San Francisco, CA — Legislation proposed by Mayor London N. Breed and Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin to support Downtown’s future as a dynamic mixed-use destination to live, work, and visit was unanimously approved by the Board of Supervisors.
This legislation is a key part of the Mayor’s Roadmap to Downtown San Francisco’s Future that will help fill vacant ground floor spaces and underutilized buildings in the Downtown and Union Square areas through a pair of overarching strategies. First, it amends zoning rules to diversify the mix of businesses and activities that are allowed in Union Square and throughout Downtown. Second, it simplifies the approval process and requirements for converting existing commercial buildings into housing.
“The challenges facing Downtown require us to reimagine what is possible and set the foundation for a stronger, more resilient future,” said Mayor London Breed. “Working together with President Peskin and the Board, we are creating more opportunities to fill empty storefronts and underutilized buildings, whether that’s by creating much needed housing or trying out new ideas for businesses and event spaces that will invite people back Downtown. 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. “Quickly crafting and passing this legislation has only been half the battle. We're also going block by block to building owners to assess their potential to benefit from this incentive package, while connecting them to potential tenants from small businesses to arts organizations.”
Allowing More Flexibility in Union Square
This legislation incudes targeted zoning changes to allow a wider variety of uses and activities in Union Square. Responding to both the pre-pandemic impacts of online shopping and 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.
“Downtown’s economic recovery has to include our vibrant arts and culture scene, local residents and neighborhood-serving businesses, and creative retail, dining and entertainment experiences, in addition to office workers and tourists,” said Sarah Dennis Phillips, Executive Director of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development. “This legislation advances a key part of the Mayor’s vision for a thriving, mixed-use Downtown that I look forward to continue building on.”
“Recent retail closures, in the heart of the city, are very disheartening and highlight the importance of legislation like this that meets the critical needs of our community in this moment,” said Marisa Rodriguez, CEO of the Union Square Alliance. “We are so thankful to Mayor Breed and Board President Peskin for spearheading 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.
"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.
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 requirements like rear yards, that don’t make sense for conversions of existing buildings in our dense, downtown core. The legislation also directs the Building and Fire Departments to develop a manual that will lay out specific guidelines for adaptive reuse projects that would otherwise struggle to meet requirements designed for new ground-up construction projects.
“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.”
While these changes are critical to facilitating adaptive reuse projects, the City recognizes that code and process changes alone are only one part of making such conversions a reality on a broad scale. As a next step building on this legislation, the Planning Department and Office of Economic and Workforce Development will be releasing a request for interest (RFI) in the coming weeks in order to hear directly from property owners and potential developers who are exploring the reuse of underutilized Downtown buildings. Through the RFI, the City will invite ideas on what further steps are needed to help accelerate these potentially transformative adaptive reuse projects.
“This is the first significant change to Downtown’s zoning controls since the 1980s,” said Planning Director Rich Hillis. “Retooling our code to encourage new downtown housing is a critical next step, and these changes to our zoning and permitting process pave the way forward.”
Following extensive work by City staff and collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders, the legislation approved by the Board of Supervisors today previously received unanimous recommendations by the Planning Commission and Building Inspection Commission, and will return to the Board for a final procedural vote on June 27 before coming into effect in mid-August.
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.