San Francisco, CA — The Planning Commission today unanimously approved legislation introduced by Mayor London N. Breed and Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin to support Downtown’s future as a place where people work, visit, and live.
The legislation delivers strategies to help fill vacant space in the Downtown and Union Square areas in two key areas. First, it amends the City’s Planning and Building Codes to simplify the approval process and requirements for converting existing office buildings into housing. Second, it removes restrictions to allow for a greater variety of businesses and activities in Union Square and throughout Downtown.
As part of the Mayor’s Roadmap to Downtown San Francisco’s Future, this legislation is a key step in San Francisco’s strategy to diversify building use and create more opportunities to fill empty spaces in the Downtown and Union Square areas.
“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.”
“This legislation is an example of the executive and legislative branches coming together to create an intentional incentive program that has the potential to reimagine and reinvigorate our Downtown,” said Board 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 serve San Francisco’s concentration of job-supporting businesses. Although Downtown zoning already allows for housing, the legislation advances a range of code adjustments to slash barriers that may hamper the conversion of underutilized 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 incudes targeted zoning changes to allow additional flexibility for new and diversified uses and activities 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, design 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.
“Recent retail closures are very disheartening and highlight the importance of legislation like this that meets the critical needs of a time when the entire retail landscape has changed nationwide,” said Marisa Rodriguez, CEO of the Union Square Alliance. “We welcome the Planning Commission's endorsement today of this package of critical zoning changes in Union Square and the greater downtown that are forward looking, realistic and obtainable if we all work together in earnest. Collectively we can meet this moment and turn our city on an immediate path towards a healthy and sustainable rebound.”
Reducing Barriers and Supporting Pop-Up Activations
The legislation also builds on Mayor Breed’s priority to reduce bureaucratic processes with changes to many of the procedures and special approvals required for Downtown development. 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.
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.
"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."
“As a City we need to be doing everything we can to invite creative uses and new activities to our Downtown buildings and storefronts and support our longtime businesses by drawing more foot traffic and visitors," said Kate Sofis, Executive Director of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development. “This legislation opens up so many possibilities and is an important step in realizing the Mayor's vision for the future of Downtown as a vibrant and active destination.”
Following extensive work by City staff and collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders, the approved legislation by the Planning Commission will next be heard by the Building Inspection Commission on May 17, 2023 before proceeding to the Land Use Committee of the Board of Supervisors soon thereafter.
“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.”
“San Francisco has a history of adapting and evolving to meet our most pressing challenges,” said Patrick O’Riordan, Director of the Department of Building Inspection. “Reconfiguring downtown buildings to the needs of today will require all of us to be creative, thoughtful and resourceful, and I’m absolutely confident we’re up to the task.”
City staff across departments continue to work on further process and zoning improvements to make it easier for businesses to start and expand, housing developments to get off the ground, and to welcome new industries and uses in existing underutilized office spaces.
The legislation is part of Mayor Breed's Roadmap to Downtown San Francisco’s Future, a comprehensive plan to reinvigorate Downtown and reposition San Francisco as the Bay Area’s economic hub and a global anchor for commerce. The Roadmap includes nine strategies to respond to emerging economic trends and capitalize on the City’s strengths to keep Downtown vibrant, focusing on key priorities such as offering a clean and safe environment, fostering a resilient workforce, strengthening transportation, and attracting new industries.