by JIM MEKO
The Planning Department convinced many of us who were involved in community planning to accept an additional five feet of building height in our recent rezonings. Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards, who recalls the promises made during the Market/Octavia process, requested an explanation. John Rahaim, the Director of the Planning Department, explained the intent to the Planning Commission recently:
“The intent of that provision, and that has been put in place now in many places across the city, the intent now is to provide an extra five feet of height on the ground floor, to provide a more generous ground floor, higher ceilings for retail space and a better proportion of the building along the street.”
However, there are a few developers who have discovered that this can be twisted into an opportunity to squeeze a whole extra residential floor into the same building envelope. An additional floor of market-rate housing translates into a lot more profit but to do so means providing little if any commercial space and produces residential units with 8 foot ceilings … like a cheap motel.
It would also requires an exemption from the Planning Department’s Residential Design Guidelines, which require that ground floor residences be raised at least three feet above sidewalk level (so people outside can’t look into your windows). If this policy was enforced, the math required to squeeze in that extra floor wouldn’t pencil out.
As a result, neighbors do not get the ground floor commercial space they were promised and, even as the units get smaller and smaller, they will also be producing shorter apartments that afford less privacy too. We are witnessing the creation of a brand new loophole.
Realtex, the Russian-owned development group, has four projects currently moving through the entitlement process, all of which try to squeeze in an extra floor. They’re located at 363 6th Street, 1335 Folsom Street, 1394 Harrison Street and most recently on the site of the donut shop at 5th and Harrison Streets.
Michael Yarne, the developer who tried to use group housing to weasel out of his affordable housing obligations, is now asking for an additional story too. Yarne’s project is across the street from the Eagle bar at 1532 Harrison. His promised contributions to an “Eagle Plaza” LGBTQ outdoor commemorative site are already falling short and were only meant to be a distraction from the impact of so much market-rate housing in close proximity to the noisy entertainment venue anyway.
Rich Sucre is the planner responsible for all these projects and he has been quite accommodating to these developers. This is a bait and switch. Rahaim’s words are unambiguous. They have lied to us.
(complete transcript, John Rahaim at the Planning Commission, Director’s Report, April 16, 2015):
“I wanted to discuss an item that came up two weeks ago, Commissioner Richards asked us to follow up, and that is the code provision that exists in many parts of the city including Western SoMa allowing for an extra five feet of height to be applied to the first floor of mixed use buildings. The intent of that provision, and that has been put in place now in many places across the city, the intent now is to provide an extra five feet of height on the ground floor, to provide a more generous ground floor, higher ceilings for retail space and a better proportion of the building along the street. That’s the primary intent of that five feet, in fact in most parts of the city one can only get the extra height if you do it on the first floor. Just to be clear that was the intent. I know there’s been discussion about some projects actually trying to use that to gain an another story in the building, there may be ways to do that, I don’t know, but the intent clearly of the code is that five feet be applied to the base of the building on the retail level.”