San Francisco considers permitting improvements to speed housing construction

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California Construction News staff writer

With a goal of building housing faster, San Francisco has proposed improvements to the site permit approval process that would dramatically reduce development timelines by months or even years.

The change – part of the Mayor’s Housing for All initiative, which sets the goals and policies to allow for 82,000 new homes to be built over the next 8 years – will require legislation currently being drafted and will be introduced in the coming weeks after an April public forum and outreach to discuss the policy.

The city is inviting input and drafting legislation to codify these changes. The City plans to host a public forum for community input on April 19 and then have the proposal considered at a joint Building Inspection Commission and Planning Commission meeting on May 18.

If approved, the city would streamline the process for issuing site permits and reduce permitting times for new developments and major renovations.

Analysis of past projects show this change could have saved up to 65% on some projects. The time savings comes from moving intake, administration and approval of the design, environmental review, and zoning entitlements, according to the planning department.

This shift will allow for concurrent review by multiple departments, help resolve high-level design issues earlier in the process, and clarify a project’s post-entitlement process.

“To build the housing we need for our residents and for the future of San Francisco, we must produce faster, more transparent and less costly housing construction,” said Mayor London Breed. “Streamlining this approval process is a good start in our work to untangle the complicated bureaucracy that has unnecessarily slowed housing development for decades.”

Breed issued the Housing for All Executive Directive last month to fundamentally change how the city approves and builds housing, requiring the department of building inspection and planning department to assess permitting timelines, identify opportunities to reduce review times, and implement process improvements to speed housing delivery.

The proposal will bifurcate the current Site Permit review process to substantially reduce the overall development timeline by standardizing the process and eliminating redundant stages during project and permit review with fewer administrative steps, consolidated plan review, and reduced requests for revising a plan for code compliance by having all the relevant departments review a project concurrently.

With this narrower scope of review and a consistent, streamlined process, the planning department will be able to analyze projects faster, saving applicants time and money.

For example:

  • A large apartment building on Market Street could have reduced its approval timeline from 4.25 years to 2.3 years;
  • A condominium development on Tennessee Street could have shaved 1.5 years off the approval process – from 2.5 years to ten months, a 65% time savings.
  • A commercial warehouse on Indiana Street could have saved nine months, while a commercial condominium project on Stanyan Street could have saved ten months.

“This is a major improvement in how we review and approve major construction projects in San Francisco,” said Patrick O’Riordan, director of building inspection. “It’s a smarter way of doing business that is going to produce housing in less time, for less money and using a more rational process. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

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