Battle lines shift over proposed highrises in SF historic districts

Despite law to protect Northeastern Waterfront, state rules allow projects to move forward

Battle Lines Shift Over Highrises in SF Historic Districts
San Francisco Board of Supervisors' Aaron Peskin and Mayor London Breed with 955 Sansome Street (San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Getty, Handel Architects)

Developers can move forward with three housing towers in San Francisco’s Northeastern Waterfront, despite a new law to preserve the historic district from dense development.

The builders filed plans under SB 330, allowing plans for a 267-foot highrise at 955 Sansome Street, a 206-foot building at 1088 Sansome and a 140-foot development at 875 Sansome to proceed, the San Francisco Business Times reported.

The state law effectively freezes the zoning in place at the time a project is submitted.

The San Francisco Planning Department confirmed that each of the applications had vested development rights under SB 330, though each must still be approved by the city.

The city’s Board of Supervisors have been in a tug of war over some of the city’s oldest neighborhoods as it tries to meet a state-mandated goal for 82,000 new homes by 2031.

In late February, the board passed the measure introduced by Board President Aaron Peskin to impose density limits in several historic neighborhoods on the Northern Waterfront. Peskin, a potential candidate for mayor, said the law was needed to protect century-old buildings.

He also said the ordinance was inspired by the proposed highrises he deemed too tall for the historic districts. 

He said he worked with Mayor London Breed to upzone Downtown and the northeast neighborhoods through adaptive reuse legislation last summer, but didn’t realize that the local changes could be combined with state law to build “270-foot towers in historic districts.” 

Last month, Breed vetoed the law, accusing Peskin of trying “to destroy housing production.” 

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A week later, the supervisors overrode the veto, saying that politics, not policy, were behind Breed’s motives to upzone the historic districts for development.

The legislation will change the way new proposals can move forward in the Northeast Waterfront Historic District, which covers 10 blocks along the Embarcadero, as well as the Jackson Square Historic District, which covers five blocks east of Columbus Avenue and north of Washington Street. 

Since last year the historic districts have been subject to what’s known as form-based density, which doesn’t set a limit on the number of housing units, but looks at what’s appropriate parcel-by-parcel. Peskin’s ordinance sets the two historic districts back to traditional numeric density, which caps the number of units per acre. 

“It is my fundamental belief that we can grow this city without destroying it,” Peskin told the Business Times. “We can reuse and adapt great San Francisco buildings without ruining the character of our special neighborhoods.”

Aralon Properties has proposed a 24-story, 132-unit tower at 955 Sansome. Former Department of Building Inspection official Angus McCarthy, backed by billionaire Michael Moritz, has proposed a 19-story, 132-unit highrise at 1088 Sansome. Both are in the historic district.

N17 Development has proposed a two-building, 71-unit project at 875 Sansome, just outside the district.

Corey Smith, director of the pro-growth Housing Action Coalition, which opposed the density limits, said anti-housing groups “weaponize historic resources to, in their minds, ‘protect’ the neighborhood against new housing.”

“There are multiple ways to preserve history. It’s not always ‘we have to keep the same physical structures,’’’ Smith told the Business Times. “Especially in the current environment, where we need to build more housing, ‘we have to keep historic things the exact way they were’ is bad policy.”

— Dana Bartholomew

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