What Seattle Can Learn From San Francisco: An Interview with Architect Jim Zack
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BUILD talks with Jim Zack about the urban planning and permitting lessons that San Francisco can offer.
[Photo via Wikimedia]
Lately, we’ve been discussing the treacherous path that the Pacific Northwest is on regarding the building permit process for single family residences and small multi-family developments. The requirements in Seattle, King County, and nearby jurisdictions are becoming excessive to the point of administrative paralysis and financial exclusion. Working through the permitting process is so expensive, time consuming, and complicated that even a simple remodel is quickly becoming a luxury for the average family. If cities are to foster a diversity of cultures, demographics, and socio-economics, it is imperative that the process be reasonable and accessible. Unfortunately, this equation is heading in the opposite direction in the Pacific Northwest.
Comparing notes with colleagues around the country is always a fascinating study for us architects — now more than ever. San Francisco, in particular, has always provided a useful comparison to Seattle’s own situation. Each is limited geographically by bodies of water, has an economy driven by the tech-industry, and epitomizes continually rising housing costs. Because of its incrementally larger size and slightly longer history, one could say that San Francisco is a few steps ahead of Seattle from a planning, zoning, and permitting standpoint. Often criticized for having an overly involved building department with constricting permitting procedures, San Francisco is like looking into the crystal ball of Seattle’s future if measures aren’t taken.
Since we’re no experts on San Francisco’s policies, we asked our colleague, collaborator, and friend, Jim Zack of Zack | de Vito Architecture, to shed some light on the state of their permitting process. He graciously accepted, so today’s post is a Q&A session with Jim on a few of the topics most relevant to Seattle’s (and San Francisco’s) urban future.
[Photo via Carlitos Contraptions]
What are the challenges that architects and builders are currently facing with the permitting process in San Francisco?
The primary complaint is time. It can take one to two years to get a permit for a new house, or even an extensive remodel; really any project that requires Planning Department review. It is worse now than at any time in my 24+ years working in San Francisco. There are multiple factors that have contributed to this:
• A booming economy which has led to a huge increase in building permit applications.
• The planning department has its largest staff in history, but it’s not enough and they can not grow fast enough to cover the backlog of applications.
• An ever-increasing list of requirements that need to be met for approvals, most falling under the heading of “Environmental Evaluations.” As an example, Zack | de Vito has a current project consisting of four residential units over a commercial space. This project requires a noise study, air quality study, historic study, geotechnical report, and a Phase 1 Environmental Report. In addition, a variance (to approve an existing non-compliant yard) and a special application (to approve no on-site parking) is required. It took five months to receive comments from the planner and our variance hearing is scheduled for February 2016, adding five more months to the permitting timeline. In this timeframe, we need to notify neighbors and will be subject to their right to push the project to a Planning Commission hearing, adding a few more months. This is just to get planning approval. Once we get approval, we have four to five months for the building permit review.
• Neighbor input is an ever-present and growing issue. Any project that adds space or height, or is new construction, requires a neighbor notification. We now assume that any residential project (new or significant remodel) will have neighbor issues. This adds months of time, thousands of dollars in expenses, and much anxiety for clients. While we typically only have minor modifications, it is a taxing process with many unknowns.
• Historic reviews are also part of nearly every project. Any building more than 50 years old is determined to be a “Potential Historic Resource,” and the burden of proof lies to the applicant. We spend 8-15 hours conducting research for almost every project. Our findings are submitted to the Planning Department for review, and almost every one is found to not be a “Potential Historic Resource.” The sector of the Planning Department that performs these reviews typically has a bigger backlog than even the Design Review Department, and it subsequently becomes the road block.
• Second to time, is permit costs. A recent submission for a new two unit building on a rare vacant lot had application fees of +/- $18,000 per unit. We expect to pay at least that much again for a building plan check once we receive planning approval. In addition, there are $5,000 of utility fees, $1,500 for a sidewalk permit, and $10,000 for a new water meter, etc.
What is being compromised in the design and construction phases of a project in order to meet the excessive permitting requirements in San Francisco?
Design does suffer as we have to make compromises to avoid environmental issues and make adjustments to appease neighbors. On a recent project, the clients wanted to avoid the time and cost of the historic review, so we struck a deal with planning to hold our third floor addition back 15’ from the façade, and leave the “historic” façade from 1958 intact. The image below shows the existing condition, a typical “Potentially Historic” façade. There are thousands of houses like this built in the late ‘40’s and ‘50’s; these are not your famous San Francisco Victorian era Painted Ladies that do require protection and preservation.
Through this method, we saved time up front, however we convinced the client that they would spend over $1M on the remodel and still end up with a dumpy façade. They agreed to a façade remodel which took six months, but the project will be better for it. The existing massing of the façade was maintained to avoid the neighbor notification process as illustrated in the image below.
