Market Street Towers Plan Still Faces Fight

by J.K. Dineen
San Francisco Business Times

It took seven years, 51 public hearings, and a last-minute plea from San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, but developers in the Market-Octavia neighborhood finally have a set of rules they can follow. At least for now.

On April 5, the Planning Commission passed the Market-Octavia Better Neighborhood plan, a piece of legislation covering 379 acres including Hayes Valley and portions of Mid-Market, Mission Dolores and Duboce Triangle. The plan could result in 4,000 more housing units over the next 20 years. It allows taller buildings and increased density near Van Ness Avenue and along Market Street, but reduces heights in areas like Hayes Valley.

Not all of the plan has been finalized. The Board of Supervisors still has to endorse it, and a key part of the plan — which would allow for a half dozen 400-foot towers near the intersection of Market and Van Ness — is on hold as the Planning Department looks into increasing the percentage of affordable units required on those sites.

Still, the vote was a historic moment for the San Francisco planning community, said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of SPUR. Metcalf said the plan, originally floated in 1999, was a response to the developer-driven planning of the late 1990s. “We saw the Better Neighborhoods planning process as a way to get away from project-by-project planning,” said Metcalf.

For builder Brian Spiers the plan’s passage gives him the confidence to go forward on his eight-story, 115-unit building at Market and Buchanan streets. The plan doesn’t radically alter what Spiers can do, but it helps. But it gives him 15-foot ceilings on the ground floor retail, attractive for restaurants, and greater density for another 45 units.

Polaris Group Principal Chris Foley, who is working with developers on three Market-Octavia housing projects, said the commission’s vote sends the right message.

“It tells the development community that we’re actually in the business of building things,” said Foley.

Whether that includes 400-foot towers remains to be seen. Planners argued that increasing heights around the desolate and dangerous intersection would calm traffic and bring thousands of new pedestrians to the sidewalks.

“If we lose tall buildings at the corner of Market and Van Ness, it would be really sad because it’s got great transit, it’s a very important corner in the city and a very logical place to go tall,” Metcalf said. “If San Francisco wants to keep the Western neighborhoods free of new buildings, a very modest trade-off is to allow more height in places like Market and Van Ness.”

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