among commissioners to ensure that each position is properly heard, there is often a lack of focus in the conversation, resulting in an inconsistency in determinations among building projects. Sometimes commissioners cite the likelihood that their decision will bed appealed to the Board of Supervisors, as is often done, as a reason for self-censoring their decisions.This is unfortunate, given that it is an independent body that has different responsibilities than the Board of Supervisors. Other times a conflict becomes apparent between the policies of the Planning Commission and those of the Board of Appeals, without any method to fully analyze the issue and see if there is a method to resolve it.
  5. A welcome development in recent years is increased participation by the Mayor's Office of Housing and the Mayor's Office of Economic and Work Force and Development in the discussion of particular planning policies, most notably those focused on increasing the supply of affordable housing. This is a positive departure from the mayor's relatively hands-off policy regarding planning policies and area plans. There is a desire by some commissioners, the staff and the public for more participation by these representatives of the Mayor's Office so they are more publicly engaged with the commission to weigh in on general policy initiatives. This enables the commission to react to these interests at the same level as they do when receiving proposed legislation from the Board of Supervisors, programs from the planning staff and recommendations from the public.
  6. Recently added staff members have reduced the time delays in assigning projects for review. However, the delay in conducting an environmental evaluation is still unreasonably long, to a point where it is beyond an acceptable standard.
  7. As the Board of Supervisors' trust of the Planning Department has increased, the board has perceived less of a need to be the de facto Planning Commission. However, there remain serious problems as a result of a 2003 amendment to the California Environmental Quality Act requiring that all CEQA determinations by the planning staff and the Planning Commission, no matter how routine, be appealable to an elected body such as the Board of Supervisors. The board's willingness to overturn professional determinations regarding environmental impacts for reasons not based on CEQA policy results in tremendous uncertainty in the approval process and in additional time and cost for plans and projects. Even modest changes such as establishing times limits for the hearing of CEQA appeals to the Board of Supervisors have not moved forward.

Governance Recommendations

  1. In our 2004 report, we stated that the position of planning director needs to exercise some overarching competencies: vision and management, as well as skills in community outreach, consensus building and organizing departmental resources. We also stated that in order for the new director to exercise these skills, he or she should be able to hire a limited number of senior staff members to provide support to the priorities and complement the skills of the director and to enhance the management capabilities at the senior staff level.
  2. The Planning Department's fiscal year 2008 budget includes two new "at will" positions. These are likely will be used to hire heads of neighborhood planning and long-range planning, although this ultimately will be up to the new director. The underlying rationale for these changes is that the leaders of these functions should be more focused on management, goal-setting and policy development, instead of the previous focus on technical program management. A third management-level position is available for the head of the environmentalreview function. This is a civil-service position, consistent with the desire to protect the environmental-review function. We endorse this approach but recommend that additional senior level positions may be needed in the Department as well.
  3. Establish a better working relationship among commissioners and a better understanding of their responsibilities through a comprehensive commissioner-training program. Set priorities for time management and policies, including how and what types of issues should be deliberated. Provide instruction on the fundamentals of urban planning, the environmentalreview process, the General Plan, zoning procedures, land-use law and the City's appeals process. Organize commission agendas so that meetings can adjourn before 10 p.m. This will involve better estimates of the time needed for each agenda item. A non-binding allocation of the estimated time needed for each item can be a useful tool for disciplining the discussion and reducing repetitive and duplicative public testimony. Provide planning commissioners with information on other techniques for managing commission meetings. The training coordinator's fiscal year 2008 responsibilities will include the development of a training program for the commission, assuming that the commissioners are amenable.
  4. Reform the Discretionary Review process by adhering to a previously adopted Planning Commission policy. In 2004, the Planning Commission adopted a policy differentiating DR cases that were very modest in scope from those that were larger and more complicated. The goal was to reduce the staff time expended on case reports for simple cases, such as those citing conflicts with private views, construction noise, principally permitted uses, foundation excavation, building color, and light and air to rear yards by using a standard form to outline the primary issues of the case. After a year, the planning staff was supposed to update the commission on the success of this program and contemplate defining more categories as simple cases, such as horizontal additions that do not exceed the depth of the shorter of the two adjacent buildings and vertical additions that do not exceed the height of the shorter of the two adjacent buildings. The commission would still hear all cases. This process was never instituted, nor was there a follow up on how to implement any further changes to the DR process. Revisit these definitions to enable cases to be assigned to their respective category more appropriately. Strengthen the application of "exceptional and extraordinary circumstances" when determining if a project warrants changes through the DR process. This can be done by building a history of projects to be used as case studies for determining the threshold of "exceptional and extraordinary." This would reduce the proliferation of cases that lack merit. The ultimate goal should be to streamline the process, while maintaining stakeholders' access to a public hearing. One way of achieving this would be to enable a hearing officer to hear those cases defined as "simple" DR cases, with the ability to appeal the hearing officer's decision to the Board of Appeals. Those defined as "complex" DR cases would still be heard by the Planning Commission. Another option would be to establish a separate board to hear only Discretionary Review cases, whose decisions could be appealed directly to the Board of Appeals. This would enable the Planning Commission to focus on the balance of its responsibilities, without being hampered by timeconsuming DR cases. Both of these options require more careful analysis as part of a further study beyond the work of this report.
  5. Establish a more respectful relationship between the commission and the senior staff. Develop procedures by which commissioners can preview upcoming area plans and other plans the staff is working on and major projects that are in the pipeline but have not yet been brought before the commission. This needs to be accomplished without disrupting the process the planning staff needs for producing staff reports or causing commissioners to be involved with the minutiae of a particular area plan or building project during its stages of in-house preparation or review. One way this can be done is through more informational presentations by staff members on the status of planning projects in process. Another way would be for the director's report at commission meetings to include information about major projects under review by the staff, or to provide a list in commissioners' weekly packets of upcoming projects, with an indication of the issues involved in those projects. This would enable individual commissioners who have an interest in the status of a particular plan or project to inquire about it "off line."
  6. To enhance commissioner confidence in the staff, accelerate the development of standardized formats to assure uniform quality of staff reports. To facilitate discussion and commission understanding of projects the commission is considering, include in case reports the historical and physical context of the project under consideration. Develop better visual techniques for describing the project and reduce dependence on Sanborn maps.
  7. Encourage periodic presentations by the mayor or representatives from the Mayor's Office outlining the positions on priorities that are important to the City's chief executive.
  8. For newly appointed commissioners, provide instruction on the fundamentals of urban planning, the environmental-review process, general plan, zoning procedures, land-use law and the City's appeals process.
  9. Enact pending legislation that would establish procedures and thresholds for hearing appeals to the Board of Supervisors of CEQA determinations by the Planning Department and Planning Commission.
  10. Ensure adequate General Fund funding of the general planning activities of the Planning Department. While the Planning Department needs to be accountable to the Board of Supervisors for developing accurate project budgets and delivering work products on time and on budget, the Board of Supervisors needs to be accountable to properly fund new work projects once they have been started, so that ongoing efforts are not stalled.
  11. Hold more joint commission hearings with the Board of Appeals and the Building Inspection Commission to coordinate policies established by these respective boards and agencies.

