San Francisco's Downtown Plan

Landmark guidelines shape city's growth

Urbanist Article

The Making of a Downtown Plan

A formal "Downtown Plan" (a new area plan in the City's Master Plan) and the Planning Code amendments needed to implement it were released for citizen review in August 1983, having been preceded by earlier versions Guiding Downtown Development #1 in 1981 and # 2 in 1982. The plan was based on the premise that San Francisco should continue to develop its role as an international center of commerce and services, but only if the adverse effects of additional office growth could be mitigated. Continued growth in the office sector was seen as economically healthy for the city since, among other things, downtown jobs, 56% of which were held by San Franciscans, provided the principal source of new jobs at all skill and wage levels for city residents.

The plan outlined the Department's proposals for "creating buildings in scale and shape more suitable to San Francisco's environment; meeting the housing, open space, and transportation needs created by downtown development; preserving significant older buildings and their settings; and providing amenities that make downtown a special place." The Downtown Plan and controls were developed in-house by the staff of the Comprehensive Planning Division of the Department, with assistance from the UC Berkeley Environmental Simulation Lab, an AIA design charrette, and The Foundation for Preservation of San Francisco's Architectural Heritage.

The plan generated a national response (it made the front page of the New York Times twice) and received praise for its pioneering provisions in guiding urban form and impacts of commercial growth. Paul Goldberger, the Times architecture critic, called the plan "intelligent and sensitiveone of the most complete prescriptions for growth an American downtown has been given. The plan puts the city at the forefront of American city planning and urban design efforts." The Philadelphia Enquirer wrote, "The detail and subtlety of the SF plan makes it different in kind from other city plans: it is nothing less than a new way of understanding the American city." The American Institute of Architects gave it a National Merit Award.

The reception locally was decidedly less enthusiastic. The business/development community thought the proposals radical and much too strict, while the antigrowth forces, noting the absence of flat-out growth limitation on high rises, denounced the Plan, labeling it a trick by the Department to continue growth unabated. In November 1983, a voter initiative to control growth by requiring a revision of the Master Plan and Planning Code to reflect 10 priority policies narrowly lost by 2,700 votes. It was probably the closeness of that vote that convinced the business/development community that some dramatic changes were required and that perhaps the Downtown Plan was somewhat less than draconian. However, there was considerable agitation by developers of projects then under review to get their buildings exempted from any new controls.

In November 1984, after completion and certification of the EIR, the Planning Commission adopted the Downtown Plan and interim zoning controls and endorsed permanent controls. In April 1985 the Board of Supervisors began hearings. All of the Board's committees were involved. They focussed on the impact of growth and the need to limit it. Various proposals for growth caps were debated but not one urban design provision was questioned, discussed, or proposed for alteration. The Department, some Planning Commissioners, and Mayor Dianne Feinstein resisted a growth cap. The belief was that the combination of tough rules and the building cycles inherent in the office market, historically hot and cold, would preclude the need. It became clear, however, that without some sort of growth cap there were not six votes to pass the controls so in May the Mayor proposed and the Department introduced a 950 gross square feet limit on the amount of office space which could be adopted each year for a period of three years. They felt that that amount would be adequate to meet the demand for office space.

With the limitation added, in September 1985, by a vote of 6 to 5, the Board of Supervisors adopted the controls. While one or two of the no voters would likely have switched if their votes were needed, the others voted against it because they felt it still allowed too much growth.

Shortly thereafter, in November, anti-growth forces sponsored yet another voter initiative, this one calling for a three-year moratorium on approval of office projects. It was soundly defeated 59 percent to 41 percent, probably on the argument that the Plan should be given a chance to work.

The first year developers competed for the limited amount of office space available for allocation proved unusual: all proposals were rejected. The Commission concluded that no new square footage was needed to satisfy market demand or city objectives.

In November 1986, on the sixth try and by a margin of only 7,000 votes, anti-growth advocates finally succeeded in passing a voter initiative-Proposition M. It made the Growth Cap permanent and cut in half (to 475,000 square feet) the amount of office space that could be approved annually until 1999 to compensate for years in which approvals had exceeded 950,000 per year. The annual limit is now back to 950,000 square feet.

According to Robert Campbell of the Boston Globe: "The Growth Cap wasn't the idea of planners or politicians in San Francisco. It came straight from the people, who had been, for a decade and a half, getting angrier and angrier about massive downtown development that blocked views of the bay and overwhelmed older buildings. Boxy, blank new towers gave the once-lovely city the look of a pile of abandoned packing crates. The San Francisco anti-high-rise movement started as a radical fringe and grew into a mainstream."

