Specific Area Plans

Building consensus for infill housing

Urbanist Article

The Role of Specific Area Plans

The "specific area plan" concept was codified into California law by a 1979 amendment to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to give city governments the ability to move away from site-by-site development battles, and to instead plan for cumulative neighborhood changes. A specific area plan is a relatively detailed plan for the development of a particular part of a city, and ideally includes a master environmental impact review for the entire plan area. Its appeal for San Francisco, in the throes of a housing crisis, is that it provides a way to gradually meet housing needs while also increasing neighborhood amenities, such as stores, parks, and schools. By spelling out the land use policies and regulations applicable to the development of a particular area and the capital improvement programs and financing measures needed to support that development, specific area plans play a proactive rather than reactive role in shaping development.

Due to its comprehensive nature, a specific area plan is security for both existing neighbors and for developers. With certain exceptions, state law exempts individual residential development projects from CEQA review if they are consistent with and implement a specific plan. By involving the public in the planning process at an early stage, the resulting plan represents a consensus between residents, public officials, and developers. An underutilized planning tool in San Francisco, specific area plans are an excellent way to build consensus for infill housing while preserving and enhancing the qualities we love about our neighborhoods. By looking at a neighborhood as a whole, this planning tool provides a framework for making tradeoffs so that neighborhoods evolve in a balanced way.

One Example: Van Ness Specific Area Plan

In 1983, the City and County of San Francisco embarked on the Van Ness Specific Area Plan, which was adopted as an official part of the city's general plan in 1989. The Van Ness Plan is one of two specific area plans in San Francisco-along with Rincon Hill-that have program-level EIRs, allowing pre-approved sites for projects that fit within the plan.

Van Ness Avenue had been dominated by automobile-oriented businesses at least since World War II. A street corridor over one hundred feet wide, it was dotted with parking lots, one story buildings – and yes – even a Doggie Diner. In the 1970s some auto showrooms began to relocate to other parts of the city, and new restaurants and offices had opened up. Enamored by the grand boulevards after a visit to Paris, then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein realized the unmet potential for Van Ness to create a superior environment by adding density. She directed planning staff to come up with a way to facilitate the development of Van Ness into a thriving residential and commercial area.

To increase housing along the corridor, the plan includes a unique mixed-use condition: for every square foot of commercial or office space, developers must provide three square feet of residential space. With this requirement, developers of a new Walgreens built three residential stories above the storefront. Not only is the building scale more appropriate to the street, but now a number of families have new homes, and more life is added to the neighborhood. To encourage the maximum number of units be developed, the city removed the standard density limitations. Developers are now given the basic envelope – height, lot coverage, setbacks – and encouraged to build as many units as possible within it. For a city with a notorious housing crisis, this is a significant contribution.

Increased density has been accomplished with the unique historic urban design pattern of that avenue. For example, the historic character of the street was determined by buildings eight to ten stories high. To increase intensity of use and at the same time preserve the historic integrity of this street wall, zoning requires setbacks on upper floors above this historic height. To preserve views of the Bay, height limits and setbacks are stricter on specific corners.

Another potential barrier to increasing the intensity of use to an appropriate level was the existing parking requirements, especially for smaller parcels. Van Ness is a high-volume traffic corridor. In fact, in the 1950s a consultant plan presented to the Planning Department recommended turning it into a expressway with grade separation at main cross thoroughfares, connecting the Golden Gate and San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridges. To transform it into a people-oriented boulevard, the specific area plan relaxed the parking requirements. To make Van Ness more pedestrian-friendly, planners worked with the Department of Public Works to develop new standards for sidewalk width, street trees, and street lighting.

The plan is not perfect. While the Van Ness plan expresses an unequivocal urban goal to build truly urban housing densities and has succeeded in doing so, it did not go far enough in removing some obstacles. Steve Vettel, a member of the SPUR Housing Committee, points out that the rigid bulk requirements – (i.e. the envelope of height and setback limitations) – have been an impediment to meeting the plan's goals: every new project built on Van Ness under the plan has needed a bulk exception. It now appears it would have been better to lay out general qualitative policies instead of such quantitative specifics. Furthermore, the plan did not take advantage of its potential to change the planning code for the plan area. San Francisco's planning code requires any project over forty feet in a residential zoning district to get a conditional use permit. Since a major goal of the plan, adopted by the city with considerable public input, is to go above this limit, requiring a conditional use permit is counter-productive.

However, overall, the Van Ness Plan has successfully produced thousands of new high-density housing units in walking distance from downtown. The streetscape has been improved for both drivers and pedestrians. What once looked like a ragged suburban strip is on its way to becoming a great street. It is a premier example of how neighbors, landowners, developers, and the city all came together to meet common goals.

Neighborhood Planning Initiative

There is now hope of getting the city to make more use of specific neighborhood plans. Alarmed by the lack of housing in San Francisco, a diverse group of organizations has worked this year to secure funds in the City's budget for two more specific area plans to be prepared by the Planning Department. Inspired by the Van Ness Plan's success in significantly increasing well-designed, appropriately located housing and by the ideas developed by SPUR's Housing Committee last year, this unusual group of partners includes the Chamber of Commerce, SPUR, Urban Ecology, Greenbelt Alliance, Council of Community Housing Organizations, and several neighborhood associations. The group came together under the name San Francisco Housing Action Coalition.

After several months of work, as this article goes to press, the Board of Supervisors are considering Mayor Brown's proposed budget of $1,500,000 for specific area plans and a promise of an equal amount next year-an amount sufficient to complete the planning process in two neighborhoods. This budget includes a specific area plan and a master program-level Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for each of the two areas. Again, when individual projects are proposed on those sites identified as housing opportunity sites, no separate environmental review will be required if the project meets the parameters of the EIR.

If the city does indeed carry out these new specific area plans, it has the opportunity to correct one missed opportunity on the Van Ness and Rincon Hill plans: the city intends to charge each developer for the proportional cost of the EIR. Having a certified program EIR in place will shorten the review period for an individual project by six months to a year and add a significant amount of certainty to the process. Not only is this a significant benefit to housing developers, it will benefit the ultimate residents of the units in decreased costs.

This time the specific area plans will also have a special focus on transit-oriented development. With encouragement from the Housing Action Coalition, the planning department is identifying neighborhoods where higher intensity land use will reinforce the city's and region's considerable transit investments. If the full budget as proposed by the Mayor is approved by the Supervisors, the neighborhood planning initiative could signal a new life for proactive neighborhood planning in San Francisco.

Kate White is program director at Urban Ecology, a regional land use and transportation non-profit advocacy organization committed to building cities that are environmentally sustainable and socially just. She is on the steering committee of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition.