Building permits to add a new roof deck atop a single-family home or little residential building in San Francisco can currently be approved “over-the-counter,” without the need for a Residential Design Advisory Team (RDAT) review that they might have to go through roofer companies (learn more) nor requiring any pre-application meetings, neighborhood notifications or public hearings. And neither the size nor amenities of new roof decks are effectively restricted.

But said permits can be challenged by way of a Discretionary Review (DR). And with the number of requested DRs related to new roof decks on the rise, San Francisco’s Planning Department has been directed to develop a new set of official policies, “to strike a balance between allowing for the reasonable enhancement of outdoor open space on the roofs of low-density residential buildings, which will improve livability in a dense, urban setting, while protecting the quality of life for adjacent neighbors.”

And next week, Planning’s recommendations for the establishment of an official roof deck policy will be presented to San Francisco’s Planning Commission for review, including the four key items outlined below:

1. Size: A total maximum deck area of no greater than 1/3 of the building’s roof area.
2. Setbacks: A minimum 5-foot setback of deck guardrails from all building edges except the rear building wall.
3. Access: Limited to an internalized staircase or roof hatch or one minimally sized stair penthouse for multi-unit buildings if required by Building Code.
4. Appliances: Fixed cooking, fire pits, hot tubs, showers and other plumbed appliances would not be allowed.

And following feedback from the Commission (and public), Planning Department staff is then slated to draft a formal resolution which, if adopted, would establish San Francisco’s official roof deck policy and restrictions. We’ll keep you posted and plugged-in.

36 thoughts on “Plans to Restrict New Roof Decks in San Francisco”
  1. I fail to see how #1 serves any of the stated objectives: if someone w/ a 2000gsf roof wants to have an ~1000gsf deck – so hypothetically lets say a 30’x40′ deck on a 40’x50′ roof – why is that worse than a 10’x30′ deck on a 20’x40′ roof (60% vs. 38%) ?? They both have the same 5′ setback…which I would assume is the main issue.

    1. This 1/3 size limit makes no sense! And it is hypocritical and detrimental to having more open space in the city.

      Look, some balance is important, so have the setbacks to protect neighbor privacy. But the goal should be to create more open spaces in a crowded dense city. Two examples come to mind for me:

      First, If someone has a 1500 sq ft roof, then to only allow a 500 sq ft deck makes no sense. So much unused wasted space up there. If that roof is 30 ft by 50ft, with the setbacks on 3 sides aside from the backyard, that makes it 25 ft by 40 ft, so 1000 square feet. For no good reason, that 1000 sq ft deck with 5 ft setbacks on neighbor facing sides, gets trimmed to 500 sq ft – again, for no good reason. That is hypocritical and detrimental!

      Second, If someone has a huge roof, 2400 square feet, they can still create a nice grand 800 sq ft deck. But if you have a 500 square foot roof, you can only have a 167 sq ft tiny deck? Financial discrimination?

    1. So does this mean that permanently installed fixtures are no longer allowed at all, or no longer available on over-the-counter deck permits?

      1. “The Department recommends adopting a policy whereby projects deemed to comply with the thresholds may continue to be approved over-the-counter if there are no other Planning-related issues or proposed expansions to the building.

        Permit applications routed to a planner for other reasons that also are within these thresholds will not trigger [Residential Design Advisory Team] review, while those that do not comply will be reviewed by RDAT on a case-by-case basis and may be reduced in scope or deemed acceptable based on the surrounding context.

        In the event of a DR hearing, a summary of compliance with this policy will be appended to the staff report. In addition to the controls for deck size and separation, the prevalence, location, and size of other related decks in the immediate context shall be established and considered before approval.”

  2. How about we abolish Discretionary Review and replace the busybody Planning Commissioners who are abusing it, instead?

    This is another step back, further restricting what can be built in the wealthier, majority homeowner areas of our city while east side, majority renter communities are asked to shoulder almost all of the growth and development.

  3. Wow this is absolutely ridiculous. Sad. I would think it [would be] be encouraged. No hot tubs? What is the logic?

      1. I’ve known a bunch of people with hot tubs. Everybody uses them a ton for the first year and then it’s once or twice a year thereafter. This is nuts.

      2. I believe what you mean is that it would make roof decks absolutely useless, so no one would every build one again…

    1. Hot tubs are very loud. Have you ever had a neighbor turn on the jets while you were sleeping nearby?

      The people who use hot tubs are even louder. They speak in raised voices to be heard over the noise of the jets without realizing that they are being loud. In my opinion, this is the one part of this regulation that makes sense, along with the limit on adding to a building’s height with stair access to the roof.

  4. Once you’ve got your roof deck, you sure don’t want the neighbors to have one because it would allow them to watch what you are doing up there.

  5. regardless of the merit of roof decks, this is such a hypocritical move. the planning department has been pushing more residential open space as well as their better roofs policy for years. this just makes it even more impossible to comply with every little ticky tacky planning dept ask. totally absurd.

    and in the draft policy, it says no sightlines between roof decks and the street — not only does that make for boring, flat-faced streets, but it’s also in direct conflict with all their silly little street diagrams. uhg.

