Mayor Breed and Board President Peskin Announce Legislation to Support Future of Downtown and Union Square

Proposal will facilitate the conversion of office buildings to critically needed housing, create more opportunities for businesses, and streamline everyday permit review throughout Downtown and Union Square
March 27, 2023

San Francisco, CA — Mayor London N. Breed and Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin today announced a major legislative effort to support Downtown’s future as a place where people work, visit, and live. The legislation amends the City’s Planning Code to enable a vibrant 21st century downtown core and directs the Department of Building Inspection to develop clear procedures for the adaptive reuse of existing office buildings to housing.     

Mayor Breed and President Peskin came together to introduce this package after learning they were each independently working on parallel legislation in pursuit of the same goals. The legislation is a component of both the Mayor’s Housing for All strategy and her Roadmap to Downtown San Francisco’s Future.    

“The challenges facing Downtown require us to imagine what is possible and create the foundation for a stronger, more resilient future,” said Mayor London Breed. “Working with President Peskin and the Board, we can create more opportunities to fill our empty buildings, whether that’s to create housing or making it easier to fill office and retail space. These changes shouldn’t be something that requires granting exceptions through lengthy paperwork and exhaustive public hearings. We need to make the process easier for getting our buildings active and full.”    

“I am pleased that the Mayor and I were able to come together and merge the two pieces of similar legislation we were each working on into one comprehensive legislative package that will be a significant tool for Downtown revitalization in the short and long term,” said Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin. “Crafting and passing this legislation is only half the battle. Working with and making connections amongst a wide array of stakeholders from building owners to small businesses to arts organizations in order to realize these goals and ensuring these tools are user-friendly is our next big challenge.”   

Paving the Way for Housing    

A primary component of the legislation is to encourage housing production Downtown through commercial-to-residential conversions, while ensuring enough office space remains to house San Francisco’s concentration of job-supporting businesses. Although Downtown is currently zoned for housing, the legislation advances a range of code adjustments to slash barriers that may hamper the conversion of underutilized and obsolete downtown office buildings to housing – and that could unlock thousands of new housing units over time.     

The legislation provides much needed flexibility for the re-use of older office buildings by relaxing Planning Code requirement like rear yards, that don’t make sense for conversions of existing buildings in our dense, downtown core.  The legislation will also provide for alternative paths to Building and Fire Code compliance for adaptive reuse projects that would otherwise struggle to meet requirements designed for new ground-up construction projects. 

Allowing More Flexibility in Union Square   

This legislation targets zoning changes to allow additional flexibility for new and diversified uses and activities in existing buildings in Union Square. Responding to both the pre-pandemic impacts of online shopping and to post-pandemic shifts in the retail industry, the legislation allows a wider range of uses to better activate streets and buildings. On upper floors, that includes allowing for additional office, service and retail uses; and on ground floors allowing for indoor and outdoor entertainment, flexible retail workspaces, and larger retailers that will make the area more attractive for businesses, employees, and visitors alike.     

“This proposed legislation fills in a key puzzle piece toward the revival of Union Square,” said Marisa Rodriguez, CEO of the Union Square Alliance.  “In our Union Square Strategic Plan, released in November of last year, we identified the need for zoning and regulatory changes in our District to create the flexibility that will allow Union Square not only to recover more quickly from the Pandemic but also to reach its full potential as a complete downtown neighborhood where people shop, visit, live and work.  We are extremely grateful for how quickly and thoughtfully the Mayor and Supervisor Peskin have spearheaded this legislative package. The proposal announced today will help tremendously and we are in full support.”    

Reducing Barriers and Supporting Pop-Up Activations    

The legislation also builds on Mayor Breed’s priority to reduce process with changes to many of the specialized procedures and mechanisms for Downtown development review. Specifically, the legislation allows for a greater variety of ground floor and other uses, provides for the re-use of longstanding business signage, and allows City staff to review minor changes to historic buildings administratively without a public hearing.  

"Downtown's future is San Francisco's future,” said Rodney Fong, President and CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. “This proposal to make housing conversions easier and downtown zoning more flexible is an important step in charting San Francisco’s path to a reimagined downtown where resident, visitors, and workers all want to spend time." 

The legislation would also broaden the types of temporary pop-up activations that can take place in vacant ground floor spaces throughout Downtown, supporting a key goal of the Mayor’s Roadmap to support entrepreneurs, artists, and other ventures in bringing new energy to vacant storefronts that will serve to enliven the overall Downtown experience.     

“In the new normal of hybrid work, the City has to be proactive about helping create new reasons for residents, workers and visitors to want to come and spend their time Downtown,” said Kate Sofis, Executive Director of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development. “This legislation lays the groundwork for the creativity and new ideas we want to invite.”    

Following extensive work by City staff and collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders, the legislation will be heard at the Planning Commission and Building Inspection Commission this spring with hearings before the Board of Supervisors soon thereafter. Staff is continuing to work on further improvements to allow for conversion of other uses, which will be in forthcoming legislation.     

“We’re updating the downtown playbook,” said Planning Director Rich Hillis. “Clearing the way for office conversions represents an important new tool to promote a vibrant downtown. While not flashy, these critical roll-up-your-sleeves technical improvements will help keep our downtown engine running.”    

“We are fully engaged to be creative and proactive in identifying ways to facilitate adaptive reuse downtown,” said Patrick O’Riordan, Director of the Department of Building Inspection. “We’ve seen this done successfully in other cities and know we can achieve similar results in San Francisco.”