Editorial: Planning process supports inertia 

A disturbingly accurate analysis of why it takes years to gain approval to build virtually anything new in the Bay Area is featured in the January bulletin of SPUR, the San Francisco Planning & Urban Research Association think tank.

Whether it is private developers seeking to construct something on their property, or municipal administrators trying either to change or preserve a neighborhood’s character, the overall process is largely the same and can easily drag on for a decade. This holds true whether the projects or zoning restrictions under consideration are located in a major urban center such as San Francisco or one of the many small suburban cities along the Peninsula.

Open meetings to provide a channel for hearing public concerns are a necessary part of any construction approval process. Otherwise there would undoubtedly be much greater risk of private property being seized in questionable eminent domain procedures, or for highly unsuitable developments to be built despite the objections of neighbors.

But a built-in problem with this procedure is that citizens who like a new proposal have little motivation to continue in the discussion because urban planning is so tedious and confusing. This leaves only vociferous opponents motivated enough to participate for the long term. And in the notoriously argumentative Bay Area, just about any proposed change in neighborhood characteristics is likely to offend somebody.

Therefore a vacuum is created that officials, bureaucrats and consultants are happy to fill, brokering deals that obtain minor community benefits from those who stand to gaindirectly from the development. SPUR gives the current example of Rincon Hill, where occupants of new units must pay into a fund for creating a local park and community center, even though there has been no identifiable constituency demanding these amenities.

The SPUR article includes several straightforward procedural changes that could help update the system from "a tired 19th-century relic, more meaningful as a ritual than useful as a tool." For example, San Francisco and other cities could copy Oakland’s reasonable policy of not requiring costly and time-consuming environmental impact reports for small, fill-in residential projects of fewer than 100 units.

It is also a time-waster in most Bay Area jurisdictions that disputed single-family projects in full compliance with the local planning code can unnecessarily devour as much Planning Department time as a high-rise complex, if a neighbor complains about a few feet of remodeling expansion.

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Staff Report

Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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