What You Should Know About City Planning and Building Codes

All section numbers below refer to sections of the San Francisco Planning Code.

Grandfathered Features
You should keep in mind that for the most part, but not always, existing conditions on your property do not have the provisions stated below applied to them if your building was built prior to the time that these code provisions went into effect and if the portion of your property being analyzed is built with permits. The following provisions may, however, apply to portions of your property built without permits or beyond the scope of permits, once neighbors or tenants (existing or past) register anonymous complaints with the City. If portions of your property are built without permits or beyond the scope of approved plans, you must seek approval as if they were never built there, and today’s codes will apply to them.

Types of Use
The Zoning Use District describes how your property may be used. To determine what uses are permitted and at what densities, you must find out which Zoning Use District applies to your property. It is not wise to rely on the zoning stated in a 3-R Report. After obtaining this information, visit City Planning at 1660 Mission Street or call 558-6377 and give them your information, so they can look up your Zoning Use District.

Height and Bulk
Article 2.5 of the Planning Code describes the maximum building height and bulk that is permitted. The City is divided into Height and Bulk Districts that are shown on the Official Zoning Map. The allowable height for your property depends on which District applies to your property. The methods for measuring height are very specific and are unusual for properties on inclines.

The required number and dimensions of parking spaces are determined by the use on the property and, in some cases, by the zoning district and the amount of space occupied by the use. In all purely residential districts, one parking space is required for each living unit added. This soon may change as the City is discouraging off-street parking on the theory that with fewer parking spaces people will own fewer cars. Another important parking rule is that once required parking is provided, it cannot be taken away unless you have been granted a variance. Projects that involve any reduction in the number of required off-street parking spaces, whether in a building or an open area, are specifically forbidden, unless a variance is granted.

Usable Open Space
Usable open space refers to the amount of outdoor space that must be made available to each dwelling unit. While usable open space may be provided in the rear yard, these are two separate requirements. Open space may be provided in yards, balconies, decks, roof decks and/or court yards.

Rear Yard Setback or Rear Yard
Rear yard setback or simply “rear yard” refers to an area (usually in the back of a lot) where you cannot build any structures. In residential districts, the rear yard is required to be kept open on every story, not just on the ground floor. In all districts there are certain exceptions called permitted obstructions (such as certain kinds of decks and small garden structures) that may be built in parts of the rear yard. Parking is not permitted in the rear yards.

Side Yards
Side yards refer to the area on the sides of a lot that are required to be kept open. Side yards are only required in RH-1(D) [single-family detached house] districts.

The General Plan
The City has a General Plan, which is required by State law to guide future development. The General Plan consists of broad policy statements that are implemented through the more specific zoning regulations in San Francisco’s Planning Code. All proposals are evaluated for conformance with General Plan policies.

Design Review
In the case of a building permit application for new construction and alteration of residential buildings in RH and RM districts, and recently in certain commercial/industrial districts, the exterior design of buildings is reviewed by Planning Department staff for compliance with the department’s “Design Guidelines.” Apartment building owners may not realize that even the replacement of original wood windows with metal windows may not survive Planning Department scrutiny. Generally, no demolition permits are issued for buildings not in imminent danger of collapse, unless an approval of a replacement structure is obtained. An alteration is defined as any change in use of a building or an increase to the building envelope of a residential building or buildings in neighborhood commercial zones (Section 311 and 312).

Neighborhood Notification
Section 311 and 312 requires the Planning Department to notify your neighbors of all building permit applications that seek the demolition or exterior alteration of buildings in residential (and certain commercial) zones before the department approves the permit. This notification to neighbors is responsible for most of the discretionary review cases heard by the Commission.

Discretionary Review
The Planning Commission may elect to review a project that has a pending building permit application, if the Commission believes the alteration of the building could have detrimental effects on the community, even if it complies with all codes. This is because it may be out of character given its immediately surrounding buildings. Any citizen can also request such a Planning Commission review. This discretionary review power, though originally intended to be rarely used, is used very often by today’s Planning Commission. The Planning Commission decides to exercise its discretionary review power by majority vote after a public hearing. In addition to the neighbor-initiated process, the department staff itself may initiate such a Commission hearing for certain types of projects (for example, all mergers of dwelling units).

M. Brett Gladstone