Housing may be the hottest topic in Glen Park. Whether it’s sky-high sale prices, displacement of dear neighbors, a basketball court on Everson or the future of the BART lot, the Glen Park Association hears about nothing quite so much as housing.
Opinions vary—and strongly—from one person to the next, but there is at least one point on which Glen Park residents express unusually strong unity, even when they occupy very disparate positions on the NIMBY-to-YIMBY spectrum. It sounds like this: “Look, I know a parcel zoned for housing is going to be housing. But do we really have to have all these urban McMansions?”
This concern may seem trivial at first, even laughably so, but I don’t laugh when I hear it. Over time, so-called mega-houses shift public opinion against new housing, like so: “If every new house is going to be 4,000 or 5,000 square feet, maybe we don’t need housing so much after all.” The more cynical YIMBYs among us may say these folks are just NIMBYs looking for an excuse, but no matter their motives, the outcome isn’t helpful. Ultimately, these on-spec houses create more people who fight housing more, at exactly the same time when more people need more housing.
The GPA mission is not to oppose housing outright, which disappoints some folks. Part of our mission is, however, to help neighbors work with City agencies, including those related to housing development, and to help people most affected by new construction to engage with agencies in ways that may help them achieve the design outcomes they want. This is why you may see GPA board members, especially those who serve on our Zoning and Planning Committee, at 311 pre-application meetings with architects and developers; pursuing enforcement of posted permits with the Department of Building Inspection, and working with Public Works to help neighbors preserve significant street trees before and during construction.
In five years serving on the GPA, I have learned that neighbors who succeed in obtaining design changes by architects, developers and/or the Planning Commission are well organized, with clear, articulate suggestions. They also use certain tools, three of which you should know about.
The first tool is the Glen Park Association (glenparkassociation.org) website. Heather World monitors the posted agendas of City agencies for hearings and other developments that affect Glen Park. She then posts her aggregated, filtered findings on our website. It’s an immensely helpful service, and saves each of us having to wade through each agency’s postings for activity that affects Glen Park.
The San Francisco Planning Commission website has a Permits In My Neighborhood map that displays permits by Zip code, and allows you to zoom in and find nearby permits in your immediate area and beyond. When you hover or click on the dot for a permit associated with a particular property, project status information and supporting documents appear on the right side.
The third, more extensive tool is the 63-page Residential Design Guidelines, also provided by the Planning Commission. The document describes the Commission’s own strategies for preserving neighborhood character while adding housing. A section on Page 4 reads, “…all residential permit applications must comply with both the Planning Code and the Residential Design Guidelines” (emphasis mine). I am a fan of “both, and” language, and the design guidelines assure us we can have trees, backyard space, light between houses, internal block integrity, and more housing. I think there are times that the design guidelines could use some advocates, though.
While reading them, including a particularly helpful appendix of specific questions to ask of proposed projects, I considered four, new single-family spec houses near ours. They range in size from 3,309 to 3,685 square feet. By other neighborhood measures, however, we don’t have much to complain about. Nearby, one new single-family construction came in at 4,410 square feet, while a whopping 4,940 square feet is proposed for forthcoming single-family construction on Diamond Street. That’s a lot more than the less-than-1,000-square-foot tear-down it would replace.
I did not oppose or try to influence construction of any of the new houses around ours. (Okay, I did ask that they not be painted gray, a trend that makes Glen Park match the fog.) Personally, I want more housing, and was pleased that four single-family homes were replacing two, adding at least some density. I do wish each of these giants could house more people, though: If buildings must be so massive, at least let them be zoned to house more neighbors (which is not legal right now).
But in retrospect, if I’d known about the design guidelines sooner, how might they have affected feedback I could have given to project architects and developers? Page 14 indicated that a gut-remodeled house across the street should not have removed landscaping and added pavement, without adding new landscaping. I did not care for the stark look after shrubs were taken out, but it wasn’t just a subjective matter of taste: it’s a design guideline.
Pages 16-17, which cover rear yards, privacy, and light, brought two neighbors to mind, as did Page 26, about the height and depth of new buildings into the rear yard and their impacts to mid-block open space. While each of the two housing projects adjacent to our neighbors’ homes perhaps met design guidelines on their own, the cumulative effect between these projects cut our neighbors off from the rest of the block. Their homes are boxed in by high, new walls, with serious loss of both privacy and light.
These are all, it turns out, legitimate concerns I could have raised if I’d reviewed the plans in light of the design guidelines. That also would have helped me to articulate questions in language shared by stakeholders in new construction. We can’t always get exactly what we want, but these tools are worth a look anyway. They can support effective engagement with architects, developers and City agencies, and help the sometimes-subjective Planning Commission enforce its own standards. That is to the benefit of us all.
Stephany Wilkes is vice president of the Glen Park Association.