A set of twenty-four (24) proposed Urban Design Guidelines intended to establish a consistent set of expectations, goals, values and qualities by which future developments in San Francisco’s mixed-use, commercial and downtown districts could be consistently evaluated and reviewed – in terms of how a proposed building or project would impact and support the character of San Francisco’s existing City fabric – have been drafted and will be presented to San Francisco’s Planning Commission on January 11, 2018.

The high-level guidelines as proposed, with respect to Site Design (S), Architecture (A) and Public Realm (P) considerations:

S1. Recognize and Respond to Urban Patterns
S2. Harmonize Relationships between Buildings, Streets, and Open Spaces
S3. Recognize and Enhance Unique Conditions
S4. Create, Protect, and Support View Corridors
S5. Create a Defined and Active Streetwall
S6. Organize Uses to Complement the Public Environment
S7. Integrate Common Open Space and Landscape with Architecture
S8. Respect and Exhibit Natural Systems and Features Architecture

A1. Express a Clear Organizing Architectural Idea
A2. Modulate Buildings Vertically and Horizontally
A3. Harmonize Building Designs with Neighboring Scale and Materials
A4. Design Buildings from Multiple Vantage Points
A5. Shape the Roofs of Buildings
A6. Render Building Facades with Texture and Depth
A7. Coordinate Building Elements
A8. Design Active Building Fronts
A9. Employ Sustainable Principles and Practices in Building Design

P1. Design Public Open Spaces to Connect with and Complement the Streetscape
P2. Locate and Design Open Spaces to Maximize Physical Comfort and Visual Access
P3. Express Neighborhood Character in Open Space Designs
P4. Support Public Transportation and Bicycling
P5. Design Sidewalks to Enhance the Pedestrian Experience
P6. Program Public Open Spaces to Encourage Social Activity, Play, and Rest
P7. Integrate Sustainable Practices into the Landscape

San Francisco’s Urban Design Guidelines would also apply to larger developments in residential districts, in conjunction with San Francisco’s existing Residential Design Guidelines. And if adopted in February as tentatively scheduled, proposed projects would then be required to comply with the guidelines in order to be approved and permitted.

In the words of Planning, design quality isn’t intended to be a luxury but rather a core value of San Francisco. And with the adoption of a consistent set of design guidelines for evaluating new developments, and clear expectations, the intended result would be “more compliant projects at project initiation, fewer design iterations, shorter approval time, and higher quality projects overall.”

We’ll keep you posted and plugged-in.

32 thoughts on “Guidelines to Direct the Look and Feel of San Francisco”
  1. Great! So a NYMBY can object that a new development does not ‘Coordinate Building Elements’ (A.7.). Then it’s up to the developer to proof that the building elements are coordinated to fit the ‘core values’. Sounds like longer and more costly permitting processes to me.

    1. No. In fact, as projects would be vetted according to the Guidelines prior to approval, and the criteria for said guidelines are being clearly and consistently defined, it would be more difficult, not less, to successfully challenge a project which comformed.

      1. That would be true, if the criteria or the guidelines were actually clear or consistently defined.

        “Coordinate Building Elements” and “Harmonize Building Designs with Neighboring Scale and Materials” indeed.

          1. Clear as mud. The detailed explanation will be a godsend to NIMBYs. Just wait for the challenges because a project does not “Recognize and Enhance Unique Conditions”. What are “Unique Conditions”? Good question!

      2. You claim that this document can help confirming projects avoid challenges. This would be much easier to believe if we could point to a past challenge and project amendment that would have been avoided had this document been available to designers from the start. Are there any specific examples of projects where these loose guidelines would have helped?

  2. Did they crib this from a grad student’s charrette? Such meaningless drivel…

    And even then, some of it’s silly — “Modulate Buildings Vertically and Horizontally” – if that means each individual building needs to have varied heights, that’s silly; if it means that along a block, from building to building the heights *should* vary, then that’s downright ridiculous. From Back Bay to Hausmann’s Paris, and beyond, some of the most renowned neighborhoods have *uniform* scale development, “modulated … vertically and horizontally”.

    How much for this drivel, while the roads I commute each day are in such poor condition that they’re dangerous, even for bikes?

      1. Even the so-called detailed material is not quantitative or falsifiable. For example:

        “Sculpt massing to harmonize with the rhythm of adjacent buildings and add a human-scale.”

        This kind of thesaurus abuse can’t be useful in an engineering capacity and will be used as NIMBY ammunition. Which specific bullets in this 72-page committee wish-list would have saved time in the approval process had it been released last year?

        1. Sigh. My expectations left room to be pleasantly surprised, but this is worse. The glossary doesn’t even offer a precise definition of a city “district.”

          “Human-scale” is an adjective, and “a human-scale” is an absurdity.

  3. Architecturally speaking, these are pretty simplistic goals: many of those given to me during my first year architecture and urban design classes. Nothing terribly new.

    Important yes, but not really new.

    1. Perhaps. Yet a summary is worthwhile because good design is often forgotten. At least in my field we are constantly reminding designers to adhere to best practices learned as an undergrad.

      It is also good to define details specific to SF. The “consider bay windows” would not be found in guidelines for Jerusalem just as “use Jerusalem limestone” would not be found in this guide. And nobody cares about view corridors in Indianapolis.

    2. Agreed. “Design Sidewalks to Enhance the Pedestrian Experience”. That shouldn’t have be said. What’s the alternative? “Design sidewalks to be difficult and challenging to traverse”? No. No one is doing that. And sidewalk design is not that complicated. We might try to make it do – but it is not. And this doesn’t really add value where people want it.

      The average citizen in SF cares a lot more about the sidewalks covered in trash and smelling like poop than weather or not there is specialty pavement and rain gardens.

