Editor's Notes

The reason city planning in this town is so screwed up

EDITORS NOTES There was a fascinating moment July 11 at the San Francisco Board of Appeals meeting, a rare and revealing look into how city planning really works — and who calls the shots.

At issue was a proposal for two condo towers at Tenth Street and Market, one of which would soar 352 feet into the air — well above current height limits for the site. The developer also wants to put in 578 parking spaces, 399 more than the city Planning Code currently allows. It's a monster of a project that would require seven planning code exceptions, two conditional use permits, and four zoning variances.

In other words, it's not exactly what's envisioned in the Planning Code for that particular lot.

But that didn't bother Craig Nikitas, the city Planning Department staffer working on the project. In fact, in a long statement to the appeals board, Nikitas announced that city planners encourage developers to defy the current planning code since the planners think it's outdated.

"The Planning Department encourages many project sponsors for tall buildings to use [a] height exemption," he said. That leads to "a taller building but a slimmer building.... That's the kind of urban design we're looking for nowadays."

Well, maybe — but the Downtown Plan, passed in 1984, calls for a very different type of design. It seeks buildings with setbacks (the so-called wedding cake look). That approach, which we all fought over in hearing after hearing before the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors, was designed in part to maximize sunlight at street level. That look may be old-fashioned architecture; it may not be what the current generation of planners wants. But it's official city policy, city law.

If Nikitas and his boss, Dean Macris, want to change the guidelines for new buildings, there's a procedure for that. You recommend changes to the Planning Commission, which can hold hearings and send new Planning Code changes to the Board of Supervisors. Then we all can discuss them in our usual, moderately civil, San Francisco fashion.

But that's not how it works. Behind closed doors, the planners decide what they want the city to look like. Then they encourage developers to fit that model and bend the codes to make it all fit.

This is nothing new, but it's rare to get such a clear admission, on tape, of why city planning in this town is so utterly screwed up.

In other news: there's a bill before the State Legislature that's supported by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and the Guardian. Labor likes it. The mayor likes it. The supervisors like it. And it could bring the city another $71 million a year in badly needed revenue (more than enough, for example, to solve Muni's structural budget woes).

And yet it's hung up in a Senate committee because Don Perata, the East Bay senator who is the president pro tem, doesn't want any tax bills to go to the floor this year.

The bill by Assemblymember Mark Leno would allow — not require, but allow — the supervisors to put before the voters a proposal to increase the license fees on cars in this city to the level they were before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cut them statewide. If San Francisco voters choose to tax their own cars, they will have the option; that's all it is. Yet Perata's press aide, Alicia Trost, told me it won't even get a vote.

If you think that's nuts, you can reach the good senator at (916) 651-4009.*

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