Another project had four massing reductions of a rear and top floor addition. The first was after the required “Neighbor Pre-application Meeting,” which happens before we submit for any permits. We reduce the massing to show the Planning Department that we are working with the neighbors. The second and third reductions were at the request of the Planning Department. The fourth was the result of over two months of back and forth with a neighbor. After all of these reductions, and 14 months after the original submission, we initiated our 30-day notice to neighbors, and on the 30th day, a protest was filed by another neighbor, which pushed us to a Planning Commission hearing.
What key moments in San Francisco’s recent history could have led to more useful permitting policies?
I think this is impossible to say. It is a highly political, complex process that continually adds to the complexity of approvals. No single event does it. A former supervisor, who is against growth, sued the City saying they were not properly enforcing the state environmental laws, leading to the more restrictive historic review. The strong rent control laws and tenant supporters have a huge impact on all land use policy. There is also a brewing controversy about gentrification in the Mission District, a dramatic increase in housing costs, and displacement of the current low income population. The planning department’s goal is now to place a moratorium on all new multifamily housing, allowing time to study the effects of this growth. Only in San Francisco would they stop new construction in the worst housing crisis in 10 years.
How is San Francisco finding a balance between preservation and gentrification?
Not very well. Buildings that the average person would never consider historic are preserved, the development process is stalled and expensive, and housing needs are not being met. We always get our projects approved and they are almost always unapologetically modern. It just takes perseverance, time and money. In an attempt to slow change and gentrification, the system slows growth and increases costs, leading to more income disparity.
[Laidley Residence by Zack | de Vito]
How are housing needs being met in San Francisco for the demographics that aren’t wealthy or that don’t have the luxury of time for the permitting process?
They’re not, really. Gentrification is inevitable and hard (if not impossible) to control. Our current system has a mix of publicly and privately funded affordable and low income development. The publicly funded projects are pretty traditional, low income housing built by non-profit developers using public funds. We also have a code requirement that for all privately funded housing projects over nine units, the developer must provide a percentage of the units as “affordable.” These affordable units can be on site or off-site. What is never discussed is that the developer isn’t really paying for the affordable units; all of the other units pay for the affordable units, so housing costs increase to pay for the affordable units. I would love to do a small, affordable, market rate, multi-unit development, but the costs to do it are so high that it’s not possible. The small developer is forced to sell at the high market rate cost to recoup the high cost to develop.
What repercussions are the overreaching permit requirements having on the inhabitants of San Francisco?
It clearly adds to the income disparity. Only the wealthy can afford to buy and then remodel. Who can afford to buy a new house that needs work, (in good neighborhoods fixer-uppers are now $1,000,000 and up,) then hold it, often empty, for 8-16 months, while they get a permit? People are afraid to rent a home out temporarily as the rent control laws make it too easy for a tenant to take advantage of the landlord.
Are some homeowners choosing to bypass the current permitting requirements in order to remodel or maintain their homes?
People make decisions all the time to do only interior improvements, or additions within the massing, like a basement, to avoid the long planning review process. Clearly, work gets done without permits to avoid the hassle altogether.
What is San Francisco doing right in urban planning?
There is new legislation to allow in-law units on single-family (RH-1) lots, and another to allow increased height limits, thus increased density, in certain neighborhoods (usually commercial corridors) if the developer makes the added units affordable.
Where does the regulatory process make sense? Where is it wasting tax dollars?
California in general, and San Francisco in particular, is over-regulated. I believe planning is used as de facto growth control. Our mayor is on the war path to build more housing, promising to build 20,000 units by 2020. He’s obviously never tired to remodel his own house. Anytime you have a project in for review for over a year, far too many people are looking at it and spending too much time on it. The permitting timeline is too long and the fees are too high. In the end, the outcomes never seem to be much different than if they’d spent 60-80% less time. The process in place that allows neighbors to complain about code complaint building is a farce that again takes time and costs money and rarely creates significant change from what is originally proposed. The Planning Department attempted to change this procedure a few years ago and a few members of the Board of Supervisors were adamant that the neighbor input was sacrosanct.
What advice do you have for a younger, smaller city like Seattle?
• Avoid implementing rent control, I believe it backfires and hurts more than helps.
• Create a system to allow for smaller, low impact project to receive an accelerated approval process.
• Allow for increased density in logical places.
On a recent trip to Seattle, we were amazed at the amount of construction. A little research showed us Seattle is building roughly 7,500 units/year. In San Francisco, we are lucky if we build 4-5,000 units/year. The number of mid-scale, four to five story, 20-40 unit mixed use projects in Seattle was refreshing. They are everywhere, adding housing, increasing neighbor commercial, vitalizing commercial strips, etc. We should be doing the same in San Francisco.
[Photo via theurbanist]
What are the dangerous indicators of administrative paralysis that Seattle should be aware of?
Be wary of new regulation, fight it at every turn. I recently saw a rally supporting rent control in Seattle-don’t go there. The housing stock suffers and it creates turmoil between owners and renters, landlord and tenants.
A big thanks to Jim Zack and Zack | de Vito for taking the time to thoughtfully answer our questions and provide some guidance for our growing city.