Workload, Work Program and Funding


  1. Even though there have been substantial additions to the staff in recent years, the delays in getting projects assigned for staff review in the department's Major Environmental Review Division are still unreasonably long. The department has hired a consultant to assess departmental processes and staffing patterns, provide comparisons to other jurisdictions and examples of "best practices", and make recommendations for changes and improvements. The department anticipates that the study will be completed by the end of summer 2007.
  2. Approximately 25 percent of the costs in the Citywide Policy (long tange) Planning Division are funded through project filing fees. Permit activity fluctuates from year to year and so does fee revenue. That works for staff working on various aspects of a project's review and approval, since the amount of staff time needed correlates with the amount of permit activity. It does not work well as a principal support for a planning program. Here, General Fund support is needed. For fiscal year 2008 a reduction in permit activity is projected, due in part to the slowdown in the housing market. As a consequence, almost $3 million from the General Fund is proposed in the mayor's proposed fiscal year 2008 budget to support the department's planning work program. However, that level of General Fund support will leave a number of desirable planning activities unfunded.
  3. The proposed budget and work-program proposals submitted to the Planning Commission in support of the department's annual budget submission have substantially improved in recent years due to the addition of the department's chief administrative officer. Some planning commissioners still have had difficulty reviewing them, due to a lack of specificity. Best-guess estimates are given, rather than a properly documented allocation of staff time based on sound data. When the myriad of requests are made of or by the department, the commission, other City agencies, the Mayor's Office, the Board of Supervisors or the public, understanding the actual time spent on tasks translates to a better allocation and management of resources.
  4. A professional separation among the three primary divisions of the department (Major Environmental Analysis, Citywide Planning and Neighborhood Planning) remains that prevents adequate communication among them during the production of many work programs. Only recently did the staff of the Major Environmental Analysis Division move into the same building as the other two divisions. Physical proximity will help, but a structural change to the way the work is done and improvements to professional rapport will be necessary to substantially improve service to the department's customers. The introduction of the Major Environmental Analysis staff on area-plan projects and individual projects comes too late in the process and should be done earlier. This approach is prevented, however, by the late funding of EIRs and by the Major Environmental Review Division's policy of not getting involved in planning being carried out by the Citywide Planning Division, believing that it should remain independent, behind a "fire wall," to preserve its objectivity. Coordination between the Neighborhood (current) Planning Division staff and the Citywide Policy (long-range) Planning Division staff suffers by the failure to include the relevant project planners on the team developing new plans. The department's interdisciplinary committee established to work on the Transbay Area Plan brings Major Environmental Analysis into the planning and discussion much earlier than has typically been the case, and this could be a model for future collaboration.
  5. The environmental-review process has become more cumbersome and more consumptive of time and resources, both for the staff and for project sponsors. The process has become as much a means to stall or kill a plan or project as it is a process to elucidate and inform decisionmakers and the public about the physical impacts of a development. Staff determinations regarding the amount of review that must be done are now appealable to the Board of Supervisors. Some project sponsors willingly incur the cost and delay of doing a full EIR rather than risk seeing a lesser staff determination overturned by the board. Many believe that CEQA is broken and needs to be fixed at the state level (See the SPUR policy paper titled Form and Reform: Fixing the California Environmental Quality Act, February 2006). However, there are some measures that can be taken at the local level. A number of them were outlined in an April 2006 letter from SPUR to the department (see Attachment B). For the most part, these recommendations have not been acted upon.
  6. The department has recently been reorganized to decentralize more authority and management responsibility to the Planner IV level. However, these "middle managers" have received only limited training in management techniques. How to manage a staff of bright, independent professionals is not something that is generally taught in planning schools. It is a challenge, but it can be done. Resources are included in the fiscal year 2008 budget to continue the somewhat generic management training courses offered by the Human Resources Department. Those courses may need to be supplemented by in-house training in project work-programming and performance management. The department indicates that this will be part of the training program for fiscal year 2008.
  7. Case reports are inconsistent, due to a lack of training for less-experienced personnel. Allowing inadequate submissions by project sponsors for review also hampers a more rapid analysis of proposals. This also increases delays and the frustration level at the commission when insufficient materials are presented as a basis for determining policy and project review, resulting in the predilection of commissioners to meddle more than should be necessary into the specifics of a project. In addition, reliance on Sanborn maps creates an inaccurate portrayal of existing contexts, rather than using more useful three-dimensional modeling.
  8. The effort by the department to promote and encourage architectural design excellence in San Francisco is noble and welcome. The in-house design-review program for residential neighborhood plan areas, and the Urban Design Assistance Team for larger and higher-profile projects that have considerable urban-design implications, were established to help implement this policy. Unfortunately, in the early stages of implementation, these programs have had unintended consequences. This has primarily been due to a lack of expertise among most of the staff to properly evaluate the architectural design of submissions beyond the rudimentary principles of the residential design guidelines and the Planning Code. From the perspective of the project applicant, inconsistency in project review for these programs is extremely problematic.

    For example, in the residential design-review program, participation is voluntary and is determined by the staff planner. This sets a double standard for projects, depending on who is assigned to review them. When senior staff is not present to make determinations at meetings with project sponsors, or when face-to-face meetings are not made available between the staff and project sponsors, this review process is rightly perceived as an unending labyrinth of mixed messages and contradictory instructions as to where modifications to proposals should be made. The staff time on the project increases and the cost of the project substantially increases, due to delays in approvals and multiple redesigns, resulting in an increase to the cost of housing. Ultimately, the quality of the project's design is threatened. When senior staff joins project planners to speak in person with the applicant, consensus and understanding is more likely, and often the architectural quality of the project improves. We are not recommending project-review meetings for every submittal. Given the number of projects that are submitted for approval, this would not be feasible.

    Many of the problems described above can be remedied by a comprehensive training and educational programs, as well as a transparent process when interacting with project applicants. Using case studies derived from in-house design review and Urban Design Assistance Team meetings could be used to establish a catalogue of projects as a reference for those not participating in these more formal review processes. To assist in this effort, we recommend the Planning Department provide a more explicit and comprehensive checklist of items that a project applicant must include in a site-permit application. This would standardize the content required for project review, improve the quality of submissions and reduce the number of resubmissions.
  9. Other skill shortages in the department include the staffing and expertise in transportation planning, economic analysis and community participation. Recently the department has relied on consultants to provide some of these skills when needed. With the desire to increase interdepartmental coordination with other agencies, such as the Department of Parking and Traffic, it will be important to secure talent in these areas. Community participation is a highly developed skill. The department received high marks in for its work during the Better Neighborhoods area-plan projects. These efforts should continue to be the model for future plans. Early and constant participation with local neighborhood organizations over many years built a level of trust between the department and the community.
  10. Implementation of area plans will require additional staff and new skills. The area plans being developed contain detailed community-improvement plans with elaborate requirements for follow-on activity after adoption of the plan, and they also require the implementation of zoning controls to ensure that the community-improvement projects occur. This will be a new responsibility and will involve substantial staff time and implementation skills, some of which do not exist in the department. The Redevelopment Agency is accustomed to performing these functions in redevelopment areas such as Mission Bay. One possibility would be to engage the Redevelopment Agency staff to carry out some of these activities through a work order or delegation agreement. New staff or differently trained staff may be needed as this function grows and capital programming is integrated with the General Plan land use, transportation, conservation and growth policies.
  11. The planning staff is highly skilled and motivated. Staff members merely need the proper tools to perform their tasks and closer oversight by their managers to complete them. A new administrative model needs to be implemented to hold these efforts accountable and to ensure they correspond with the budget and the annual work program. Performance appraisals, training and the new measurement of how well the department adheres to the annual work program should all help in this regard.
  12. There is a lack of staff awareness about the availability of and expertise in the use of various software management tools. Of major concern is the continued reliance on Sanborn maps and the lack of in-house expertise in 3-D modeling, which puts the department and the commission at a disadvantage when reviewing submissions by project sponsors for projects both large and small, as well as during the review of area plans.
  13. The department's fiscal year 2006 fee update brought fees up to the point where they recovered the department's costs, except for those areas where a policy decision was made to subsidize costs. Time and materials are routinely charged for those applications where the initial fee does not cover full costs, whether those are flat fees or fees based on construction value. Discretionary Review costs are paid in part through a surcharge on building-permit fees, so that in total, full cost recovery is achieved. The Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors have historically shied away from increasing the fees for Discretionary Review applications to achieve full cost recovery. Rather than rely on the surcharge of building permit fees, an amount which fluctuates depending upon economic pressures outside the control of the department, the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors should reconsider this policy. The City should exercise its right to charge those who file Discretionary Review applications the full costs borne by the Planning Department.

Workload, Work Program and Funding Recommendations

  1. Continue to restore General Fund support for the department, especially for the long-range planning function.
  2. Resolve how to manage the implementation of the community-improvement (public-benefit) plans which are now being adopted as part of recently adopted plans and plans being developed. This is a new departmental responsibility and new staff should be added as necessary.
  3. Continue to place more emphasis on area-plan development projects but resolve how to develop area plans in a way that is less disruptive and that consumes less time and resources.
  4. Evaluate the management consultant's report and implement recommendations designed to improve permit processing.
  5. Accelerate development of minimum standards and formats for environmental documents, case reports, motions and so on. Include a section in case reports placing the project in its historical and policy context.
  6. Establish standard timelines or procedural benchmarks, and a "triage' system for screening all applications when they are received to ensure compliance with the Permit Streamlining Act and CEQA timelines. Use the upcoming recommendations of the Business Processing Reengineering Committee led by the Department of Building Inspection as a model. This is often done using a pre-application process where an applicant may meet with representatives from all agencies and divisions that will be reviewing the project, prior to its initial submission. This will establish performance measures and methods of bringing all departments involved in plan review together, at the time a project is first filed with a City agency.
  7. Act on the in-depth list of recommended reforms to the local CEQA process and the Major Environmental Analysis procedures contained in SPUR's April 2006 letter to the department (See Attachment B).
  8. Develop closer working relationships among the three primary divisions of the department. Involve the Major Environmental Analysis Division earlier in the process of area-plan programs and projects. Involve the relevant neighborhood-planning staff as part of the project team developing area plans in the Citywide Planning Division. Continue senior-level staff meetings that serve to build consideration of emerging plan policies in the review and approval of individual projects.
  9. As part of the annual budget preparation process develop more detailed and realistic work programs including staff hour estimates by task for planning projects. Establish a more closely monitored time-management system to manage workload, making adjustments as necessary and reporting changes to senior management, and periodically to the commission. Evaluate the impact of external demands, such as additional tasks requested by the Mayor's Office and members of the Board of Supervisors as it affects the annual budget and work program and either obtain the necessary funding to undertake the new project right away, postpone the project, or make clear to all the implications of and agreement to the shift of priorities.
  10. Coordinate efforts and funding with the Department of Building Inspection toward a comprehensive overhaul of the information-technology system with adequate access for information between departments.
  11. Expand the department's training program and require staff participation. The focus should be on increasing technical and managerial skills in each staff person's area of responsibility, with particular attention paid to improving such skills as time management and performance benchmarking, preparing case reports, practical urban design and architectural design principles, and so on. Outside organizations such as the American Planning Association, SPUR, the AIA and others could assist in this process.
  12. Ensure the availability of and staff training in the use of 3-D modeling software and hardware, work-management tools, meeting scheduling, and so on. The Friends of Planning could be tapped for assisting in some of the funding.13. Re-evaluate the fee structure for environmental analysis for small and medium-size residential projects to encourage the development of more family-size housing.

