News & Research Archive

West SOMA Planning Code Amendments Released

Nov 16, 2011

In 2004 the Planning Commission removed from the Eastern Neighborhoods rezoning process the area of the City referred to as Western South of Market (Western SOMA). The boundaries are 4th and Folsom to 4th and Townsend; 7th and Townsend to 7th and Bryant; 10th and Bryant to 10th and Division; Division and 12th to 12th and Mission; Mission and 7th to 7th and Harrison; Harrison and 5th to 5th and Clemintina (ending at 4th and Clemintina). The Commission declared that the rezoning of Western SOMA would not be considered again until the area had undergone a comprehensive community-based planning process. The Western SOMA Citizens Planning Task Force has nearly completed this planning process.

Proposed Planning Code amendments for the Western SOMA plan were released this month. The documents include information on rezonings to allow residential and office use, and information on design standards and stabilization policies. New acquisition and development opportunities may result.

New commercial districts will run along 9th and 10th Streets from below Mission Street to Harrison Street. A new neighborhood commercial district will run along Folsom Street, the new "main street" of Western SoMa, from 7th Street to 10th Street. Remaining properties north of Harrison Street in the Western SoMa area will be rezoned to residential and mixed use districts. Most of the area below Harrison Street will be rezoned to SALI - an extremely restrictive zoning district similar to the PDR (industrial) districts of the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan. The north side of Townsend Street from 4th to 7th Streets will be rezoned to an office mixed-use district.

The amendments encourage residential use north of Harrison Street, but in the commercial districts few non-residential uses will be permitted above the second floor. In the area's current older residential districts, non-residential use is either prohibited or only allowed up to a 1:1 floor area ratio. The general mixed use districts limit retail space (in most cases) to 10,000 square feet. No density limits apply to residential uses in these districts.

Following the example of the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, office use is proposed principally to be permitted in buildings designated as landmarks, contributing to a historic district, or eligible for the California Register - except in the SALI district. In non-historic buildings, office space is permitted on first or second floors in the commercial districts above Harrison Street, and without limitation in the office mixed-use district. Office use will not permitted in all other districts.

Residential and office uses will not be permitted in the SALI district. Additionally, retail uses there will only be permitted up to 25,000 square feet with conditional use authorization; industrial, entertainment and arts uses will be less restricted.

Proposed impact fees per square foot have not been established nor included in the Planning Code amendments, but it is likely that the Planning Department will apply the same fees used in the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan. Planning Staff has calendared adoption hearings for the beginning of 2012.

A "stabilization policy" would monitor (and then perhaps limit) the approval of new market rate projects, based on a maximum ratio of market rate units to affordable housing units and jobs to dwelling units. Although no stabilization policy is found in the proposed Planning Code amendments, the Board of Supervisors may choose to enact such a policy after the Western SoMa Plan is approved. We do not believe such a law would be legal without a "nexus" study and other planning work; at this time, we know of no such nexus work being planned. Some say the City Attorney's Offoce is skeptical of this policy's legality as well. Certain design standards (which are area-specific) have also been proposed for the Western SoMa area and will apply to large and small new development.


As San Francisco looks to add more residential units to the City's housing stock, the City needs to embrace new and creative strategies for adding homes to existing established neighborhoods. Legalization of illegal units has been rejected by the citizens on the West Side over and over. One innovative solution (especially for single family homes lots with no illegal second unit) is to add small residential cottages (also called "in-law suites") into existing backyards. This development model is being promoted by New Avenue, a company that was started by Kevin Casey while he was earning an MBA at the Haas School of Business and which he as worked at full time as since graduating in 2009. Of course this development model will be challenging in San Francisco, as there zoning rules that typically do not allow structures to be built in rear yards. Either a rear yard variance would be needed or the current law allowing rear yard garden sheds of small dimensions could be modified to allow these new cottages in dimensions greater than sheds are allowed. The stand alone cottage offers many benefits, and the City would be wise to promote this model of small scale development.

These small cottages would allow existing neighborhoods to add new residents, and the modest size of these cottages would make them more affordable than the large homes they share the lot with. Since these cottages would be more affordable than the existing homes in the neighborhood, the cottages would help add to the diversity of existing neighborhoods. Seniors, young adults, and middle-income homebuyers are often priced out of established neighborhoods, which contain large single family homes. According to the company's website (, the New Avenue homes can be built for a lot less than $100,000, which would make them available to many income levels.

Since the cottages are free-standing, they would allow existing homes in established neighborhoods to remain intact. Typically today, if a home owner wants to add square footage to accommodate aging parents, they will create an addition to their home. This process can be long, complicated, and costly, especially because many older homes require extensive historic review even for a small rear addition. And because a large number of times, neighbors fight small additions at great expense to an owner.

The New Avenue homes are designed with sustainability in mind, and they are very energy efficient. The City of San Francisco would benefit by creating Planning Code regulations to incentivize small rear yard cottages; this innovative concept is just the type of smart growth that the City should promote.

Should you have any questions on this, please feel free to contact Brett Gladstone Esq. or Susanne Kelly Esq. at (415) 434-9500 or by email to:

M. Brett Gladstone

B.A. 1980 Harvard University, Magna Cum Laude
J.D. 1983, Duke University
Member, Lambda Alpha Society
Member, SPUR

Susanne B. Kelly

B.S. 1994 Santa Clara University
J.D. 1997 University of San Francisco School of Law
State Bar, Real Property Section Member

Disclaimer: This newsletter is not a substitute for legal advice and, since the facts of all matters differ, readers are cautioned not to take actions without seeking the advice of a real estate attorney. The issues discussed in this newsletter are not intended to be legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is established with the recipient. Readers should consult with legal counsel before relying on any of the information contained herein.


Written by: M. Brett Gladstone


Starboard TCN is posting this article on its website and blog with the approval of Brett Gladstone Esq.

This is a periodic newsletter from the law firm of Gladstone & Associates, San Francisco, a real estate transactions and land use firm providing commentary on new land use trends in San Francisco.

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