Building Heights and Birds

With no specific policies, procedures or standards currently in place, on Thursday San Francisco’s Planning Commission will vote on whether or not to initiate discussion for a planning code ordinance specifically related to bird-strikes and building design.

The proposed Ordinance would amend the Planning Code to achieve the following: a) reduce building‐related hazards for San Francisco’s resident and migrant bird species; b) establish consistent building standards for creating bird‐safe buildings; and c) provide certain exemptions from these requirements.

Concern over potential bird-strikes has recently arisen during review of a few notable buildings such as The Exploratorium, Treasure Island, and 555 Washington—with varied impacts on the project, including costly changes to the building design late in the process and ultimate rejection of a project in part due to public concern raised about bird-strikes.

Legislation, if adopted, could help not only reduce potential bird-strikes but also establish consistent standards on the issue so that developers and architects are not surprised by last minute requests to address the issue of bird‐strikes during the design review and approval processes.

Okay, so perhaps it’s not just for the birds.

45 thoughts on “It’s (Not Just) For The Birds”
  1. Absurd. If you care about the bird population, you start by getting rid of domestic cats. They move a lot faster than buildings and kill a lot more birds. Hundreds of millions per year, as estimated by the American Bird Conservancy.

  2. ^I think it makes more sense to add more dogs, thus leading to a decrease in cats and an increase in birds.
    Maybe a few packs of wild wolves or dingoes in Golden Gate Park too.

  3. Why not protect birds both ways: mitigate the cat factor (one easy way: bell on the collar) and construct buildings that birds will collide with less.
    The report contains an interesting example comparing the old transbay terminal to the proposed new replacement. The old terminal was pretty safe for birds though the new design could potentially create a new hazard.

  4. Next time you hear about “brutal budget cutbacks” and “cutting to the bone”, remember this. The City spent untold resources to develop guidelines for designing tall buildings that are safer for birds. Birds. Not pedestrians, not airplanes, not bicycles…birds.
    But wait, there’s more. Now they will continue to spend untold resources to evaluate proposed building designs with these guidelines. They will likely designate a “bird” expert (birdbrain?) to review project applications. And architects will spend time designing and attorneys will spend time drafting language and consultants will spend time evaluating…birds.
    How many dead birds have you seen on the sidewalks downtown in your entire life? How many dollars are we spending per bird? Why?

  5. This is unbelievably ridiculous is so ridiculous it sickens me. The only possible favorable outcome is if the Planning Commission puts it in the code that no building need take concern of bird collisions in any way. Anything else is a farce.

  6. Sometimes I wonder if Fox News somehow subsidizes and initiates these absurd things just so it can then mock the “only in San Francisco” nuttiness.
    This is GOLD, I tell you, GOLD!!

  7. Adding dogs doesn’t reduce the number of cats. It just ads more pee/poo in Duboce.
    Cats know no leach nor boundaries. They own all the backyards. Where I live they jump from one backyard to another coming back home only for food. The same thing with dogs and you’ll get animal control right away. Cats are kings.

  8. The ground and lower floors are the most hazardous areas so clearly all buildings should be entirely subterranean.
    The city is also considering banning the sale of goldfish because of “inhumane” conditions– they are considering this after doing a year long study!
    Next, I think we should fund a study of the impact of tall buildings on goldfish. Btw, where are the people who posted several months ago about how efficiently the City was run and anyone who said otherwise clearly was not “in the know.” Currently a 4.4billion unfunded pension liability. . . but glad we are funding these studies.

  9. Yet another dumb San Francisco overreach. How often is this actually an issue? Do birds run into TransAmerica frequently? I’ve never seen bird carcasses around there. No bird has ever fallen on my head on the few times I’ve eaten lunch in that area. Am I missing the larger trend?
    555 Washington should have been built. A great building in the right place. For all those NIMBYs who think tall buildings shouldn’t be allowed because it doesn’t match with the rest of the neighborhood, 555 Washington clearly matched with this neighborhood.
    The city government should work on making the city better and growing the city’s economy, not worrying about petty things like this that produce overbroad regulations that don’t make sense and entrench bad policy decisions.