Interdepartmental Coordination

Beyond the formulation and application of the General Plan and Planning Code, the Planning Department is limited in its powers to carry out its own plans. When the department develops plans for improvement to the public realm - streets, parks, transit lines, schools, water-treatment plants, libraries, government office buildings, and so on - it is the various public-works agencies and other city departments that actually build and operate the facilities. What this means is that in order to work, good planning requires constant coordination with other government agencies. Some of the most important opportunities for improving the effectiveness of the City's planning function lie in the area of interdepartmental coordination. While there has been progress in this area, many of the challenges of resolving conflicts through interdepartmental coordination remain.

  1. Capital Planning. Our 2004 report noted that there was essentially no comprehensive capital planning in San Francisco in the sense of someone figuring out the entire infrastructure and investment needs the city faces and putting them in order of priority or timing them in a way that makes sense. Happily, that situation has changed. Based in large part on the recommendations in SPUR's 2004 report titled "Capital Planning in City Government," a Capital Planning Committee composed of representatives of the various relevant city departments and agencies, including the Planning Department, has been created and charged with the annual responsibility of developing a 10-year capital expenditure plan to include an assessment of the City's capital infrastructure needs, investments required to meet the needs identified through this assessment, and a plan of finance to fund these investments There is nothing in the ordinance to indicate the role of the General Plan or the role of planning staff in conducting the assessment of needs.

    Our 2004 report also noted that a second form of capital planning that can put the Planning Department in the lead role is the development of neighborhood plans. A good neighborhood plan will involve not just the rezoning of private land, but also a set of community improvements (wider sidewalks, traffic calming, park redesigns, transit improvements and so on). This concept has evolved over the past several years so that the current neighborhood plan for the Market/ Octavia area and the plans being developed for the Eastern Neighborhoods and the Central Waterfront contain well-developed public benefit plans and proposed funding mechanisms. However, the various implementing agencies, including the Municipal Transportation Agency, the Department of Public Works, the Public Utilities Commission and so on, have been only peripherally involved and thus are less than totally committed to implement the proposals. Moreover, funding conflicts exist between the new capital-planning projects developed as part of the neighborhood-planning process and the citywide capital-planning objectives.

    To deal with this problem, the Board of Supervisors recently added Chapter 36 to the Administrative Code. It calls for creation of mechanisms that will enhance the participation in the preparation and implementation of the community-improvements plans and implementation programs that have been or are being prepared for the Market/Octavia, East SOMA, West SOMA, Inner Mission, Lower Potrero/Showplace Square and Central Waterfront areas. It requires the establishment of an Interagency Planning and Implementation Committee comprising representatives of agencies whose responsibilities include one or more of the community improvements that are likely to be needed or desired in a plan area. Each agency is required to participate in the preparation of that portion of a community-improvements plan within its area of responsibility, and after an area plan is adopted the agencies are required to participate in the detailed design of the improvements and to seek funding for its implementation. Some City agencies have been slow to respond to the requirements of the Planning Code. The Planning Department and interested members of the public will need to be vigilant to ensure the objectives of the new legislation are met.
  2. General Plan Conformity. State law and the San Francisco City Charter require a General Plan consisting of goals, policies and programs for the future physical development of the City. The Planning Department is responsible for developing and administering the plan. The charter also requires that public actions affecting land use (construction or improvement of public building and structures, acquisition or vacation of City property, subdivisions, and redevelopment project plans) must be referred to the Planning Department for review of its consistency. A finding of nonconformity requires disapproval of the Board of Supervisors unless the finding is reversed by a two-thirds vote. This review by the Planning Department for a determination of General Plan conformity is usually relegated to the tail end of every capital planning effort, making it essentially a meaningless rubber stamp. The department is often forced to amend the General Plan rather than to find a fully developed project proposal by another department to be nonconforming.

    Measuring consistency with the General Plan could and should be a real planning tool to make sure that other City departments are not acting as free agents, but are instead working together to fulfill long-range plans for the city's evolution. Except for the Housing Element, which state law requires being updated every five or so years, many elements of the General Plan are way out of date. The most recent other revision was of the Transportation Element in 1995. New staffing has enabled the department to give more attention to the General Plan. A revision of the Community Safety Element is underway and yet another attempt to complete and adopt a Preservation Element and a revision of the Recreation and Open Space Element are proposed for fiscal year 2008.
  3. Environmental Compliance. The Major Environmental Analysis Division of the Planning Department is responsible for ensuring compliance with both CEQA and the National Environmental Policy Act for all City departments. Since the environmental review process requires that alternatives to the proposed plan be formulated and evaluated, in theory the environmental review process could be a real planning tool if it were initiated at the beginning of a capital planning project and well-integrated with the rest of the planning process. The Major Environmental Analysis Division is also responsible for conducting evaluations of plans developed by the Long-Range Planning Division. Typically, this evaluation does not commence until a plan has already been formulated, often with extensive community involvement. Typically, the funding to carry out the environmental evaluation is not obtained until after - often long after - the plan has been developed. Thus, the environmental analysis is not used as a planning tool whereby findings of ongoing analysis could inform and influence the planning process.

    Because the required or desired planning and environmental analyses have become so complex in recent years, the department is hesitant to undertake development of new comprehensive area plans. The length of time and amount of financial resource needed to study the cumulative impact of all development that would be permitted under a proposed plan and development controls is overwhelming. Analyzing economic and social impacts, in addition to the analysis of physical impacts under CEQA, the push to complete a comprehensive survey of historic resources before adopting new plans, and the potential of freezing the approval of new projects in the area until the plan is adopted, however desirable some or all the various requirements may be, have their unintended effect to discourage comprehensive planning.
  4. The Port and Redevelopment Agency. The department and agency staffs have developed good interpersonal, informal working relationships in the planning of redevelopment projects. With respect to implementing redevelopment plans, the agency and the department recently have entered into delegation agreements whereby portions of new redevelopment areas that are already largely built out have adopted the Planning Code as the development controls and the agency has delegated the review and approval of use, except for projects in which the agency is assisting in the financing of the project, in which case the agency has reserved the right of final approval to its board.

    The staffs of the Planning Department and the Port of San Francisco have also developed good interpersonal relationships, albeit informal ones. The Planning Department and Planning Commission have structured roles in the review and approval of projects in Special Use Districts from China Basin northward. When it has staff resources available, the department participates informally with Port staff in project planning south of China Basin. The Port's Waterfront Land Use Plan was approved by the commission and the Board of Supervisors, and City zoning controls prevail over Port property. Project-specific commission recommendations and board approval is required for all Port projects that involve longer-term leases. The Planning Department does not have adequate staff to participate actively in project planning.
  5. Transportation Planning. Land-use planning and transportation policy formulation are the antecedents to good transportation planning. The Planning Department should have a central role in transportation planning, both at the citywide scale at which transportation and land use are coordinated and at the micro scale at which urban designers make human-scaled and comfortable public spaces.

    The Planning Department is the agency principally responsible for land-use planning and, through its responsibility to prepare a Transportation Element of the General Plan, is responsible for establishing the framework for transportation policy. In the past, other departments and agencies, notably the Department of Public Works, the Municipal Transportation Agency and the County Transportation Agency, have resisted or ignored the Planning Department's legal role. In years past, the Planning Department had a group of transportation planners that, although it was never easy, made it more possible to engage other agencies in collaborative planning. That staff has been eliminated, making it very difficult to bring the department's long-range planning perspective to bear on the activities of the agencies. Nor has the Planning Department, until recently, been able to obtain the involvement of other transportation related agencies in the development of comprehensive area plans.

    It should also be noted that neither the MTA nor the Planning Department are currently staffed to analyze the relationship of various development proposals and institutional master plans to Transportation Demand Management. The Planning Department could hire a position specifically dedicated to demand management to work with the MTA and the San Francisco County Transportation Authority to develop demand-management goals and ultimately to review all major development proposals and plans, to make recommendations regarding demandmanagement measures that should be incorporated into the plans and projects ? including free transit passes to residents, employees and students, and the unbundling of parking costs.

    Moreover, the Planning Department does not have a liaison to the Municipal Transportation Commission to educate the commissioners and provide comment on the Planning Department's position on major MTA initiatives to ensure consistency with the Transportation Element of the General Plan. It would also be helpful to have an MTA liaison to the Planning Commission to review land-use plans.

