San Francisco Voters To Approve Waterfront Height & Density Exceptions For Individual Projects

A June 4 Washington Post Wonkblog post reported that voters in San Francisco, California, have given themselves the possibly unique right to approve height and density exceptions in the city’s waterfront area for each proposed project.  The vote changes the dynamics of the city’s land use planning and could establish a precedent that is enacted elsewhere in the country.

Fifty-nine percent of voters supported Proposition B, the evocatively named Waterfront Height Limit Right to Vote Act. The basic idea behind it sounds democratic: If real estate developers want to build denser or taller than has historically been allowed on property now managed by the Port of San Francisco — a part of the city with height limits regularly zoned around 40 feet — they’ll have to get approval straight from the voters to do it.

In theory, this takes power from generally unpopular developers and places it in the hands of the public instead. In reality, however, it yanks influence from a very different group: city professionals whose full-time job it is to weigh the insanely intricate implications of new development for affordable housing, property-tax coffers, economic development, public benefits, transportation infrastructure and more.

The article noted that Proposition B imposes significant new hurdles on developers and introduces a high level of uncertainty into the process as the decision can now be influenced on unrelated outside factors.

The fate of new developments that do go to the public will hinge on the same questions at play in any ballot measure: What else is on the ballot? Who is funding the public campaigns for and against a project? How much money are they spending to do that? And who will actually turn out to vote? (In a city of 840,000 people, only 90,000 actually weighed in on Proposition B.)

Besides further politicizing and creating greater uncertainty in the development process, the article noted concern about the impact on affordable housing.

Local government has to pay to put on these votes. Developers will have to invest more money into projects that will now entail an expensive ballot campaign. Those costs, inevitably, will be baked into the price of new housing —  if it’s ever built.

“The worrisome aspect of this for housing affordability is very, very real,” [American Planning Association (APA) Director of Policy Jason] Jordan says. The APA had similar concerns about a failed constitutional amendment in Florida a few years ago — the “Hometown Democracy” amendment  — that would have turned more decisions about development growth over to voters.