  6. Instead of spending resources and time on such restrictive policies , they should work on something on how to get the approvals of the existing housing

  7. Roofs without decks are such a total waste of space. We should be encouraging more use use of roofs to create usable open space, gardens, seating, whatever. What is the benefit of unused tar and gravel??

  8. Does anyone know if any noise or nuisance related ordinances govern roof decks? I am all for roof decks, but some of my neighbors go out to chat and drink at 2 am. They wake me up. But it is hard to call the cops because how would the police even get into the building and onto its roof? And even if they did, talking loudly on one’s roof under everybody’s windows (a dense neighborhood in NE San Francisco) is not a crime, is it? Just uncivilized as hell. And I hate it.

    1. I would think they would first phone. If they get no response, then I guess they would do whatever they do in non-emergency enforcement cases…what do they do now if you’re throwing a noisy party on your first floor and refuse/fail to open the door??

    2. Unless your neighbors are playing music loudly or having a really raucous party, it is unlikely they would be in violation of any noise ordinance. If you can simply hear them chatting, well, the same would be true if they sat in their living room with the windows open at 2:00 AM (which I have experienced in years past with some apartment neighbors). You are simply describing inconsiderate behavior.

      Being rude generally does not amount to unlawful behavior. That said, there is also truth to the old saying, “that is life in the big city.” You have chosen to live in a very densely populated large city, not out in the country. So, you have to be tolerant of a certain level of noise, though I am not sure exactly how much noise your neighbors make at night. Have you tried speaking to your neighbors in person and explaining that their late night chats keep you up at night, and asking them to quiet down?

      1. Seems to me this would only work if the people talking loudly and drinking at 2am are in fact your neighbors, that you speak their language and they are willing to be considerate and quiet down. If the people talking loudly and drinking at 2am on the neighboring roof deck are tourists renting a home as an AirBnB-type illegal hotel in a residential neighborhood, then none of those assumptions might be true.

        Lots of people who are only in town for a few nights to have a good time aren’t interested in being considerate. They’re interested in maximizing their experience.

        I think owners wanting to preserve their options for running an illegal hotel explains some of the more indignant comments on this thread about the policy proposal. If building a roof deck is an attractive “amenity” that will allow one to increase the asking price on AirBnB, then of course illegal, unlicensed hotel operators…sorry, “hosts”… don’t want the city restricting their ability to offer it.

        1. Thank you to all commenters for the advice and perspectives. I think all of you are right to some degree. It is a matter of being considerate, not law. Frequently the offenders have been one-night visitors. And yes, living in a dense part of any city requires a degree of tolerance for the noise we humans generate — a tough one for light sleepers like me. I am wedded to my earplugs. ? I do wish landlords (and the City!) would restrict the roof decks to certain hours, as mine does. It seems to work. Anyway, thanks for the suggestions.

        2. Thanks for pointing out the short term rental connection.

          So it’s not so much “that’s life in the big city” as “this is why we can’t have nice things”.

  9. So putting in a pool on top of three detached structures like the Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore is out?

    Okay, I better enjoy the heck out of that roof deck then.

  10. It is unfortunate that the city feels the best answer to the problem of discretionary reviews is to further restrict the planning process, and in this case for something that currently appears to harm very few people.

    It used to be that planning guidelines were designed to make buildings safer and protect the commons. You had to make sure every bedroom had a working window; you had to make sure the second floor would not collapse on the first floor in an earthquake; you couldn’t build something so tall that it denied sunlight to your neighbors. Now we arbitrarily draw restrictions about who can have a built-in grill and who cannot, what architectural styles are acceptable and which are not, and other nonsense that does nothing to improve life for anyone.

  11. And planning department staff piss and moan how overworked they are, and the rest of us complain how it takes months to get a staffperson assigned to a project, how it takes years to fo through the process. I know what…lets make up some new totally unnecessary rules, processes, and procedures, and slow everything down even more.

    Your neighbors are loud and rude at night? Speak to them. When this happened to me, I simply told them I could hear every word they were saying, and I am sure they didn’t want that. They shut up.

    1. Unless your neighbors are investment bankers or hedge fund managers and they are recommending stocks to a ultra high net worth client over the roof deck (in which case, I like written transcripts as well) I would agree with you.

      The majority of overheard conversations are seldom interesting or convey useful information.

  12. If you can’t have a railing within five feet of the building’s edge, why to they allow balconies on, well, any building?

    This is just stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

  13. As someone else said, flat roofs without decks are a waste of space, but I would add that they are also a waste of great potential for the city to create open spaces for its residents (and here is the juicy part) where the residents shoulder all the work and cost of the build too! But the city wants to make that harder?

    We should encourage more roof decks. The only rules should really be ample setback from the neighbors walls with windows (5 feet is plenty) and maybe the no roof appliance rule. The other rules make things worse not better. Streamline the process, don’t bottleneck the process.

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