    The recently established Director's Working Group, composed of the directors of the Planning Department, the Department of Public Works, the MTA and the County Transporation Authority and the even more recent creation of a deputy chief of staff in the Mayor's Office to concentrate on infrastructure and transportation, offer real potential to achieve the desired coordination. Collaborative planning projects such as the Better Streets program and Transbay Terminal project are bringing the actors closer together. However, the Planning Department still lacks transportation planning expertise on staff needed to add a long-range land-use perspective to transportation issues.
  6. Conflicts Between Codes of Other City Agencies. Codes from a variety of city agencies are becoming more comprehensive. Some will experience substantial changes, as will happen in the next code cycle in January 2008 for the San Francisco Building Code. For decades, there have been conflicts between the Planning Code's intent to create a positive and pleasant living environment, the Building and Fire Codes' mandate to maintain public safety, and other City codes to set standards for improvements to both private and public property. Modern city living in a dense place such as San Francisco requires ingenuity in maintaining safe building practices while encouraging imaginative design. There needs to be more coordination between the Planning Department staff, the Department of Building Inspection's staff, the fire marshall's staff and the Department of Public Works' staff in developing appropriate solutions for code interpretations. The Directors Working Group has begun this process. It needs to be expanded to include the focus on coordinating codes from these different agencies, so that conflicting provisions do not impede the enjoyment of our environment.

Interdepartmental Coordination Recommendations

  1. Add enough additional staff in the long-range planning division to enable the department to update and keep current the various elements of the General Plan. In particular fund the Planning Department to rebuild a small staff of transportation planners within the division.
  2. Formalize the Director's Working Group through an ordinance or memorandum of understanding that defines its functions and operating procedures of the Group and defines the roles of various administrative units (MTA, TA, DP, DPW, and Mayor's Office) in transportation planning. Expand its reach to include senior staff participation.
  3. With the participation of all the relevant transportation agencies, update the Transportation Element of the General Plan; develop a program document that contains the various plans and funding programs of those agencies and orients and integrates them in the Transportation Element so that there truly is a comprehensive transportation plan for the city.
  4. Develop a matrix or checklist type of tool to help guide case-review planners in evaluating the transportation impacts of development projects. This matrix would be based on best practices and provide junior staff, or those not trained in transportation, a formalized way to understand and identify aspects of the development project or plan that may not support the City's transportation goals.
  5. The next Building Code and Fire Code cycles will introduce substantially revised code requirements, as they become aligned with the International Building Code. Using the model of the newly established Planning/Building/ Fire Department/ Department of Public Works/ Redevelopment Agency Business Processing Reengineering Task Force that has been initiated by the Department of Building Inspection, examine ways the codes from these respective departments should be modified to reduce unnecessary restrictions on the design of new buildings and the remodeling of existing buildings, while ensuring the appropriate safety standards are maintained.
  6. For major projects, form teams that include project managers from the relevant agencies along with environmental-review staff in order to strengthen the ties between the environmentalreview process and the rest of the capital-planning process.
  7. Expand the role of the Planning Department staff in the planning of new redevelopment project areas, and define and expand the role of the Planning Department and Planning Commission in the review and approval of new development projects in redevelopment project areas such as Treasure Island, Candlestick Park and the Hunters Point Shipyard.
  8. Rigorously apply the requirements of Article 36 of the Administrative Code regarding interagency coordination in implementing Community Benefit Programs in Area Plan areas.


The Department of Building Inspection experienced a series of tumultuous events since our 2004 report was published. After Planning the City's Future was produced, the mayor requested a report from the former San Francisco chief administrative officer with recommendations on how to improve the Department. Many recommendations from the former CAO's report were similar to those outlined in our 2004 report, including a change to the department's management structure, a more aggressive oversight of its finances and the establishment of a policy of professional ethics. A new code of conduct was finally passed by San Francisco's Ethics Commission regarding conflictof- interest issues.

As commission terms expired, the mayor and the president of the Board of Supervisors appointed new commissioners, replacing appointees made by each of their predecessors. With joint efforts by the Mayor's Office, the Board of Supervisors and the Building Inspection Commission, and while having to contend with considerable acrimony between some members of the public and the commission, the commission took charge and replaced the director of DBI with the assistant director, who was named acting director. New deputy directors for the Inspection Services and Plan Checking sectors were installed. Once the new senior management team and commission were placed, the search began for a new permanent director.

While these challenges hampered progress for the department, its primary functions continued. These included the review of residential and commercial building plans, issuance of related permits for proposed and in-progress work, inspection of buildings and sites for conformance with applicable statutes and codes, and performing investigations of violations of all codes and related health and safety statutes. Performance benchmarks were made for each division, and some were attained. There was an increase in transparency and access to the senior levels of the department, due to the installation of new deputy directors and a manager of communication. Unfortunately, the department remained plagued by some of the same management and workforce problems within its divisions that were raised in our 2004 report. As an enterprise department, its budget began to run a deficit as fewer permit applications were filed at the same time that the department assembled the resources to meet a previously estimated demand for service. This was in contrast to the surplus of years past, where permit applications increased, allowing emergency funding from these reserves for some programs at the Planning Department.

The acting director was successful in obtaining some budgeted funds that were previously being held by the Mayor's Office and Board of Supervisors. This enabled the funding for new hires, a comprehensive and successful training program, and the development of an RFP for a new information technology system that would serve the Planning Department, the Department of Building Inspection and the Department of Public Works.

Problems with the Department of Building Inspection
Generally, the Department of Building Inspection continues to be perceived as lacking consistency in the work of its plan checkers and how their decisions relate to those of the district inspectors.

  • There are significant delays in the review of some applications that must take more than one day to obtain approvals, particularly in the residential plan-check division.
  • District building inspectors continue to be burdened by the responsibility for code enforcement for both the Department of Building Inspection and the Planning Department, despite the inspectors' lack of training on planning issues and the increases to the Planning Department's code-enforcement division.
  • The lack of intradepartmental and interdepartmental coordination continues to be a problem during plan checking and inspections. Fire inspectors, district building inspectors and personnel from other departments often override decisions previously made by plan checkers or each other, resulting in confusing instructions from City officials during plan-check review and during construction. The delays and costs associated with resolving these conflicts have had a major financial impact on projects. The new director, Isam Hasenin, took office in March of 2007. In May of 2007, Mr. Hasenin presented his analysis of the work processes of the department to the Building Inspection Commission. This analysis was very similar to our 2004 report. Among the primary problems he identified:
  • There is no overall strategic plan.
  • There is no financial strategic plan.
  • There is no financial long-range plan.
  • There is no internal audit system.
  • There are not enough checks and balances to monitor the work force efficiencies and quality of work.
  • There is inconsistent technical review of plans, including the lack of a standard checklist of items to review.
  • The approval process is slowed down by this inconsistent review and lack of a checklist, with the additional reliance upon paper and unnecessary "looping back" of reviews by divisions more than once.
  • The staff does not regularly utilize the existing permit-tracking system.
  • There are no published hiring or promotion principles.
  • There is inadequate support from the Department of Human Resources.

Department of Building Inspection Recommendations
The new director outlined a set of recommendations as part of his analysis, including:

  • Change the management structure of the department by installing four senior-level staff positions: deputy directors of plan review, the One Stop program, inspection, and new construction and code enforcement.
  • Combine the three functions of plan-check review (commercial, residential, and tenant improvements) into one division under the deputy director.
  • Change the workload requirements, including setting performance benchmarks, and create a benchmark survey.
  • Establish guidelines to ensure consistency in plan-check reviews.
  • Institute a "Customer Bill of Rights."
  • Provide the opportunity of parallel plan-check review under the One Stop program for all permit applications.
  • Provide an enhanced pre-application review process, including interdepartmental coordination, to alleviate the problems of conflicting interpretations.
  • Create an appeal process for code interpretations.
  • Establish a triage immediate-review procedure for certain projects.
  • Create an appointment re-check system to speed up the plan-review process.
  • Enable services to the public by appointment.
  • Create employee surveys to generate constructive input from the staff.
  • Make the senior staff more accessible to the public.
  • Develop more cross-training between the staff of DBI and other departments.
  • Install a "Queue-matic"-type system to monitor and reduce customer service lines and waiting times.
  • Make the review of tenant-improvement projects more of an over-the-counter review process.
  • Review the proposed IT system to determine whether it can be expanded to include other services. Also determine, with these additional attributes, whether the existing system can be augmented or an entirely new system should be installed.
  • Reorganize and relocate the customer-service center from 1660 Mission St. to 1640 Mission St., to meet the demands of a revised Customer Bill of Rights as outlined above.

These bold recommendations are a welcome change to the status quo and are already happening at a rapid pace. On May 30, 2007, the Building Inspection Commission was informed by the new director that he had implemented the first two recommendations listed above. They were enthusiastically endorsed by the commission and the general public.

A new management structure will be put in place, enabling seven positions to be filled without going through the City's civil-service hiring requirements and without the need of an immediate change to the city charter. The current system of one director, one assistant director and two deputy directors will be eliminated. Seven new management positions will be added to replace the current assistant director and deputy directors. A new position of assistant director/deputy building official will be established. Six new manager positions for plan review, One Stop permit processing, inspection services, code enforcement and housing services, technical services and special projects, and support services also will be established. Applications for these positions will be widely advertised both inside the department and with a nationwide search.

