Take a stroll around North Beach or Chinatown in San Francisco, and you’ll see many of the characteristics you would expect to see in two of the densest urban districts in America’s second densest city — well-traveled sidewalks, mixed-use structures with ground-floor retail, buildings built to the sidewalk and property lines, a streetscape activated by continuous street walls, and a minimum of dead space. But you’ll also see something that you might not necessarily expect to find — garages. Not just a few garages, but many garages, bespeckling residential buildings in every direction like a chicken pox. Garages are conspicuously absent from the even denser terrain located about 15 blocks to the south. But in the northeastern corner of San Francisco’s 3rd supervisorial District, garages — pockets of space that have, over the years, been carved out after-the-fact for automobiles, in a neighborhood with scant space to house them — are perhaps surprisingly prevalent.
Board of Supervisors President David Chiu has introduced, and the Board has subsequently discussed, legislation concerning garages in certain parts of Chiu’s home District 3. The legislation does not address existing garages, but rather, future garages that have yet to be proposed and installed. The need for this legislation is perhaps epitomized by the Ellis Act eviction sought against low-income seniors at the building on Jasper Place, in which one tenant committed suicide, and the advertisement for the property boasted of the property’s “potential for parking” — a cold swap of human being for automobile. But Jasper Place is just one case study of the more prevalent issue in parts of District 3, as well as other locations around the city: Ellis Act evictions, followed shortly by applications for garages to be carved out of the newly-vacated space. Examining Department of Building Inspection and Rent Board records more closely, it was determined that of at least 166 Ellis Act evictions carried out in recent years that were followed by garage applications, roughly half of them were located within District 3. And that is the problem that inspired this legislation.
At its February 9, 2010 meeting, the Board of Supervisors passed the ordinance on its first reading, with 7 ayes (Campos, Chiu, Daly, Dufty, Mar, Maxwell, Mirkarimi) and 2 noes (Chu, Elsbernd). The ordinance is expected to be finally passed at the Board’s February 23 meeting.
So what exactly does this legislation do? The first thing to remember is that it is limited to specific sections within Chiu’s District 3. Generally speaking, the legislation aims to address the problem of evictions that result in new garages — at once protecting affordable housing supply, while encouraging a livable city and supporting sound urban design principles. At the same time, it eliminates minimum off-street parking requirements in various parts of District 3. Here are the highlights:
1. Requires a conditional use authorization to install a garage in an existing building. This is really the centerpiece of the legislation. Someone seeking to install a garage in an existing building will have to seek a conditional use authorization in order to do so, and the conditional use then becomes the mechanism to ensure that the big policy goals are met. Section 303 of the Planning Code sets out criteria that apply to conditional uses generally. However, in addition to Section 303, this legislation imposes an additional list of hurdles that garage proposals must meet in order to be authorized. Garage proposals may not displace a residential unit, and there must be a record of no no-fault evictions for the past ten years. Curb cuts should be oriented to minimize the loss of on-street parking, and the new garage shall not take more than two on-street parking spots. The sidewalk must remain inviting for pedestrians and cannot deteriorate on account of the garage; specifically, it must be at least 6 feet wide, and may not introduce a slope greater than 2%. Sidewalks on transit preferential streets and neighborhood commercial streets may never be narrowed. The garage must also comply with other historic resources and design requirements, as applicable.
The legislation requires Planning to consult DPW and MTA (the other city agencies implicated in the garage approval process) about specifics of the garage proposal and ensure there are no glaring problems with it before the Planning Commission grants any conditional use authorization. Finally, please note that this more exacting conditional use process for garages only applies to certain areas: the North Beach NCD, the Broadway NCD, parts of Chinatown, and a new special use district also defined in this legislation (see #2 below).
2. Creates a Telegraph Hill-North Beach Residential Special Use District for the purposes of requiring a garage conditional use authorization (see #1 above), as well as to eliminate minimum off-street parking requirements (see #3 below).
3. Eliminates minimum off-street parking requirements and revises parking controls in Chinatown, the North Beach NCD, the Broadway NCD, and the new residential special use district (see #2 above). In Chinatown, the North Beach NCD, and the Broadway NCD, up to 0.5 parking spaces per unit is permitted by right, and up to 0.75 is allowed with conditional use. In the residential special use district, the controls are more relaxed: up to 0.75 is permitted by right, while up to 1.0 is allowed with conditional use.
4. Prohibits driveways altogether on important commercial and pedestrian street frontages: Columbus Avenue (between Washington/Montgomery and North Point), Broadway (between Mason and The Embarcadero), as well as alleys in Chinatown.
Both the new obstacles to garages, as well as the elimination of minimum off-street parking, are good moves in Chinatown and North Beach, because they push back and scrutinize attempts to build more storage space for cars. This is especially critical in dense District 3 neighborhoods, whose already clogged streets can scarcely take the hit to livability brought about by policies that encourage car use and ownership.
In some sense, there is nothing new about the good policy underpinning this legislation. Numerous provisions of San Francisco’s General Plan, coupled with recent City efforts at comprehensive neighborhood land use planning, have explicitly recognized that garage entrances and exits must be placed carefully, so as to minimize their interference with active neighborhood streets and maximize safety to pedestrians. But in another sense, this legislation is new — simply because many city neighborhoods do not yet enjoy the protection afforded by this more sensitive treatment of garages, even if they would benefit from such protection. The City’s approach to garage planning has basically been to not plan them — at least, not in a systematic fashion that reaches citywide.
In regard to that last point, this legislation is no different. The area of applicability contains a disproportionately high number of Ellis Act evictions that later result in garage production — but geographically, the area is indeed quite small: not even one full supervisorial district, but only parts of one. It is, as Supervisor Chiu put it, “narrowly tailored” to address a particular problem in a particular place. But even though the legislation does not take the City’s current piecemeal garage policy and transform it into a unified, coherent, citywide policy, it at least adds a dose of sanity to, and sets a model for, the garage discussion. My hope is that it will instigate a continued discussion throughout the city, and in the Planning Department, about the value of protecting affordable housing supply and making it difficult to allocate space for automobiles, all in one fell swoop.
While the legislation at issue here aims to block certain conversions of living space into garage space, there is a distinct, but related discussion also worth having, which is the mirror image: the conversion of existing garage space into housing units. Both discussions are valuable, because both potentially lead to legislative solutions that promise a less auto-dependent, more vibrant city.