How much democracy can land-use tolerate?

Observer of San Francisco waterfront

Observer of San Francisco waterfront

The biggest decisions in land-use should have broad public involvement.  Whether the decision might be the adoption of a general plan, downtown specific plan, or rewritten zoning ordinance, extensive public participation should be part of the process.  The involvement might be through a general vote or it might be through broad public input followed by the decision of an elected body.  Either way, our system of government demands that the public be involved.

At the other end of the scale, small and intimate development details, such as whether the bathroom counters are marble or granite, should be decided privately by the developer.  (I’ve known a few planning commissioners who seemed not to concur, but I discount them.)   These are marketing decisions to which the consumer can respond, but in which the general public has no legitimate role.

With the two ends of the spectrum defined, there’s a wide expanse of development decisions.  How tall can a building be?  What setbacks apply?  What size residential units should be provided?  How much parking should be provided?  What color should the cornices be painted?  How should the interior public spaces be decorated?

To deal with those decisions, we’ve devised a broad range of decision-making systems.  Zoning codes set standards to which most project details conform.  Warrants and/or variances may allow divergence from zoning codes.  Smaller projects may be subject only to administrative review.  Bigger projects may appear before design review boards, hearing officers, planning commissions and/or city councils, some of which allow public comment.  And that’s before we consider the role of court system which is occasionally pulled into the process.

As regular readers know, I’m not enamored with the current land-use entitlement system.  I think it imposes obstacles to urbanism that are unfortunate and harmful to our long-term good.

Nonetheless, the land-use entitlement system is a finely-tuned edifice to which tinkering should be done carefully and only with a well-conceived plan.

But a group of San Franciscans are taking a sledge hammer to that edifice.   They have proposed Measure B, which will appear on the June ballot.  Measure B will require a city-wide vote for any project that doesn’t conform to height restrictions now in place along the waterfront.  Forget the rules for changing the established heights.  Ignore the role of the Board of Supervisors.  If a developer wants to build a project one foot taller than the established limit, the project goes to the voters.

Propelled by an effective slogan “Let the people decide”, Measure B zoomed to a big lead in the early polls.  More recent polls show that the lead has diminished, which is fine because Measure B is a bad idea.

I’m not being dismissive toward the voters.  I believe much broad wisdom can only be discovered when the entire electorate participates.  But the electorate often struggles to make fine distinctions.  Is it reasonable to allow a building to exceed the height limit by five feet if it provides a well-configured public park at its base?  How about ten extra feet if the result is twenty extra low-income apartments?  Those are subtle questions that should be carefully weighed, not voted upon by members of the general public, some of whom will make up their minds by reading slogans on lawn signs.

Also, if we give the electorate the right to vote on building heights near the waterfront now, what other subjects might become subject to voting?  C.W. Nevius of the San Francisco Chronicle summed up this concern in his editorial of April 26.  “If this is such a good idea, why stop there?  Shouldn’t other neighborhoods be able to vote on height limitations?  Or homeless shelters?  Or Muni routes?  Or whether the Mayor should have soup or salad for lunch?”

In a follow-up editorial of May 24, Nevius makes another good point about Measure B.  In both its public face and its fundraising, only a few people are involved.  Those folks are likely to continue their interest in the development of the parcels affected by Measure B.  If the ballot measure passes, it’s likely that future developers who wish to exceed a height limit will need to make accommodations with these folks, after which the developers can tout the backing of the shadowy power brokers during the election campaign.

In our rush to take decision-making away from the back rooms at city hall, we risk putting the decision-making in the back room of luxury condos.  It wouldn’t be a good trade-off.

My opposition to Measure B doesn’t imply that I favor more height.  As I written before, it can be a design challenge to integrate people who live more than six stories in the air with the sidewalk where walkable urbanism must occur.

But the best urban solution can sometimes be three or four stories of zero setback mixed-use topped by a reduced footprint spire that contains another ten stories of residential space.  Vancouver is known for this style of urbanism.  If Measure B forces this type of site solution to a public vote, then urbanism suffers.

We need to make changes in the land-use entitlement process and we need to make them urgently.  But Measure B is a step in the wrong direction.  And I don’t want a bad idea to take root in San Francisco from where it can spread to the North Bay.

(Acknowledgement: I had no personal role in the 8 Washington project, the controversial proposed development which led to Measure B.  But I know and have worked with people who were involved.  I didn’t favor every detail of 8 Washington, but believe that San Francisco would have been a better place with it than without it.)

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at

1 comment to How much democracy can land-use tolerate?

  • C.W. Nevius has long been a supporter of whatever project City Hall wants. The reality is that many people in SF have rightly lost faith in the city’s Planning Department, which has increasingly acted as a facilitator for any and all development projects in San Francisco, including, for example, the ludicrous project that will allow 20,000 people to live on Treasure Island. See also the Parkmerced project, the Market/Octavia Plan, and the UC project on lower Haight Street.

    Those projects were okayed by the Planning Dept. and the Board of Supervisors. Contrary to the urban legend about San Francisco, the city has in reality been aggressively okaying any and all housing development in the city for some time now under the guise of “smart growth.” The only thing that slowed this process down was the Great Recession, not any organized opposition to building housing in SF.

    What people in the neighborhoods also worry about is the Planning Department’s adherence to the Transit Corridors theory that will allow the radical densification of any part of the city anywhere near a major Muni line.

    There may also be an initiative on the November ballot opposing City Hall’s aggressive anti-car policies.

    Proposition B is symptomatic of a city whose population increasingly distrusts its government to look after its interests.