The new director has already implemented a reorganization of the intake, plan-review and central permit bureau processes. He has established a Business Processing Reengineering Program to study methods of permanently improving the operations of the department, and improving communication between DBI and other City agencies, and has suggested the necessary changes to implement these recommendations. In addition to the Department of Building Inspection, representation on this committee includes the Mayor's Office, the Planning Department, the Fire Department, the Bureau of Street Use and Mapping, the Redevelopment Agency, the City Employee's Local Union, the Building Owners and Managers Association, the American Institute of Architects, the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, the Residential Builders Association, property managers associations, and permit consultants. A steering committee and four subcommittees have been established to develop recommendations. They should be completed by October 2007.

It is imperative that the Building Inspection Commission, the Board of Supervisors and the Mayor's Office continue to support these efforts with the necessary resources to implement these changes. We also recommend additional measures:

  1. With the cross-training proposed, create a mechanism for giving feedback to the Planning Department and to neighbors of a project when DBI approves changes that will affect the design of a project. There are times when, after the public hearing at the Planning Commission, major changes are made to the project that no one ever hears about and that no one has the chance to contest. Adjustments are always required as the construction process unfolds on site, but DBI needs to be held accountable and not allow major changes that affect the surrounding area without going through a public process.
  2. Consider the necessary amendments to the national and state building codes to reflect the unique character of San Francisco as a compact, built-up city. For example, the allowable distance of openings to property lines, methods of secondary egress from buildings and life-safety issues for high-rises should be considered, while keeping the number of local amendments to a minimum.
  3. Establish a training program for members of the Building Inspection Commission. This would allow new commissioners a better understanding of how department policy is established, while enabling the director to conduct day-to-day operations. It would provide a mechanism for fostering leadership qualities among sitting commissioners. There would be a better understanding of the responsibilities of the commissioners when they sit as the Abatement Appeals Board. This would also allow the transfer of institutional memory as commissioners are replaced.
  4. Improve the information provided by the senior staff to the commission, including more specific budget proposals and forecasts, work-program benchmarks and implementation of policies.
  5. Adequately fund and invigorate the Community Action Plan for Seismic Safety Program and the Code Enforcement Outreach Program as some of the proactive efforts by the department to ensure seismic safety and secure housing.
  6. Evaluate the status of the Housing Inspection Division as aggressively as was done with the plan-check and building-inspection services.
  7. Pursue other resources of funding through grants from the Office of Emergency Services and other agencies or organizations to assist in the proactive work to ensure seismic and building safety. A working model to refer to would be how the "Friends of Planning" organization provides funding for a myriad of projects for the Planning Department.
  8. Link the reorganization of the department to the Access Appeals Commission, the Code Advisory Commission and the Unreinforced Masonry Board. Fill the vacancies of these committees with qualified personnel.
  9. Continue periodic joint meetings between the Building Inspection Commission and the Planning Commission to ensure better coordination of policies between the two departments.
  10. Set a new goal by expanding the reach of the revised IT system by automating more services at the department. This would include the use of handheld devices by inspectors to generate forms and reports, and the electronic submission of documents by project applicants.
  11. Require one of the newly established management positions to be responsible for Building Code interpretations, including state Title 24 regulations. This will enable greater clarity in the implementation of the Building Code and eliminate conflicts between divisions defining their own interpretations.
  12. Augment the training program for district inspectors to better understand the more pertinent Planning Code issues that arise during construction.

Changing City government is difficult. This is evident by the work that remains to be done to reform our planning and building processes. Compromises must be made by different constituencies to overcome personality conflicts and agendas and to avoid the stagnation that occurs when the process of governing becomes mired in too much political maneuvering. When confronting these challenges, we can use the best practices that have been successful in San Francisco, as well as best practices from other cities, as our guide. Without changing with the times, residents and stakeholders are not well served. San Franciscans, despite their differences over policy, want their city departments to be responsive to the emerging technological, physical and social challenges we face. As indicated in our first report, healthy parks, efficient public transit, good housing and vibrant neighborhoods are critical to San Francisco's continuing to be a thriving place to live. Improving the Planning Department and the Department of Building Inspection is elemental to ensuring our success in these efforts.