  10. Seems to me that if a bird can’t get out of the way of a building (or a cat for that matter) it deserves its fate.

  11. How ridiculousness!!! Next thing you know we’ll be wasting incredible amounts of effort (engineers, biologists, etc) preventing fish from being killed by hydroelectric dams, or snakes from being crushed by BART construction trucks, or trees from being torn down for new parking lots. Insane I tell you, and only a fool would consider this a worthwhile investment of public resources. I’ll bet these same “do-gooders” would’ve been up in arms a hundred years ago ago the bison, and they’re doing just fine — look, I saw a bunch just the other day in Golden Gate Park of all places. There are MILLIONS of birds, and you expect me to change the color of my window tinting to save a few from headaches?
    Manifest Destiny, I tell you. Don’t go telling me what to do, you lousy liberal pansies.

  12. The homeless have to eat too; keep building, taller, SF has a huge population to feed and the cats don’t like competition.

  13. I think this is a valiant effort to save one of San Francisco’s most elegant but missunderstood creatures- The Pigeon. In fact maybe this ordinance does not go far enough! maybe a long tail rodent protection ordinance to promote the well being of another of this city’s helpless creatures. The city is just being prejudicial to rats by choosing only to protect pigeons & goldfish. 😛

  14. Dammit marko! You beat me to it.
    I was going to suggest that the city adopt a policy of strategically placing hibachis next to tall buildings so the homeless could grill themselves up some sustenance from the expected avian holocaust.

  15. Most of the comments here are not very well informed. The reason the Migratory Bird Treaty exists is because people have been counting the losses and becoming concerned. There were potential liabilities even before this law made them explicit. Now the government has acknowledged conflict and provided standards. By simply paying attention and making some basic changes to details like window coatings and trim collisions can be reduced. The cost for developers is minimal, as is the cost to planning for developing these standards which are the same as what other cities are doing.
    Criticisms here are mostly coming from the usual broken scripts. Developing these rules is not costing the city a fortune. Obeying these rules should not necessarily cost developers anything, and it protects them from liability. If bird kills were not a problem then an international treaty limiting them would never have been signed.
    It is really sad how little understanding city folks tend to have for damage they can do to the environment. Cape weed, for example, has plentiful local alternatives, but people plant it anyway. Various animals, including but not limited to birds, eat the fruit and deposit the seed in park lands surrounding the city. The result is natural forest understory ecologies being devastated and natural species wiped out. There are areas visible from the Wunderlich park trails that used to be diverse that are now nothing but scraggly ivy. There is no particular reason for this other than city people just don’t care to use similar plants that aren’t destructive invaders. It would be really easy to care, and some places pull it off with no sign of economic catastrophe as a result.

  16. @Mole Man
    No bird species is going extinct because San Francisco has buildings, therefore this is just a stupid waste of time and money. There are much bigger threats to wildlife, and much more important issues for San Francisco. This is a distraction and a waste.

  17. The Migratory Bird Treaty? This one?:
    Wtf does that have to do with this?
    Again I ask, what are the stats here — how many birds are killed on a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, whatever data you have, basis?
    I’ve seen things like this:
    Apparently the biggest threat is the first 12 meters of the building. That doesn’t explain the 555 Washington situation exactly.
    The irony, is that given the crappy planning department here, it’s probably better to have this in the planning guidelines than not, just because the process is otherwise so arbitrary that buildings get killed at late stages without an easy way to recover.

  18. @Mole Man
    According to the report itself, we are talking about 10 birds per year per building (which seems high to me). San Francisco builds a handful of buildings every decade. This is simply not a problem worth worrying about.

  19. I am going to speak for those who have no voice, the birds. What you all assume are accidental bird strikes are actually innocent cries for help for the seriously depressed bird population. Many of the older bird population choose to terminate their tired little lives by flying into buildings rather than end up as prey to some other fast, younger animal.
    What we actually need is to address the chronic homelessness in the older bird population. The City need to develop places where they may spend their golden years warm, protected and messing up their own nest.

  20. There’s two issues here: the guidelines to reduce harm and the laws that compel builders to comply with the guidelines.
    How many architects have given a thought to minimizing the harm to birds? Why not try employing cost neutral design features to reduce the hazard?
    There’s no problem with publishing guidelines and guiding builders to make good decisions. However the laws that back the guidelines that are controversial. What are the laws here?
    And yes using “bird hazard” to fight 555 Washington is simply an expert NIMBY ploy. It was one of many darts thrown against that proposal. The opponents could care less about birds or any of the other supposedly negatively impacted except themselves.