Neither the growth cap nor the "beauty contest," as the process for determining which buildings to approve was called, seem to have adversely affected the office market. Some of the projects that were approved in the first rounds of the selection process are just now under construction. (Second and Mission Street and 150 California are examples). The new rules and atmosphere of limits probably have had the good short-term effect of dampening the proliferation of office buildings enough to avert a greatly elevated vacancy rate. Cities around the country in the late 80s and early 90s were experiencing office vacancies of 20% and more. The future impact of the cap remains to be seen.

The Substance of the Plan

Since so much of the public debate leading to passage of the plan (and its implementing controls) was about the quantity of growth, the perception lingers that the growth cap is the plan. Few people are familiar with its significant achievements. Many the plan's successes, it should be noted, are invisible because they are the things that didn't happen – out of scale buildings that didn't get built, fine older buildings that didn't get demolished or altered, office buildings that didn't built get in the wrong place.

Urban Form

The plan modified the size and location of the district in which high-rise office buildings could be built. One objective was to keep the office district compact and walkable and prevent its spillover into adjacent areas. Use districts were redrawn to prevent high-density office buildings from encroaching into Chinatown, the Tenderloin, and South of Market west of Yerba Buena Center (YBC), and into the retail district. To accommodate projected office growth, a new special development district was created south of market and east of YBC.

Allowable heights were dramatically altered throughout the C-3 districts to concentrate the highest buildings in the existing office district and in the new special development district. Wide stair-step height bands of 400, 500, 600 and 700 feet in the existing zoning were replaced by a finer-grained height map more closely related to the scale of existing development. Height alternatives were tested in the three-dimensional scale model of downtown San Francisco at UC Berkeley's Environmental Simulation Lab (this was the Dark Ages before computer simulation). Clusters of smaller scale buildings in the financial district-Belden Alley, Front Street, Commercial/Leidsdorf-were protected by reducing allowable heights from as much as 400 feet to 50 and 75 feet. These areas, plus three others, were made Conservation Districts to assure that new development complemented the architectural character of the areas.

To protect the ground level ambience and the existing scale of development, heights were lowered in some 25 blocks of the retail district from a range of 140 to 400 feet down to 80 feet, with an additional 50 feet possible if kept behind a solar plane designed to protect sun to adjacent sidewalks and Union Square. The area was also designated a conservation district to assure compatibility of new development. Kearney Street was named the border between the retail and financial districts and heights were reduced from 320 and 500 feet to as low as 50 and 80 feet. The volume of buildings, as determined by the Floor Area Ratio, and the permitted size of floors in various portions of the building, were substantially reduced. Allowable floor space per site was cut by as much as 40%.

In reaction to the flat-topped look-alike slabs that had begun to dominate the skyline the controls governing building bulk were modified. The Plan required upper floors to be smaller than floors in the mid-part of buildings to encourage tapering at the upper level. Other rules encouraged more expressive, sculptured building tops. (This incurred the wrath of Alan Temko, architectural critic for the Chronicle, who quipped that "what the plan may require, indeed, is not a new breed of architects, but milliners.") An exception to the bulk rules could be granted to "achieve a distinctly better design, or to accommodate a building with widespread public service benefits and compelling functional requirements." Most buildings built under the plan have sought and obtained an exception so that the full impact of the changed bulk rules has not been realized.

Downtown Amenity

Another objective of the plan was to preserve and enhance the amenity of downtown. The plan identified the sidewalks and public open spaces, which should be protected from shadowing, and set height rules to prevent buildings from casting shadows at certain hours and times of the year. (The Plan rules were expanded by a voter initiative to require sun access to public parks year round.) To mitigate the impact new office workers would have on downtown open space, new office buildings were required to provide open space of a size relative to that of the building, as well as contribute two dollars per square foot to a fund for a downtown park. This is in sharp contrast to the previous rules, which granted extensive density bonuses for plazas and observation platforms. In addition, office buildings were required to provide public art in an amount equal to one percent of the construction cost of the building. Active, public-serving uses at the ground floor of buildings were encouraged. And for the first time in an American zoning ordinance, standards were set to affect the shape of a building to prevent the creation of unpleasant wind currents at ground level in both pedestrian and sitting areas.

The Plan also addressed two of the major impacts of continued office growth: impacts on transportation system-streets and public transit-and impacts on housing.


The Plan identified a number of transportation improvements that would relieve downtown congestion brought about by additional office workers, only some of which have been carried out. To avoid unacceptable levels of congestion, the Plan projected that ridesharing needed to increase from 1.4 to 1.6 persons per vehicle and downtown work trips by transit during the two-hour peak needed to increase from 55 percent to 62 percent. Muni and East Bay carriers were encouraged to expand their five-year plans to reach this level of transit ridership. In addition, to induce the shift, the plan recommended that the aggregate commuter parking supply not be increased. Although all of these measures have not been carried out, they remain valid objectives.