Original Recommendations
  Governance Recommendations Status
1 The new mayor and the Planning Commission need to establish
specific criteria for the selection of the planning director. This
position requires two overarching competencies: vision and
management. Any new candidates for the position should also be
skilled in community outreach, consensus-building and organizing
departmental resources to serve these ends. San Francisco needs
and deserves a planning director equal to the best in the nation.
A new director reportedly will be appointed soon.
2 The planning director should have a team of senior staff (e.g.,
three positions) that is exempt from civil service so that the
director can assemble a team of people who will best support
the departmental priorities and complement the director's skills.
Ideally, there should be a city charter amendment to establish
this as a permanent City policy; however, the director can request
these positions from the Civil Service Commission.
The department has requested two exempt positions in its FY
2008 budget.
3 The planning director, working with the mayor, the Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission, should establish a set of planning priorities and articulate a broader, bigger-picture strategy that can be accomplished over the next few years. The department has begun an effort called the Citywide Action Plan that could well form the nucleus of such a strategy. The leadership of the department needs to embrace that effort, however modified, to meet new priorities, and the mayor and the board need to provide enough staff and consultant resources to carry it out. The planning director, working with the mayor, the Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission, should establish a set of planning priorities and articulate a broader, bigger-picture strategy that can be accomplished over the next few years. The department has begun an effort called the Citywide Action Plan that could well form the nucleus of such a strategy. The leadership of the department needs to embrace that effort, however modified, to meet new priorities, and the mayor and the board need to provide enough staff and consultant resources to carry it out.
4 Members of the Planning Commission and Board of Appeals hold termed positions. At a future date, the mayor and the Board of Supervisors will have the opportunity to appoint new commissioners to both bodies. Required qualifications should be established for these positions. Some of the appointees should have proficiency in architectural design or planning, to assist other members in deliberating the technical issues that are brought to each commission. Professional organizations outside of City government could assist in peer reviews of candidates to ensure that appointees meet these qualifications. Specific professional qualifications for planning commissioners have not been established. However, some recent appointees have had proficiency in urban design and planning
5 This has not been done in a formal, structured way but orientation has been provided based on commissioner request. This has not been done in a formal, structured way but orientation has been provided based on commissioner request.
6 It takes five supervisors' signatures to bring an appeal of a conditional use permit to the Board of Supervisors to consider overturning a Planning Commission decision. Before this threshold can be changed, faith needs to be restored in the Planning Commission and department, both at the Board of Supervisors and in the community at large. The ultimate goal should be to raise the threshold for an appeal of a CU permit to eight signatures, the number formerly required to sustain an appeal submitted by property owners surrounding the project site. Nothing has been done regarding this recommendation.
7 The Planning Department needs to be more accountable to the Board of Supervisors for developing accurate project budgets and delivering work products on time and on budget. Conversely, the Board of Supervisors needs to be accountable to not defund projects once they have been started. With the Better Neighborhoods plans, the Rincon Hill plan and the Transbay plan, the process has become extremely chaotic because part of the way through the planning, work was de-funded and work ground to a halt. It may sound obvious, but we need to build a working culture that emphasizes the need to finish projects before moving on to new ones. Delivery of projects on time and on budget is still a problem, in part because new elements are added to projects underway and because of the inability to produce required environment documents in a timely way.
8 The mayor and the Board of Supervisors should try to restore some sense of rationality to the environmental-review process by establishing procedural thresholds for hearing reviews based on the California Environmental Quality Act. The board should assume that, as a rule, professional environmental-review staff members have done their job. Alternatively, the City should seek to revise the state law. This has not been done and, in fact, matters have gotten worse: As a result of a change in state law, any final CEQA determination is required to be appealable to an elected body. Thus, even negative declarations or exemption decisions can be, and sometimes are, appealed to the full Board of Supervisors An ordinance that would establish board procedures for handling these appeals has been prepared but has been pending at the board for many months.
  Workload and Funding Recommendations Status
1 Restore General Fund support for the department, especially for the long-range planning function. If there is any governmental function that should be funded out of the general tax base, it is planning. There is simply no way to change the focus from individual projects to real planning for the future without breaking the dependence on project fees as the source of planning funding. Some $3 million of General Fund monies are included in the department's proposed FY 2008 budget. Approximately 25 percent of the costs of long-range planning are funded out of project filing fees, which fluctuate according to economic conditions.
2 Place more emphasis on plan development. The Planning Department needs the capacity to follow a prioritized, fully funded, implementable long-range planning work plan, which will enable it to undertake needed neighborhoodby- neighborhood planning, keep the General Plan current and be responsive to the needs of other agencies. Currently, only 24 staff positions of the department's 148 are assigned to citywide policy. Funding long-range planning adequately will help the Planning Department more successfully take a leadership role in coordinating processes that involve multiple departments. The number of planners assigned to long-range planning has been increased to 29 as new positions and long-time vacancies have been filled. However, the division has not had been able to address all of the various neighborhood planning needs and requests from members of the Board of Supervisors and others, keep the General Plan current and participate in planning activities of other departments and agencies.
3 Establish a fee and revolving fund for programmatic environmental-impact reports in neighborhoods expected to experience growth, or prepare program EIRs using cooperative agreements between individual project proponents, or other mechanisms. An ordinance that would establish a fee and revolving fund has been prepared but it has languished in the Finance Committee of the Board of Supervisors.
4 Use internal guidelines or model documents to ensure standard formats for environmental documents, case reports and motions. An internal staff committee has been appointed to deal with this issue but progress has been slow. This is a constant complaint of Planning Commissioners.
5 Establish standard timelines or procedural benchmarks, and a “triage” system for screening all applications when they are received to ensure compliance with the Permit Streamlining Act and CEQA timelines. Nothing has been done regarding this recommendation.
6 Reduce the number and type of projects that require conditional use authorization. Through strong up-front planning with extensive citizen participation, strive to gain consensus on the extent and scale of development. This will obviate the need for retaining CU control. The current Better Neighborhood Plans are a good model. Movement on this recommendation has been backward. The recently adopted Market-Octavia Plan and zoning controls added several new project characteristics (number of housing units and parking spaces above an as-ofright level) that require CU permits and eliminated none. Medical cannabis and big-box uses have recently been made conditional uses.
7 Reduce the number of permits that are subject to discretionary review, and/or reduce the time spent by the staff and commission in processing these reviews by establishing clear criteria and standards. Increase DR Fees to match those required for appeals to the Board of Appeals. The goal is to keep the ability for residents to get a chance to improve poorly designed projects, while at the same time freeing up time of the Planning Commission so that it can focus on the larger planning issues. We should be able to strike a balance that achieves both objectives. A proposal to vest more decision-making authority on discretionary review requests at the staff level was rejected by the Planning Commission, but a process was designed and adopted that involved making a distinction between simple and complex cases so that the commission could concentrate its limited time on more complicated cases. Unfortunately the commission seldom makes the distinction between simple and complex cases or determines how much meeting time it should allocate to a project.
8 The Planning Department needs to work with the mayor and the Board of Supervisors to clarify the grounds on which the Board of Permit Appeals should overturn the Planning Department when the department has rejected a project. We suggest the starting place for such criteria be quite narrow, such as staff or commission error in policy interpretation, or clear abuse of discretion. There has been one meeting between the two commissions to discuss their policies regarding dwelling-unit mergers, but no specific ground rules were established. Other policy conflicts have not been formally addressed. The stakeholders and departments rely on the super-majority required at the Board of Appeals to overturn commission cases.
9 The Board of Permit Appeals should eliminate the practice of reducing financial penalties imposed by the Planning Department or Building Inspection Department. This will reduce the incentive to project sponsors to appeal decisions by the departments with the purpose only of getting their penalties reduced. Nothing has been done regarding this recommendation.
10 Establish a mediation or consensus-building process as a way to deal with disputes between neighbors and project sponsors as an alternative to turning out large numbers of people to testify in public before the Planning Commission. This could be especially important as a better alternative to DR hearings. Nothing has been done regarding this recommendation.
11 Ensure that emerging policy in the long-range-policy section is integrated into the work of the current planning sections. Senior staff has done a better job of assuring that emerging policy considerations are brought to bear in project approvals, but there is still a rather rigid separation between the long-range planning staff and the current planning staff.
12 Stick to the established priorities and schedules for long-range planning activities. Too often, the department starts a project only to have its priorities changed so that projects are not completed in a timely manner. Some of the problems with changing priorities can be solved with better internal discipline about not taking on too many different projects; however, this dynamic is even more tied to external demands placed on staff by the mayor and Board of Supervisors. As noted, the shifting demands make it difficult to keep to established priorities and schedules. However, the work program for FY 2008 has consciously reduced the number of long-range planning activities to more realistically assess what can be accomplished with existing staff.
13 Adequately fund and support code compliance activities undertaken by the Planning Department and ensure efficient coordination with the Building Department. Several other cities, including San Jose, have enforcement departments that serve several city departments. This could be a model for San Francisco. The department has added staff to the enforcement section and has mounted a more aggressive enforcement program. However, there are still more code violations being reported than are being resolved. A fining system is being worked on.
14 Ensure that information technologies are adequately funded, possibly with a fee surcharge. The department has requested funding to support development of an integrated permit tracking system and enhanced hardware and software to build departmental capacity. The project was intended to develop a system that would track permits in the Planning Department and the Building Inspection Department. The new director of the latter department has requested a delay to enable him to determine how best to develop the system. The review of this system is currently under way by the Department of Building Inspection, other City agencies involved with the development process, and representatives from the public as part of the Business Process Reengineering Program initiated by the Department of Building Inspection.
15 Provide training to the Planning Commissioners and to all staff who regularly apply qualitative design review criteria. Organizations such as the AIA and SPUR can help with this training. The AIA conducted a series of introductory workshops on architectural design and context for the commission in 2006. One workshop on architectural design was provided by the Planning Department staff for the commission. There has been no formal follow up to these introductory presentations, as far as the implementations of additional guidelines or review practices. Regarding staff, see comments under No. 17.
16 Request that the City Controller's Office undertake a complete audit of the Planning Department's fees and collection systems, and also make recommendations regarding quality assurance measures to validate time-accounting data that is routinely relied upon to establish fees for service. The controller has a critical role to play here in improving the department. This was done and fees for service were adjusted in 2006. The department is keeping better time records to justify the established fees.
17 Allocate funding for staff development. Not only is this important for morale and keeping people excited about their jobs, but it is important for keeping up with new developments in the field such as green building techniques and new mapping technologies. Staff development would also be beneficial in some other ways beyond what are normally considered planning skills, such as management training and consensus-building. A planner has been assigned half-time to prepare and conduct training programs. The initial charge is to review basic Planning Code provisions for newly hired staff and enhance the architectural critique skills of project review staff. The training programs have recently commenced.

In addition, the department has utilized a management training program offered by the Department of Human Services and the FY 2008 budget includes funds to continue that training.
  Interdepartmental Coordination Recommendations Status
1 Funding long-range planning adequately will help the Planning Department more successfully take a leadership role in coordinating processes that involve multiple departments. As noted above, the number of planners assigned to long-range planning has been increased to 29 as new positions and long-time vacancies have been filled. However, the division has not had been able to address all of the various neighborhood planning needs and requests from members of the Board of Supervisors and others, keep the General Plan current and participate in planning activities of other departments and agencies.
2 The City should take seriously the requirement for review of General Plan conformity of public projects. We believe the General Plan can and should provide the overall framework for infrastructure investment and public realm improvements. This means that facilities plans in the General Plan need to be more comprehensive and current. This also means that Planning Department staff should participate from the outset with operating departments in the formulation of funding for various kinds of facilities. The Administrative Code has been amended to require that an annually updated Capital Expenditure Plan be developed by a Capital Planning Committee. Although the ordinance provides for the Planning Department's representation on the committee, the ordinance does not require that the Capital Expenditure Plan be based upon or be found to be in conformity with the General Plan. It can fairly be stated that the City does not take seriously the requirement of General Plan conformity of public projects, except in a perfunctory fashion at the end of the process. The ordinance does, however, respond to our concerns raised in the 94 report about the lack of a rational process for analyzing and prioritizing the City's capital needs.
3 Clarify the roles of the various administrative units involved with transportation planning (Municipal Transportation Agency, County Transportation Authority, Department of Parking and Traffic, Department of Public Works, Mayor's Office, and so on). The agreement(s) need to be formalized in a Memorandum of Understanding format and the connections of planning activities to General Plan update should be clearly spelled out. The connection between planning and each organization's capital program should be strengthened. This has not been done in a formal way. However, the current Planning Director has developed much closer and cordial working relationships with other agencies involved in some aspect of transportation planning.
4 Reconstitute a Transportation Policy Group and charge department heads with the responsibility to participate at a high level. The current Planning Director participates in a Director's Working Group, which includes the directors of the Municipal Transportation Agency, the County Transportation Authority and the Department of Public Works as well as the Planning Department. To date, the group has largely concentrated on specific projects such as the Transbay Terminal.
5 Fund the Planning Department to rebuild a small staff of transportation planners within the long-range planning division. Or, failing that, provide it with funds to engage transportation planners as part of a planning team. Transportation planners have not been added to the long-range planning staff. Some limited funding was provided for consultant assistance in transportation planning in Better Neighborhoods but currently the department does not have specialized transportation planning expertise sills in the Division.
6 For major projects, form teams that include project managers from the relevant agencies along with environmental-review staff in order to strengthen the ties between the environmental-review process and the rest of the capital planning process. It is not known what has been done regarding this recommendation.
7 Coordinate major capital projects out of the Mayor’s Office when appropriate. In the past, this has led to some of the most successful examples of cross-departmental coordination because of the ability to compel participation among departments and resolve conflicts. This is being done with greater frequency. The recent reorganization of the Mayor's Office has created deputy mayors for various functional areas (notably deputies for development and transportation) and is designed to result in the crossdepartmental coordination that this recommendation calls for.
8 When undertaking future neighborhood planning initiatives such as the Better Neighborhoods Program, include a budget for staff time from other departments that will be responsible for implementing the public-realm improvements. These neighborhood plans should do more than sketch ideas for public improvements; they should develop the public improvement plans enough to have realistic budgets. “Adoption” of the plan should include adoption of the various public improvements in the work plans of the implementing agencies. Specific community improvement plans are being developed for the East SOMA, Potrero/Showplace Square, Central Waterfront and Inner Mission areas, and presumably will be done for West SOMA. They will include a community-improvements plan and a funding strategy. Section 36 has been added to the Administrative Code. It requires adoption of the various public improvements by the various agencies responsible for their implementation, and incorporation in their annual budgets, including provisions for staff time needed to implement the proposals.
9 Establish a Planning/Building/Fire Department staff task force that examines the ways that the building codes can be changed to reduce unnecessary restrictions on the design of new buildings and remodeling of existing buildings while maintaining the appropriate safety standards we need. A process to review code and implementation conflicts between all of the City agencies involved with the review of proposed development projects has recently been initiated by the new director of the Department of Building Inspection, as part of the Business Process Reengineering program.
10 Bring together the Planning Department, the Redevelopment Agency and the Port of San Francisco for more structured coordination on citywide planning issues. If necessary, use the Mayor’s Office to enforce cooperation. The department and agency have developed good interpersonal relationships. They recently have entered into delegation agreements whereby portions of new redevelopment areas that are already largely built out have adopted the Planning Code as the development controls, and the agency has delegated the review and approval of use permits to the Planning Department and Planning Commission. The exceptions are projects for which the agency is assisting in the financing of the project - in which case the agency has reserved the right of final approval for its board. The department and the Port also have developed good interpersonal relationships. The Planning Department and Planning Commission have structured roles in the review and approval of projects in Special Use Districts from China Basin northward, and conditional use approval authority over non-maritime projects southward. When it has staff resources available, the department participates informally with Port staff in project planning south of China Basin.
11 Bring the Planning Department together in one location and locate the department in close proximity to other agencies with which coordination and cooperation are important. This has been done. The department, including the Major Environmental Review Division, has moved next door, at 1550 Mission St. The Zoning Counter is still next door as part of the Permit Center. Plans are underway to move the Zoning Counter and Department of Building Inspection's ground-floor publicservice and intake counters to a larger suite at 1540 Mission St., adjacent to the entrance to 1550 Mission St. The Redevelopment Agency and the Mayor's Office of Housing, two agencies with which coordination and coordination with the Planning Department are particularly important, have been relocated to 1 South Van Ness Ave., a block and a half away.