  21. there is just so much over-reaction on this site by people who know little but are quick to criticize. In fact NYC and Toronto (and a bunch of other major cities) already have guidelines just like these. In fact bird strikes is a concern. In fact, over the past several years, a high percentage of the peregrine falcons in SF have died from collisions with those glassy high rises downtown that you all drool over. Peregrines are endangered species. And putting together a little policy paper did not require vast “untold” amounts of city resources. get over yourselves. If you actually want to see development move forward, you should want this. Then people who bring down projects (e.g. 555 Washington) over CEQA issues related to bird strikes will not have a foothold on that issue anymore.

  22. Bird brains take flight,
    convinced that you’re right…
    …that up there room is tight.
    But down here its just blight.
    And your interest in real plight,
    is quite slight.

  23. Hmmmm, there are around 800 peregrine falcons in California total. Not sure how many there are in San Francisco, but there is a very high profile pair on the PGE building on Beale Street. (They recently had peregrinelets . . .err, sorry eyas is ther term for those in the know but I’m an ignorant fellow). They’ve been occasionally in the news for years. I think one died a couple years ago in a building strike. Yes, that is a very high percentage.
    This is not to make fun of endangered species and the little peregrinelets [sic] are quite cute. I spend a lot of time outside and happen to like birds– or most of them. But how many would you guess are in SF total? Pretty tough to have building codes around a handful of peregrine falcons (I know there are many other species but you cite the peregrines specifically). In the much longer study the SF planning commission wrote in addition to the suggested ordinance (without spending untold sums and of course being very efficient), they cited that between 100 million and 1 billion birds die annually from bird strikes. Good data.
    Actually I can’t believe I wasted the two minutes to write this . . .

  24. This URL was the first I saw in a Google search. The numbers are sort of dubious, but let’s take them at their face value for the sake of argument.
    This ornithologist claims 1 billion and claims that 200 die per day from the skyscrapers he monitors. To go back to 555 Washington, if the vast majority of birds are not dying from skyscrapers (as the Toronto report I linked above says — bird strikes at 12 meters and lower is the most common), then again we have a false claim by NIMBYs that screwed over a great project. This is changing my mind in favor of these regs, so that these horrible people like Peskin’s group don’t block other projects our city needs with false claims. As I mentioned, if we take bird strikes out of the picture by planning guidelines, the NIMBYs can’t use it any more for their BANANA campaigns.

  25. here’s my issue:
    People are allowed to stop projects because CEQA is broken, proposed solution: regulate buildings for bird strikes.
    If CEQA is broken then we should fix it, not create new rules that will be abused. You can’t fix a broken leg with a band-aid.

  26. I appreciate the logic that codifying this specious issue will make the process more structured and blunt wild NIMBY claims. But, the more legitimacy you give these specious claims, the more you promote new ones. Why stop at birds? The other problem is that it really will line the pockets of the consultants, lawyers, and planners and add more time to the process. It was a desperate claim inspired by the Wild Parrots producer that we should not validate with the government stamp of approval.

  27. “If CEQA is broken then we should fix it, not create new rules that will be abused. You can’t fix a broken leg with a band-aid.”
    Sure, I agree, that would be better. But short of eliminating these procedures and not having design by committee, I’d rather take the fire out of these illegitimate complaints. I don’t see the former happening. The bird strike complaints are entirely unfounded; but to block more legitimate buildings because you can get the uninformed sheep rallied against it is far worse.

  28. “The other problem is that it really will line the pockets of the consultants, lawyers, and planners and add more time to the process.”
    I agree. Enough of this and it collapses on itself, which would be a good thing. See the state government of California for an example. We need a constitutional convention, not another proposition.

  29. The problem is that this will not stop illegitimate claims. They will either shift to another broken element of CEQA, or find a loophole in this change (which is very likely to exist in my opinion). These rules tend to be poorly thought out and create more problems than they solve. In my opinion this regulation is not even solving a problem, as empnor said, it’s only validating ridiculous behavior.

