Facilitate new uses and flexibility in buildings

August 22, 2023

Maximizing the variety of uses and flexibility in our buildings creates the spaces and services that a diverse industry base needs to succeed and will help Downtown recover faster. 

“American Tulip Day in Union Square” by Flower Bulb Day


Economies are dynamic and the needs of businesses and institutions change over time. The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a dramatic change in the way office-based businesses operate and how they use office space. Prior to the pandemic, San Francisco’s office vacancy rate was minimal and new businesses struggled to gain access. Now, different office configurations and commercial occupancy models are emerging as businesses adapt to post-pandemic norms. New industries and business types may have vastly different space requirements and configurations. Other underutilized commercial buildings may be able to convert to entirely new uses, such as hotels, institutions, museums and cultural venues, research and design spaces, or housing. By reducing unnecessary zoning and process impediments and actively facilitating the ability of companies and building owners to update and adapt office buildings to emerging uses, we can support new job offerings, economic growth, and a renewed vibrancy in our Downtown.



  • Amend the Planning Code to ensure flexible zoning Downtown to accommodate the widest possible range of activities and uses. 
  • Establish a Commercial-to-Residential Adaptive Reuse Program to facilitate the conversion of underutilized office buildings into housing. 


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Flexible zoning Downtown

Downtown’s historically office-centric environment should be a welcoming place for the widest possible variety of commercial, cultural and residential uses and activities. In June 2023, Mayor Breed and Board President Aaron Peskin passed Downtown zoning legislation that streamlined the approval processes for new residential developments and expanded allowable uses Downtown including: 

  • A greater density and variety of housing types 

  • Laboratories and life sciences, light manufacturing, food and beverage processing, and large-format retail 

  • Office, co-working, design and professional service uses on upper floors in the Union Square Area where they were previously limited or prohibited 

  • Formula retail uses in Mid-Market and existing shopping centers where chain stores were previously subject to special approvals 

  • A new Flexible Workspace use to allow for ground-floor co-working and office spaces in conjunction with a retail component 

  • Pop-up retail, entertainment, arts or other activations in vacant storefronts for up to one year

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Commercial-to-Residential Adaptive Reuse Program

The shift in office demand brought on by the pandemic could present a unique opportunity to weave more housing into the City’s office core, creating the potential to support a greater variety of businesses and institutions in the area while also allowing workers to live closer to job opportunities. 

  • Mayor Breed and Board President Peskin’s Downtown zoning legislation established an Adaptive Reuse program that waives certain Planning Code requirements, like rear yards, that are not compatible with existing commercial buildings in our dense Downtown core, and directing the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) and the Fire Department to adopt an Adaptive Reuse Manual that will specify alternate methods of Building and Fire Code compliance for these projects.

  • In June 2023, OEWD and the Planning Department issued a Request for Interest (RFI) to hear directly from property owners and potential developers who are exploring the reuse of underutilized Downtown commercial buildings. Five potential downtown residential conversion projects responded. The intent of the RFI is to identify projects where the City could help accelerate or enhance building conversions through regulatory modifications, financial incentives, or other means.


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