San Francisco residents defeated Mayor Lee’s and Supervisor Katy Tang’s attempt to rezone all but the Residential Housing-1 and -2 areas, under a densification idea called the Affordable Housing Bonus Program (AHBP). The goal of AHBP was to increase the permissible density of neighborhood housing units at the expense of neighborhood character by making it easier for developers to receive accommodations around existing Planning Code regulations, using a “one size fits all” approach. Fortunately for neighborhoods, vigilant neighbors and small business owners have been able to hold in abeyance the AHBP. Although a 100% Affordable Housing (Density) Bonus Program did pass, the rest of the AHBP, including design guidelines, has not been approved.

Due to recent state legislation which occupies much of the field regarding housing density, the City has turned its attention to liberalizing zoning guidelines which modify the permissible building volume and density. One such attempt is to seek to liberalize and leave subject to broader interpretations the proposed guidelines to be called “Urban Design Guidelines” (UDG). The UDG also permit waivers of the even more liberalized design guidelines so that there could be the equivalent of spot-zoning by waiver. The UDG also is a clone of the AHBP Design Guidelines (AHBPDG) which were previously introduced. It is unclear whether the UDG is intended to pre-empt the Urban Design Element of the General Plan and this needs to be spelled out.

Further, the Planning Staff has introduced a major reorganization of Article 7 of the Planning Code which governs neighborhood commercial districts and other similar districts. In that reorganization, when commenting on design guidelines for residential units, under the Control Tables, it refers to “Urban Design Guidelines” with a reference to “General Plan Commerce and Industry Element.” The reference to such Guidelines needs to be clarified to make clear that it exclusively applies to the Commerce and Industry Element and to no other urban design guidelines.

Next, Planning Staff has indicated that in 2017, the “Residential Design Guidelines” (RDG), which further delineate the rules for residential development features such as front, side and rear yard setbacks as well as the architectural style, is expected to be revamped. More information is needed before neighborhood reaction can be recommended. The intended relationships of the UDG to other categories of design guidelines need to be clarified.

Apparently, the Planning Staff is also considering proposing possible changes to the draft “Ground Floor Residential Design Guidelines” (GFRDG) which were first published in November 2008. Although they are noted in the UDG document, which itself is unclear about inter-guideline relationships, it cannot be currently ascertained how the current draft might be changed, if at all. In the draft AHBP Design Guidelines which were first published in 2015, there is a reference to the GFRDG but it is unclear as to the ultimate disposition of either of these drafts.

A number of neighborhoods will be asking that the UDG be considered concurrently with any other design guidelines which may be under consideration or are being replaced, including but limited to the UDG, the Urban Design Element of the General Plan, any RDGs, or any AHBP design guidelines, so that the City neighborhoods understand very clearly how each set of guidelines interacts with the others and with neighborhood or other regional guidelines, as well in order to avoid “one size fits all” guidelines.

The following are some key imminent meeting dates when guidelines may be considered by the PC:

  • 10/13: “Article 7” reorganization of the land use rules applicable to neighborhood commercial districts (NCD). It references “Urban Design Guidelines”. One interpretation of this reference could be that UDG could apply to residential buildings in NCDs and this needs to be clarified to make clear that they do not.
  • 10/20: UDG informational presentation. Residents and merchants should testify to seek clarification from Planning on the interaction of design guidelines with each other and with neighborhood or other regional guidelines, and changes to any and all such guidelines need to be considered concurrently.
  • 10/27: Planning Staff will make an informational presentation regarding what has been referred to as the “Demolition Ordinance”. Under the current rule, the maximum building square footage is governed by a ratio between the lot size and the building square footage. We understand that the Planning Staff is proposing to eliminate the lot size ratio and authorize a per unit square footage cap which could substantially exceed the existing ratio. In addition, the Planning Staff is contemplating proposing to the Planning Commission (PC) that the decision-making as to what constitutes “demolition,” thereby triggering these other rules, be decided at the Planning Staff level and not at the PC level.
  • 10/27: In the PC Advance Calendar, there was a reference to “AHBP General Plan Amendment” as an “action” item. It is unclear as to how this would inter-relate to any of the above-mentioned design guidelines. Staff recently stated that this item has been removed from the calendar. It may appear later or sooner with proper notice.
  • PC Advance Calendar: To those wanting to follow the Planning Department’s ever-changing nature of the calendars and topics related to this, one can request an “Advance Calendar” from the Commissions Secretary. While items on the Advance Calendar may be removed at any time, a review of it can give one an idea of what the Planning Staff may be focusing on for the next few months. The details of any such item will generally not be available until 72 hours prior to the scheduled meeting at which the matter is to be heard.

Find the PC agenda and documents here:
Write to the Planning Commission at 1650 Mission, Suite 400, SF, CA 94103.
Email a request to send a message to the Planning Commissioners to the Commissions Secretary,

by ROSE HILLSON- Chair, Land Use Committee, Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods
Download: ahbp-v2-0.pdf

 Acronyms De-mystified:
AHBP = Affordable Housing Bonus Program
AHBP DG = Affordable Housing Bonus Program Design Guidelines
GFRDG = Ground Floor Residential Design Guidelines
RDG = Residential Design Guidelines
UDG = Urban Design Guidelines
PC = Planning Commission
Section 317 = Planning Code section entitled “Loss of Residential and
Unauthorized Units Through Demolition, Merger and Conversion”
RTO = Residential, Transit Oriented
RC = Residential-Commercial
NCD = Neighborhood Commercial District (there are 3 numbered ones, one alpha, & specific neighborhood named ones)
NCT = Neighborhood Commercial Transit (there are 3 numbered ones)
DTR = Downtown Residential
UMU = Urban Mixed Use
MUG = Mixed Use – General
RH = Residential, House (there are 3 numbered ones with 3 sub-numbers for one of them)
RM = Residential, Mixed (different numbered ones
RSD = Residential/Service Mixed Use District
Mixed Use Districts include Chinatown, Eastern Neighborhoods, SoMa, Downtown
Residential Districts
SALI = Service/Light Industrial District



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