When the original 2004 “Planning the City’s Future: An Agenda for Change” report by the San Francisco Planning & Urban Research Association and the American Institute of Architects San Francisco came out, both the municipal Planning Department and the Department of Building Inspection were at extremely low ebb.
Three years ago, public support, staff morale and the level of trust from the Board of Supervisors were at unprecedented bad levels. Since then, efforts within both departments have gone a long way toward improving the situation.
Nevertheless, much remains to be done. Planning and Building Inspection are at ground zero of shaping the future of San Francisco through a period when a significant amount of housing units are under construction or in the pipeline, including large-scale, higher-density developments.
Yet, despite a record 11,000 units approved in the last two years, San Francisco still suffers the highest housing prices in the nation. There is a shortage of units the majority of its citizens can afford to purchase; and keeping lower- and moderate-income individuals and families from fleeing The City has become increasingly problematic.
This week, SPUR and AIA San Francisco released an update to “Planning the City’s Future,” analyzing how the two departments have changed and what is most needed now. Amid numerous nondramatic nuts-and-bolts recommendations about how to speed up decisions on permits and variances, several underlying priorities can be discerned.
Reforms at the Department of Building Inspection are ahead of the Planning Department. DBI Director Isam Hasenin arrived from San Diego earlier this year and promptly began knocking heads to end cronyism and corruption at what had been a deeply troubled agency investigated by the FBI and blasted by a grand jury. By all accounts, the department is acting professional and efficient again.
At Planning, under the Willie Brown regime, the entire staff and Planning Commission had marched to the mayor’s tune. But during a stretched-out two years of being recalled as interim planning director, Dean Macris has restored administrative trust and empowerment to his staff and vastly improved departmental morale.
Now the major problem is that the Planning Commission routinely second-guesses the detailed findings of the staff, and the Board of Supervisors routinely second-guesses the commission. This leads to frustrating and costly delays in getting anything built, while feeding a renewed climate of municipal corruption. Developers believe they cannot get their large projects approved unless they contribute generously to supervisors’ campaign funds.
But boding better for the future is that San Francisco has finally made an offer to hire a permanent planning director from another city, and reportedly the final negotiations are under way. We hope The City’s new chief planner will be another hard-nose like DBI’s Hasenin and put an end to the present epidemic of second-guessing on projects.