      It’s nice to have Planning articulate a vision for people who failed common sense design classes – but if the Mayor and the Supervisor’s want people to feel the City government is doing a good job accommodating all this growth – they might want to dedicate more departmental resources to the operational side of the streets.

      1. You might be surprised how often something as simple as a sidewalk entry is built intentionally messed up. The most common case is a large project sited on a street corner where the buildings present a wall against the street. Parking and entry are in the rear of the L-shaped configuration so walkers arriving from the intersection must walk around the back and through the parking to reach the entry.

        A much better alternative is to place a pedestrian entry right on the street. Barring that at least add a corridor from the corner through to the parking/entry in the rear. This sort of “mistake” happens frequently in the neo-urban villages popping up.

      2. ““Design sidewalks to be difficult and challenging to traverse”? No. No one is doing that.”

        I beg to differ. Look around the Lumina development for example (Beale St side). The sidewalks are massively wide (awesome!). But the vast majority of the sidewalk is taken up by planted areas, making the actual walking space quite tiny. The design is absurd and should never have been approved.

  4. Most of us have been required by our employer to go to some conference or seminar which we have reluctantly attended at some downtown hotel. Usually these events are attended by employees to satisfy some educational required by the state. During these things there’s first some sort of droning introduction with a slide show where the computer only works after somebody fiddles with it for 15 minutes while we wait, after which we are told to “break off in groups” and produce some sort of plan or schedule based on the theme of the conference. We know it’s all useless but we produce the required list with our mind really focused on the work piling up on our desks back at the office and with our eye on the clock so we can bolt out the door to avoid the lines at the fast food restaurants near the hotel.

    When we get back from lunch, all sleepy and cranky, each of the broken-off groups presents their plan. These plans are simply regurgitations of what the conference host wants to hear. The points are non-specific and dry and utterly useless to real life. Nobody really understands the points and we don’t really learn anything. When we get back to the office the next day, we take our notes, the plan and the reams of literature from the seminar, and we recycle them.

    I look at the Planning Department guidelines list and it looks just like something out of the recycling bin the day after a seminar. It’s all non-specific, simplistic and not applicable to real life. It has all the appearances of busy work produced so the Planning Department can show somebody that they did something besides attend hearings. I don’t understand any of the points.

    Now can the Planning Department get back to catching up the work that piled up on their desks after we recycle the list of guidelines.

    1. Your paragraph sort of describes my yesterday. The new California General Plan Guidelines are 490 pages! That does not include the links in the online version to data, examples, etc. The presenters (who was actually quite good) had no access to a computer, so we were spared a powerpoint, at least. I was able to look at their powerpoint from another seminar on my Samsung 🙂

      Also see your specific points. The problem is modern architects have to balance the demands of The Compound from architecture school, the realities of the National Automobile Slum design focus even in SF, and a hyper expensive and hyper NIMBY market.

  5. The illustrations and commentary such as “X can do Y” are a useful statement of principles. Where it goes wrong is when it strays into “should”s…which is not possible for a general guideline to say what “should” be done in the thousands of specific unknown circumstances the guidelines are supposed to cover. Then it becomes a formula for meddling by the frustrated non-architects at the Planning Department and the NIMBYs.

  6. Better to have some rules than none.

    Problem is planning has not adequately supported the SF general plan. Or seriously penalized improper and poor designed home rennovations or add-ons like gates and metal entrances / excelsior now has “bird-cage” add ons and removed green front and backyards due to lacking review and enforcement. We have to have review or the nicer older doors get tossed and crappy HD or quick install new doors end up ruining the architectural buildings worth keeping.

    There are even quite a few buildings on this site shown that could use a good architectural design review and critique…

  7. Pretty vague.

    One thing the City should do (and won’t) is to prevent the combining of lots, and maintain a maximum parcel size.

    SF’s character has a lot to do with the scale at which it was built. Having narrow parcels with a variety of owners has character. Corporate-managed megablocks is about as antithetical to that as you can get. The default planning commission response to that is artificial breaking up of facades, something totally superficial and meaningless.

    1. You cannot build any density at all by maintaining 25 or 50 ft wide lots. Each individual building needs two sets of stairs for egress, an elevator, lobby etc. etc. On larger lots you get some economy of scale which helps to keep construction costs much lower per door.

  8. Does anyone else see the appalling CYA aspect of this?

    Pretty much each item on the list is a notion *the exact opposite of which* has been standard operating procedure up to this point and pipeline-wize going forward. Every corner plaza opportunity presented by a former gas station has been filled with a canine tooth of an ugly, sightline view killer. “The hub” appeared out of nowhere to cram ugly towers into the low architecture of mid market and civic center. Building after building has violated every basic tenet of creative design.

    To travel to Amsterdam or Paris these days is the practically weep at how well the planning function and leadership has served the city. Here we get a build-out akin to a 3rd world sprawl of “anything goes” and a leadership that has been bought and paid for by out of town developers.

  9. The guidelines are excellent. The language provides a foundation for implementing good urban design/planning concepts. These ideas are not new or a secret. We just decided to abandon these concepts when the suburban form became the dominant social/political/ economic model. The concepts can be made more concrete by switching completely to a Form based planning code.

      1. No. I’m just an ordinary person. I wish I had the expertise to work as consultant or for the government in this field. I’m interested in the tools used to help create beautiful and functional urban neighborhoods. Alas, I’m to chicken to try a (big) career change.

    1. they are terrible and subjective and will likely lead to even more delays than we arlready have because planning can point to “following the guidelines” as reasons for delay.

      1. And for every new project, the developers will have to prepare a report/presentation/powerpoint demonstrating how they meet each guideline. In other words, $$$ and time.

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