In 2006, SPUR convened a task force to identify possible reforms to the local California Environmental Quality Act process in order to better align the process with the achievement of the City's environmental goals and to increase certainty and efficiency for users of the process. The task force noted that a number of positive changes to the CEQA process have already taken place, including 1) the hiring of several additional planners in the Planning Department's Major Environmental Analysis Section to help address the staffing shortage, 2) co-location of planning and MEA staff and 3) the commencement of a study to develop a CEQA measure of impact to transportation, not just auto throughput. However, the task force believed that a number of improvements can still be made that would greatly enhance the local CEQA process. It identified the following areas of concern, and both substantive and procedural recommendations for reform.

1. Substantive Reforms

1.1 Use of Exemptions
The Major Environmental Analysis Section sometimes is reluctant to issue exemptions, even when projects clearly meet the exemption criteria. In addition, MEA does not consistently apply exemptions. San Francisco's policy on categorical exemptions for the California Environmental Quality Act, most recently updated in 2000, provides a useful starting point, but does not provide enough concrete guidance on the categorical exemption for infill development. The result is that many infill projects are forced to undergo CEQA analysis when an exemption might have been available.

Recommendations: MEA should produce a guidance document for staff and the public about implementation and uniform application of exemptions generally, focusing particularly on the underutilized exemptions below.

  • Currently, project sponsors are unable to use the statutory exemptions for affordable housing (PRC Section 21159.23) and residential infill sites (PRC Section 21159.24) in most areas of the city, because they cannot satisfy the statutory prerequisites. Although most projects easily satisfy the statutory criteria related to the characteristics of the project site and, in the case of low-income housing sites, affordability, they cannot meet the additional requirement for compliance with PRC Section 21159.23. Section 21159.23 requires that "community level" environmental review has been adopted or certified. Community-level environmental review is defined in PRC Section 21159.20 to include certain programmatic environmental review, which is generally unavailable, or an environmental-impact report certified for a general plan, a revision or update to the general plan that includes at least the land use and circulation elements, an applicable community or specific plan, or a housing element of the general plan, if the EIR analyzed the environmental effect of the density of the proposed project The next update to the Housing Element of San Francisco's General Plan should be processed pursuant to an EIR that meets the requirements of Section 21159.20. EIRs for the Better Neighborhoods, and other community plan areas and specific plan areas, also should be carefully crafted to make sure that they provide the necessary coverage.
  • In addition to the statutory exemptions found in the Public Resources Code, the CEQA guidelines contain various "categorical exemptions" that have been determined by the secretary of resources to be generally exempt from CEQA. Section 15332 relates to in-fill development projects. To qualify, a project must be consistent with the general plan and the applicable zoning designation and regulations, occur on a site of no more than five acres substantially surrounded by urban uses, contain no habitat value, be adequately served by utilities and public service, and avoid significant impacts on traffic, noise, air quality, or water quality. Until recently, this exemption was very rarely used in San Francisco even though a significant number of housing projects and many other infill projects meet these criteria. Its recent use in several cases is applauded and its continued use is encouraged. Part of the department's reluctance to rely on the exemption is the lack of clear guidance about how to apply it in a way that will maximize its application in the more urbanized areas of the city, particularly the downtown and surrounding environs, and avoid what might be viewed as adverse precedent in other less urbanized areas. The Public Resources Code and the CEQA guidelines do not contain a definition of "substantially surrounded by urban uses." The department should develop a definition that is appropriate in the context of San Francisco and that furthers the objectives of the exemption. Appropriate considerations in defining the extent of urbanization might include proximity to the downtown and other more highly developed areas of the city, availability of transit and other important public services, and the existing and proposed density in the vicinity of the project under recent community planning efforts. In addition, a site size significantly smaller than five acres would be more appropriate for San Francisco.

1.2 Transportat ion Significance Criteria and Mitigation
The San Francisco County Transportation Authority recently analyzed how San Francisco's current CEQA transportation analysis requirements contradict many of the City's adopted policy goals in the Countywide Transportation Plan and General Plan ( documents/FinalSAR02-3LOS_Methods_000.pdf). On Feb. 23, 2006, the County T ransportation Authority released a request for proposals from transportation consultants to "develop a CEQA measure of impact to transportation, including a threshold of significance, based on auto trip generation for San Francisco." The consultants have reviewed other jurisdictions' definitions of significant impact and proposed alternative ways to measure the environmental impact of a project based on the auto trips it generates. Should this effort progress, the Planning Commission will revise its environmental-analysis guidelines to replace intersection vehicle delay with auto trips generated as the significance measure for purposes of CEQA analysis.

The County Transportation Authority describes the key shortcomings of the current significance criteria to include:

  • The analysis focuses exclusively on auto Level of Service measurement, or the seconds of delay that cars experience at intersections. While auto delays also negatively affect transit, this auto-focused approach does not consider how people are delayed at intersections, or overall corridor travel time or person capacity. So a bus-priority project that speeds up buses and moves more people but delays cars may be considered to have a negative impact on San Francisco's environment. The current approach also tends to miss the negative impacts that congestion "mitigations" have on the safety and comfort of the pedestrian environment.
  • To the extent that transit is considered, crowding is the focus. Therefore, increasing transit ridership is typically considered a negative. Little attention is paid to how transit may be delayed or to other factors that affect the overall success of the transit system.
  • Due to limitations on the source data when the guidelines were originally developed, automobile trip generation varies only by quadrant of the city, so key factors such as proximity to transit or parking management are not considered in the congestion formulas.
  • Exemptions are not routinely granted to pilot projects, low-cost striping projects, bike projects or other simple right-of-way shifts. As a result, the environmental analysis cost for some projects with clear environmental benefits, such as bike lanes, adds significantly to the total cost of the project.

As a result of these issues, an unnecessary burden of staff, cost and time is placed upon all projects without necessarily resulting in project changes that improve San Francisco's environment. Moreover, under the current process, projects can improve their environmental standing by reducing the number of housing units, not increasing transit ridership, by adding lanes for cars and by widening intersections, even in transit-rich neighborhoods. In order to overcome these shortcomings, the County Transportation Authority proposes a shift in the way the City determines "significant impacts" upon its transportation system. Most importantly, it recognizes that the greatest impacts to the overall transportation system come from adding more cars into the mix. The analysis currently being undertaken by the County Transportation Authority is an important first step toward enabling the City to replace much of the CEQA analysis process with an impact fee based upon auto trip generation, allowing the City a source of funds to make systemic improvements to the transit network and other modes, which would further allow each development to mitigate its traffic generation by helping to expand the capacity and attractiveness of the transit network as a whole. Although the County Transportation Authority is not currently pursuing the creation of an impact fee, many members of the Technical Working Group advising the authority on this matter are supportive of the creation of the impact fee. SPUR would also support the creation of this fee. Additionally, many developers would be willing to pay a significant impact fee in exchange for a reduction in the costs, uncertainty and delay associated with the CEQA process.


