Have you ever wondered why it takes so long to get anything built in San Francisco? Sure, it takes time to secure land, financing, all those sorts of things, but it’s not just new homes that are being built. Sometimes you just want to add some dormers to your home. Which is all fine and well until the neighbors hear about it.
Why do your neighbors have outsize control over what you do with your home? Great question, I’m glad you asked! If you are doing something code compliant, who cares? Turns out lots of folks do, and they have the opportunity to object to just about anything here in San Francisco through the use of discretionary review (DR). For just $598 (or $0 if you run a neighborhood org!), you can request one. So, what happens after that?
Let’s use an example going before the Planning Commission this Thursday, 300 Darien Way, a modest home in the Balboa Terrace neighborhood, a historic district, because of course it is. On November 8, 2016, Marsha Tam and Nathan Ng held a pre-application meeting about plans to modify their home. On December 28, 2016, the owners submitted plans to build an addition to the Planning Department. From there, they worked with Preservation to find an amenable design, which is where the dormers were originally suggested. On January 3, 2018, the owners sent out a notice they were finally moving forward with the revised plans. All these notices go to any neighbors within 150 ft as well as any neighborhood organizations who request to receive them. On January 31, 2018, Emily Tam, their next door neighbor, filed a DR.
Among the highlights in the DR, Emily Tam alleges “The addition of several large dormers and the removal of the chimney makes this home completely out of character in Balboa Terrace” and “The sudden change in the building pattern will be visually disruptive. This development will remove the common rhythms and elements of architectural expression found in the neighborhood.” By far, though, the best statement is “Eliminating the back stairs would be changing another unique characteristic of Balboa Terrace homes.”
She spends a lot of time talking about the large windows as well as the project sponsor’s parents’ home across the street. If you are wondering what that latter point has to do with anything, so am I. 70 neighbors signed on in support of the DR. When it came up that a nearby home also had dormers added, she brushed it off as completely different. She also alleged modifications to her own home were completely different because it was originally a 2 story over basement.
By now, you might be asking yourself, why does Emily Tam care so much? That’s a great question as well, one the DR is less specific on. What I can tell you is she is the secretary of the Balboa Terrace Homes Association, and wouldn’t you know it, they are a registered neighborhood group. Which means this DR probably cost $0. So why not do it?
After dozens of pages from Emily Tam, we finally get to Marsha Tam and Nathan Ng’s response, which is a much more orderly 18 page document rebutting many of Emily Tam’s claims. They throw quite a bit of shade at Emily Tam’s own house remodel, where she did things like remove a chimney even though she complains about them planning to do the same and provide several examples of houses nearby with dormers. They also allege a common problem with many of these purportedly historic homes and buildings in San Francisco: the previous owners failed to maintain them and they require extensive work. In the end, they gathered 103 signatures to support their project moving forward as is, and several individuals commented alleging Emily Tam misled them to collect signatures against 300 Darien.
I’ve lost you, haven’t I? Why are all these people collecting signatures? Why are so many neighbors writing letters to stop this renovation? Why do we spend so much time doing any of this? The answer no one wants to say out loud is to protect home values. DRs are byzantine in their complaints and documentation, almost by design. I don’t blame you for not looking, it’s 192 pages long. Which raises an even better question: how do Planning Commissioners have time to keep up with all of these? This is not the only DR they will see this Thursday.
Yet the most galling thing about it all is the constant genuflection to neighborhood character. Both the DR requester and the owners constantly talk about all the character of Balboa Terrace and its homes. It’s a constant dance, doing just enough to please the neighbors and fit that ineffable character. When will we have enough character to house all the people of San Francisco?
We’ve got bigger problems to solve than whether or not some dormers on one house fit the neighborhood character or affront the Storybook English Style Cottage. And yet this is going before the Planning Commission on Thursday, a use of their valuable time. Even worse, though the Planning Department recommends the Commissioners do not take the DR, it is unpredictable what the Commission itself will do once it reaches them.
Some people just don’t want anything to change. But we must change, if for no other reason than cities are constantly evolving places. This process is not serving most San Franciscans, and I read very few DRs that have a purpose beyond protecting entrenched neighborhood interests. Ask yourself who has time to write these letters or collect these signatures. Or show up at the Planning Commission to testify about these sorts of things.
We have a planning code and a Planning Department for a reason. But what good is it if you follow the rules, work with them, and it’s still not good enough? DRs add months and years to projects, forcing all but the most financially secure from making even simple changes to their homes. Who does this process serve, and how is it making our city better? It’s beyond time we revisit the purpose of discretionary review. If it were up to me, I’d recommend they do not take DRs at all.
For now though, let’s at least hope they have sense enough to not take this DR on Thursday.
Note: After quite a bit of discussion and heated public comment, Marsha Tam and Nathan Ng's project was finally approved by the Planning Commission yesterday.