  30. “These rules tend to be poorly thought out and create more problems than they solve. In my opinion this regulation is not even solving a problem, as empnor said, it’s only validating ridiculous behavior.”
    I agree with you in principle, and I’m not fully convinced that it’s good to put this into the codes as I said, but I’m not sure what the solution is otherwise. Probably moving out of the city, to be honest. This place is dysfunctional and terribly run, and I’m not seeing changes on the horizon. It might be because it’s what the voters want, but what happens here seems to be highly incompatible with the city’s stated goals too.

  31. Why not try employing cost neutral design features to reduce the hazard?
    They are. The state of the art in bird strike mitigation is in newfangled coatings on the windows that look the same as the old coatings but warn off birds who see a different spectrum. Because all the windows big enough to be a concern are getting high tech coatings anyway primarily for U/V light moderation the expected additional cost is zero. So people here are getting their panties in a twist over something that is not expected to cost extra money.
    It is really sad that people claim to be upset about how the city is run, but say that ignoring issues and being afraid of costs that aren’t there will fix things. The way to a better run city is to treat the details like they matter. focusing on ideology and being reactionary isn’t going to bring about more professional city management.

  32. so what you are claiming is that a coating on a window turns a building from invisible to a bird to visible.
    Even if that’s the case, the claim that it’s no cost is very suspect as well. Many buildings are not built with coatings on the windows. This is especially true for developers that would attempt to build housing that is affordable by design. This is just another little expense, that makes it that much more difficult to build truly affordable housing in SF rather than government subsidized housing.
    Lastly, the reality is that most of the world, like 99.999%, is building free, so even if this were 100% effective, was applied to every building in SF, and cost nothing (none of which I believe) it would still be pointless.
    What I find sad is people wasting time and money on irrelevant issues while ignoring things that are truly important.

  33. “Lastly, the reality is that most of the world, like 99.999%, is building free, so even if this were 100% effective, was applied to every building in SF, and cost nothing (none of which I believe) it would still be pointless.”
    It doesn’t need to be 100% effective to to be valuable. I doubt that there’s an expectation to retrofit existing buildings anyways. And not all of the world’s cities lie along an important flyway.
    I don’t understand the automatic rejection to this proposal. The cost neutral choices should be adopted. What is the downside of that? I can see the problem of requiring changes that really increase the cost though. And that comes down to how this proposal makes it into the building code. Do we know anything at all about that yet? This could much ado about nothing.

  34. The point is that even if it were 100% effective (which it can’t be) it STILL WOULDN’T be valuable.
    I don’t believe it will be cost neutral, in fact it already isn’t, we are paying the commissioners, they are spending time on this, that’s a cost right there. I’m sure there are plenty of other hidden administrative costs as well
    I also do not believe that there is no difference in the cost of whatever measures they are proposing. If it cost nothing to implement, then the people who make the affected products would be incorporating them, as additional features at no cost are always a benefit to a manufacturer.
    If I saw a bunch of developers here saying they support this, then I might buy it.
    The automatic rejection is based on similar proposals that happen in SF. Circumcision, goldfish, etc are the reasons for instant rejection of ideas like this.
    If the people promoting this wanted to establish a fund with their own money encouraging adoption of this I would be all for it, but it always seems to be these efforts are pushed by people with nothing to lose of their own, expecting others to foot the bill.
    All this will do is make it more difficult to build in SF, which will be made up for with more suburban sprawl, which is much more harmful to the environment (birds as well as other life) than any development in SF could be.

  35. “So people here are getting their panties in a twist over something that is not expected to cost extra money.”
    No, it will cost extra money because of the extra bureaucracy, lawyers, architects, etc. needed to comply with this. The materials aren’t the only cost. When you create a regulation like this, you also create the machinery to enforce it and the machinery to comply with it.
    Meanwhile, I’ll watch out for falling birds next time I have lunch near TransAmerica.