Though not a product of the plan but developed in parallel to it, a transit impact fee of five dollars per square foot of office space was initially imposed by the Planning Commission and later converted to an ordinance.


To prevent adverse impacts on the housing market, the plan projected that 1,000 to 1,500 new housing units needed to be built annually. The plan called for rezoning of areas adjacent to downtown to accommodate new housing. In response, plan and code changes were developed to promote housing in Rincon Hill, Van Ness Avenue, and Mission Bay. The South of Market rezoning promoted live/work space, now an issue in its own right. The Office/Housing Production Program was created, through which office developers contribute housing or funds for housing in proportion to the number of jobs being created. The funds are earmarked for affordable housing.


Although there were a few victories (the California Pacific Building, the old Federal Reserve Bank), preservation battles over buildings that did not have landmark status were generally lost. Particularly heartbreaking were the losses of the Fitzhugh and City of Paris buildings in Union Square and the Alaska Commercial building in the financial district. Even landmarked buildings, such as Hoffman's Grill on Market Street and the old Stock Exchange Building on Montgomery, were violated as new buildings were built over them.

The City's procedure for designating landmarks was painfully slow. By 1980, only 12 downtown buildings had been designated. We concluded that a more comprehensive approach needed to be taken. Fortunately, both the Department and Heritage Foundation had undertaken comprehensive surveys of downtown buildings so there was a clear idea in the preservation community of what buildings were worth saving. While it was legally possible simply to mandate the retention of landmark-worthy buildings, we concluded that it would be more equitable, as well as more politically feasible, to help the property owner realize some of the unusable development potential of the site of the building to be preserved. The code then permitted transfer of unusable development rights (the difference between the square footage that the code permitted to be built on the site and the square footage of the existing building) to adjacent parcels only. This concept was expanded to enable unusable square footage to be sold and transferred to more remote sites and, in particular, to the "special development" district which was being created around Transbay Terminal to accommodate future office growth.

In perhaps its most consequential success, the Plan and its implementing controls mandated the retention of 250 "significant" buildings and provided strong incentives to preserve an additional 237 "contributory" buildings regarded as important to the quality and character of downtown. Selling city officials at the draft stages of the plan of a program to save hundreds of buildings through comprehensive planning rather than through the traditional building-by-building landmark process wasn't easy and, in some cases, required some unconventional planning techniques.

The late George Agnost, City Attorney at the time, didn't believe that the transfer of development rights scheme was legal. His test was whether he thought he could sell it to a jury. To overcome his concern, a summit meeting was called by Mayor Feinstein, with Agnost and the authors of this article in attendance. Several ashtray stands, which at the time adorned the Mayor's office, were moved about in an effort to explain how the transfer of development rights would work. The debate was intense. The Mayor became convinced and urged Agnost to withdraw his objection to this critical element of the Plan, which he ultimately, and reluctantly, did. Later, he accused us of unfairly using tears (an honorable Mediterranean tactic) to persuade the Mayor.

Agnost was equally skeptical about the conservation districts proposed for designation. He agreed to take a drive-by field trip with Assistant Director Williams. In order that he would be free to look at the buildings, Agnost asked George Williams to drive Agnost's cherished Chrysler. With his arm out the window (on occasion both arms, as the story ages) Williams pointed to various structures and extolled their virtues, causing Agnost to focus more on the integrity of his fenders than the quality of the buildings. As the field trip proceeded his agitation grew. Finally he shouted "OK, OK, that's enough. You can have your damned districts. Take my car back to City Hall."

On the other hand, the rules encountered surprisingly little opposition from the owners of the buildings being designated for preservation. Near the end of the approval process, at the insistence of the City Attorney, a procedure was added whereby an owner, after proper legal notice, could challenge the designation of the building. Only one owner did so, and he was more bemused than outraged. He just wanted to know why we thought his building was worthy of designation.

Has the plan ultimately resulted in better-designed buildings? As Robert Campbell, the Boston Globe architectural critic, noted at a Boston Conference on the San Francisco Plan: "The purpose of plans is not to insure beauty or excellence The purpose of guidelines is to prevent disaster, not to insure great design. Only talent will do that. Guidelines stimulate creativity and talent."

Dean Macris was Director of Planning from 1981 to 1992. George Williams was Assistant Director of Planning in charge of Comprehensive Planning from 1973 to 1990. Macris is planning consultant working on several projects including the Giants new Pacific Bell Park, and Williams has just returned from extended USAID assignments in Jamaica, Slovakia and the Central Asian Republics.