Wiener's SB 827 Claims Debunked by SF Planning Department Report

Zelda Bronstein
Monday February 12, 2018 - 08:00:00 PM

At Scott Wiener’s February 3 town hall in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset neighborhood, I was startled to hear the city’s state senator say that his controversial new bill, SB 827, co-sponsored by Senator Nancy Skinner and drafted by California YIMBY Executive Director Brian Hanlon, was all about fostering the construction of the “missing middle”—“small to mid-sized apartment” buildings that are three to five stories tall with “maybe 8 to 20 units.”

Wiener told the packed house that during his first seven years in San Francisco, he lived in such a place on Collingwood Street in the Castro. “It was a four-story building—probably forty feet,” with nothing on the ground floor “and then three stories,” each with two units. “That’s what we’re talking about”—the sort of buildings, he said, that you see in the Sunset, the Richmond, and Noe Valley, as well as in the Castro.

Four days later, Wired posted a story in which Wiener made the same claim:

The goal, Wiener says, isn't Hong Kong–style high-rises. It's what housing advocates call the “missing middle,” things like side-by-side duplexes, eight-unit apartment buildings, six-story buildings—a building form even San Francisco built plenty of in the early 20th century.

What’s really missing here is straight talk: the urban form fostered by SB 827 would be much taller and denser than anything comprised of eight-unit, six-story apartment buildings. 

The “densification” effect is starkly evident in the bill’s text. SB 827 states that housing developments on parcels in so-called “transit-rich” locations—property within a half-mile of a “major transit stop” or a quarter-mile of “a high-quality transit corridor—would be exempt from “[m]aximum controls on residential density or floor area ratio.” (Floor area ratio is the ratio of a building’s total floor area to the size of the piece of land on which it is built.) A “transit-rich housing project” would also be exempt from “[a]ny design standard that restricts the applicant’s ability to construct the maximum number of units consistent with any applicable building code.” Just to be clear—that’s building, not zoning, code. In short: no limits on density. 

What springs to mind are the “micro-units” being hawked by developer Patrick Kennedy. His project on Harriet Street in San Francisco crams twenty-three 300 square-foot units into a four-story, 45-foot high building on a 3,750 square foot lot. Kennedy serves on the Advisory Committee of the Council of Infill Builders, which endorsed SB 827 six days after it was introduced on January 3. 

The hype about height is harder to detect. SB 827 states that a city cannot limit the height of a “transit-rich housing project” to less than 45, 55, or 85 feet, depending on the width of the street. “Story” as a measure of building height is not a technical term. But a mid-rise apartment building typically measures ten feet floor to floor. Based on that rule of thumb, SB 827’s height specs seem to jibe with Wiener’s talk of apartment buildings that are three to five stories high—though 85 feet would possibly allow seven-story structures. 

But as the San Francisco Planning Department observed last week, in a surprisingly stinging appraisal, 

"The legislation does not seem to remove the ability to use the State Density Bonus on top of the bill’s rezoning. Hence what is proposed as 45’, 55’, and 85’ heights could actually be 65’, 75’-85’, and over 100’ respectively, and so should be viewed in that light [emphasis added]." 

How does this jibe with talk of “side-by-side duplexes”? 

The San Francisco Planning Department also marked SB 827’s complete elimination of “all design standards related to building envelope other than height for buildings within the prescribed height limits” [emphasis in original]. The bill 

"precludes the applicability of any design guideline and Planning Code [in San Francisco’s General Plan] provisions that in any way reduces the size and shape of the building envelope from a maximal box within the height limit, allowing only application of California Building Code standards. This would preclude the ability to maintain any standards regarding rear yard, lot coverage, exposure, open space, setbacks, and bulk controls of any kind, to name a few. While the Building Code addresses light and air as primarily life and safety issues, these planning controls establish basic housing and neighborhood livability standards such as access and connection to daylight, openness in urban density, and natural spaces. Their elimination could result in residential projects with full lot coverage and little modulation or articulation, since any building modulation by definition reduces maximum building volume." 


"[t]he bill would also countermand the basic principles laid forth in the [General Plan’s] Urban Design Element, which reinforce livability patterns within the city fabric such as preservation of mid-block open space, inclusion of mid-block alleys on long blocks, matching of lightwells, and consideration of sun and shadow." 

What goes for San Francisco’s General Plan and zoning goes for every city’s plans and zoning: By eliminating local zoning in “transit-rich” locations, SB 827 would wipe out “basic housing and neighborhood livability standards,” providing an amazing bonanza to the real estate industry. 

The overview of the bill provided by Wiener’s office says that SB 828 “ensures that neighborhoods with transit access will have abundant housing and opportunity in livable communities…” Is this really your idea of livability, Senator? 

For another analysis, see SF planners blast Wiener housing bill that would upzone entire city 

The full report can be seen here.