  36. “If it cost nothing to implement, then the people who make the affected products would be incorporating them, as additional features at no cost are always a benefit to a manufacturer.”
    That assumes that the manufacturers, builders, and their customers recognize the value of the feature. If you read the standards doc you’ll see a lot of stuff that isn’t widely known or even intuitive. At minimum this doc educates architects and builders.
    Sure there’s an extra cost in the bureaucracy and hopefully that is balanced against the value of protecting birds. If you read the doc you’ll see that one of the specific concerns is for endangered species. Just because there’s a bureaucratic expense doesn’t mean that it is not worthwhile.
    For comparison much of the national electrical code specifies effectively zero cost design requirements. For example simple residential circuits should always use the black wire for hot and the white for neutral. Swapping the colors (or using the same color) is exactly the same cost. So why did they bother to codify this then? Why not let electricians have free reign to wire their projects without the costly bureaucracy? Well then you’ve got problems down the road when another electrician works on the building. Perhaps the value of a color standard wasn’t obvious in the early days of electricity and people learned the hard way.
    But maybe you’re right. Let the birds pool their money and fund the incremental extra bureaucracy.

  37. Here’s the deal: If it has real benefit, and no cost, some manufacturer will implement. Since it then has a benefit that their competitors don’t offer, at no additional cost, buyers will choose it. The competitors will either lose market share, or adopt the improvements.
    If a species is endangered because of SF buildings it would already be extinct. If it’s not endangered due to SF buildings then this will not help the species and is only a distraction from going after the real cause of it being endangered.
    Here’s another way how it’s not zero cost: It will require different chemicals and manufacturing processes to create these window films that will supposedly save all these endangered birds that have some how survived over 100 years of SF buildings, but are now suddenly about to go extinct. The chemicals are not free, and the process may require different manufacturing equipment.
    Simply repeating that it’s no cost doesn’t make it so.
    “But maybe you’re right. Let the birds pool their money and fund the incremental extra bureaucracy.”
    Are you implying that’s what I said? It’s clearly not, if you actually read my comment.
    Do you really think the electrical code and this are equivalent?
    If I actually believed this would be of any benefit whatsoever to protecting endangered species, I’d be OK with it, but it’s so clearly useless that there’s no way I can support it. It’s just another example of dumb SF political BS.
    There are such better ways to actually protect wildlife: reduce pollution, reduce habitat destruction, restore natural habitats and waterways. On an individual level you can add plantings that provide food and/or shelter for the birds.
    This idea will have no benefit. It will take years for even a tiny fraction of a percent of SF structures to be built under the regulation, but all new development will get slightly more expensive and difficult. It discredits legitimate efforts to protect wildlife with it’s stupidity.
    It is a complete waste of time and just another useless way for some fools to make themselves feel better at the expense of others, and there’s probably some people trying to sell these new materials who stand to make personal gains from it.

  38. Well of course the electrical code isn’t the same as this proposed bird strike ordinance. I only brought it up to provide an example of how the free market doesn’t necessarily adopt zero cost practices even if they provide a benefit. What it comes down to is the the free market places a very low value on wildlife. That’s why the Endangered Species Act was made law: to steer progress away from the path of destroying fragile ecosystems.
    I’m amazed that folks are upset about even spending money to develop these guidelines. The guidelines provide solutions and are good thing. They provide a way for developers to defend from NIMBY attacks on new projects.
    And much of this comes down to what the real costs are to developers. Of course it isn’t completely zero cost. Even if an architect spends five minutes looking up the specs for a glass curtain wall product that’s a little cost. I think a little expense is worth it but if the expenses prove onerous then I’ll oppose this bird strike ordinance too. If you really believe that a bird strike regulation will have no benefit then I’d encourage you to bring your analysis to the city.

  39. If a species is endangered because of SF buildings it would already be extinct.
    While human activity can cause some species can go extinct rather quickly, other species might take decades or centuries. And often enough, it’s not just one human activity that causes a species to go extinct (or endangered), but a multitude of human activities.
    But more to the point, older buildings didn’t use nearly as much glass as newer ones. So while it might not seem like much of an issue now, it can certainly become one as new buildings replace old. And for those who are suggesting that high-rise buildings are the issue here, note the diagram above: the bird collision zone is the bottom 60 feet of a building.
    While I agree that there are a lot more important issues to deal with right now, it’s generally a good idea to also focus on long term issues before they actually become a bigger problem.

  40. Thanks hmmm and MoleMan for your informative posts. The lack of care for birds expressed on this board is astounding and unseemly. Seems like the only species that matters is Homo Sapiens who are like locusts crowding out every other species on earth.

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