  • Develop new definitions of significant impact, which support the City's policy goals of promoting transit, bicycling and walking. One option, put forth by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, would be to replace the existing congestion Level of Service thresholds with trip-generation thresholds, so that transit, bike and pedestrian projects do not trigger significant impacts even if they increase congestion. (Note that this option would not address CEQA disincentives to desirable, but trip-generating, development such as high-density housing.) Another option would be to maintain LOS as the metric for determining significance, but to replace intersection-by-intersection auto LOS measurements with corridor-level multimodal LOS analysis (that includes transit, bike and pedestrian LOS in addition to auto LOS).
  • Instead of doing project-specific analysis of congestion at intersections and accepting the resultant piecemeal mitigation, create a citywide transportation infrastructure plan, together with a nexus study and associated CEQA review. The nexus study would support the implementation of a congestion mitigation impact fee on projects based on trip generation, with the revenues used to implement the citywide transportation infrastructure plan based on priorities established in the plan. Payment of the fee on new projects that add over a certain threshold of automobile trips would serve to mitigate the impact to a less-than-significant level.

1.3 Assessment of Impacts to Historic Districts
In the past, MEA assessed the impact of demolition or alteration of a contributory building in a historic district on a case-by-case basis, taking into account factors such as the number of buildings in the district, the integrity of the district and the value of the contributory building in determining whether the demolition or alteration would significantly impact the district. Recently, however, MEA appears to have established a uniform rule that any demolition of a contributory building requires an EIR. Given the geographic scope of the city's historic districts, particularly in areas such as SOMA and the Tenderloin, this approach has the potential to discourage some affordable-housing projects in these areas by burdening them with EIRs that otherwise might not be required.


  • Return to the past practice of assessing the impact of demolition or alteration of a contributory building in a historic district on a case-by-case basis, taking into account factors such as the number of buildings in the district, the integrity of the district and the value of the contributory building. Identify a significant impact to a historic district only where the demolition or alteration would materially alter in an adverse manner those characteristics of the district that justify its eligiblity as a historic district under the applicable state or local criteria. The National Park Service requires only that a majority of buildings within an historic district retain integrity of location, design, setting, feeling and association for the district to remain eligible for the National Register. Accordingly, the removal of one contributory building within a historic district is not automatically a significant impact if the majority of the remaining buildings in the district are retained.
  • In some cases, the department might find a significant impact even if the demolition or alteration would not adversely alter the characteristics of the district that justify its eligibility. For example, if the contributory building played a key role in maintaining the cohesion of a block face or other subset of the district. By definition, the value of a contributory building is its contribution to the district, typically because the building uses a general vernacular that characterizes the district. Where a contributory building is not retained, a well-designed replacement building can be of great value if significant creative effort is appropriately applied to the architectural solution. Particularly in the South of Market areas, the preservation objective would be better served by clearer articulation of prevailing building vernaculars and attention to quality and nature of new construction, rather than preservation of buildings that have no individual merit and are not important to the integrity of the district.


2. Procedural Reforms

2.1 Planning Department Review:
Currently, the Planning Department and MEA each assign separate planners to review a proposed project. Co-locating the Planning Department and the MEA in the same building is a positive development, which should encourage coordination of project and CEQA review by staff These planners, however, still have no formalized method for coordination. In addition, the City has no guidelines for staff review of CEQA documents (other than an approximately 20-year-old guidance document that no longer is used). The result is that project proponents often receive conflicting or inconsistent comments. The department's "preservation technical specialists," who determine whether a building is an historic resource and review historic resource evaluations, also often do not coordinate their reviews within the same timeframe as the MEA planner.

For example, in the context of the critically important Better Neighborhoods Plan program, the EIR process has not been undertaken in close coordination with plan development and adoption. As a result, environmental review does not inform the planning process. Research is sometimes collected twice on the same subjects, once to inform planning and then again for the EIRs; and of course the overall time from plan funding to final plan adoption by the Board of Supervisors is lengthened.



  • Adopt guidelines for staff review of CEQA documents.
  • Integrate the CEQA and planning processes to the maximum extent feasible so that CEQA review of plans is conducted concurrently rather than consecutively, and environmental considerations can inform the planning process. Specifically:
    • Adopt a policy directing that funding for CEQA review be sought from the Board of Supervisors at the same time that approval for plan preparation is sought, so that the CEQA and planning processes can occur concurrently.
    • Coordinate the consultants responsible for plan preparation and CEQA review (including regular coordination meetings).
    • If the Planning Department retains an outside consultant to prepare the plan, the outside consultant's scope of work should include responsibility for ensuring that the planning and CEQA processes are coordinated, and the outside consultant should either prepare the CEQA document itself or retain a CEQA consultant as a subconsultant.
    • If the Planning Department is preparing the plan and using technical subconsultants to support plan preparation, the Planning Department should require that the CEQA consultant use the same set of technical subconsultants.
    • Implement a fee-recovery ordinance, as authorized by state law and previously introduced by the Planning Department (but never approved by the Finance Committee of the Board of Supervisors) to recover the costs of plan preparation and CEQA review from future project sponsors that propose projects in the plan area that are exempted from project specific CEQA review or tier off of the plan EIR.

2.2 Review Timeline:
MEA lacks sufficient staff to review CEQA documents in a timely fashion, and is having difficulty filling authorized positions. Anecdotally, it takes six to 10 months just to get an MEA planner assigned to a project. This delay translates into higher costs, with a combined effect of discouraging beneficial development in the City. In addition, the City rarely meets the statutory timelines for completion of CEQA review (e.g., one year from completed application for an EIR), potentially exposing the City to monetary damage claims. If the process could be expedited without sacrificing the quality of the analysis, the public would benefit.


  • Maintain quality of analysis as a primary value, but simultaneously establish realistic form schedules for processing of each type of CEQA document (e.g., exemption, negative declaration, EIR, responses to comments and responses to appeals of preliminary negative declarations, historic resource evaluations, etc.). The form schedules would establish standardized timelines for preparation and approval of the project description, the significance criteria and the scope of work for the transportation-impact analysis; preparation and staff review of administrative draft documents; and meeting/hearing dates. The form schedule would provide for no more than two or three rounds of review, and would encourage focus on technical accuracy and adequacy. Although the form schedule would be subject to refinement based on the particulars of each project, significant deviation from the form schedule would be discouraged absent unusual circumstances.
  • As long as the staffing shortage at MEA persists, create a fee-based process for expedited initial project review by a senior MEA staff member. The staff member would be authorized to make preliminary determinations regarding the necessary scope of substantive review so that the project sponsor could retain consultants to commence substantive analysis pending assignment of a project planner. These preliminary determinations would be made in writing, with copies to the project sponsor and the project planner, within a set time (e.g., 30 days) after receipt of a complete environmental review application.

2.3 Board of Supervisors Procedures
There is no ordinance governing the timeline for filing appeals of exemption determinations and negative declarations to the Board of Supervisors. The Interim Procedures, Appeals of Negative Declarations and Exemptions (Revised March 24, 2003) state that the City Attorney's Office must determine whether an appeal has been filed in a timely manner, but provide no criteria for such determination. This lack of a timeline creates uncertainty for both project sponsors and project opponents. Supervisor Aaron Peskin has drafted legislation to address this situation, but it has not been pursued.


  • Adopt an ordinance governing the filing an appeal of an exemption determination or Negative Declaration to the Board of Supervisors. The ordinance should specify who may appeal, time limits for filing an appeal, the content of an appeal, the fee for filing an appeal, the time limit for holding a hearing on the appeal and reaching a decision, and the scope of the board's review of the exemption determination or negative declaration. The supervisor previously introduced such an ordinance, but it has never proceeded to a hearing at the Land Use and Economic Development Committee.

2.4 Municipal Transportation Agency Review and Coordination
The Municipal Transportation Agency plays an important role in CEQA analysis, in the context of both preparing CEQA documents for MTA-sponsored projects and commenting on the transportation-impact analyses for other proposed public and private projects that may affect the City's transportation system. The MTA does not have a policy-based set of guidelines for CEQA review, leaving individual planners without guidance. The result is that the MTA's comments are not consistent from one project to another and often are not consistent with the City's own intermodal transportation policies. Historically, those responsible for one transportation mode may have offered comments that contradicted those representing another mode. While the MTA has made great strides in modal integration, it has no filled, staff-level position with responsibility for balancing the needs of all modes in the CEQA process.


  • Provide adequate multimodal staffing within the MTA Planning Department.
  • Prepare and adopt a set of policy guidelines to guide MTA comments on transportationimpact analyses.
  • Assign a single, senior point person in the MTA Planning Department to supervise review of transportation-impact analyses.
About the Authors: 

AIA San Francisco and SPUR

Get Email Updates

Get SPUR news and events delivered straight to your email inbox.

Sign up now