San Francisco Planning Department working to clear path for real estate projects

The cranes currently dotting San Francisco’s skyline are just the beginning of the building boom, and The City is working to clear hundreds of projects that are backlogged in the planning process.

There are 462 projects in varying stages of the planning and approval process, according to Joanna Linsangan, a spokeswoman for the Planning Department. About three-quarters of them are in the early stages and the rest have received approval.

The department has been working to guide the projects through the approval process, but Mayor Ed Lee has proposed temporarily adding staff to the agency to clear the backlog.

Eric Tao, the managing director of AGI Capital, which has a housing project in the pipeline, said the Planning Department has improved over the years, but additional staff would help move projects through.

The economic recovery and booming real estate and rental markets in The City and the region are leading to an increase in demand for development, Tao said.

“Our efforts to improve investor confidence in our city and spur economic growth and jobs have resulted in more construction in San Francisco,” Lee’s spokeswoman Christine Falvey said. “You can see it from the 26 cranes dotting the skyline.”

Linsangan said the increase in applications started in July 2012. Tao said many developers had projects waiting in the wings for an economic recovery.

“A lot of people stopped building for a few years,” he said.

Tao said the credit and lending markets improved in 2011, and the increase in projects now is likely due to those plans being updated and submitted for approval.

The additional projects are expected to bring in about $6 million more in fees for the Planning Department, Linsangan said. Lee introduced legislation last week that would allow the department to use the additional funds to hire temporary staff to clear out the paperwork. Funds also would be used to install efficiency measures at the office and to digitize planning documents, Linsangan said.

Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, and urban policy group, said the more bureaucracy that is included in the planning process, the more expensive things become.

“If you ever see a way to make the wheel of government work better, you should take it,” Metcalf said.

He said developers still have to pay for fees associated with the land during the planning process, a cost that can be passed on later.

“That is basically money that is just an anchor, making housing more expensive,” Metcalf said.

Falvey said The City must respond to the increase in demand that has built up in the planning process.

“We have to properly fund the Planning Department to keep up with case reviews and new permits so that we can be responsive to the needs of people who want to help our city grow,” Falvey said. “We are using fee revenue to pay for this temporary increase in staff capacity.”

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