Architects design

Architects Design for People and Communities at the Same Time

In conversation with Ross Levy, Architect and Chairman of the Public Policy Advocacy Committee, which works with cities and local agencies to create more affordable housing and streamline permitting for communities. Words and photography by Jean-Philippe Defaut.

“We live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessities.” — Oscar Wilde

San Francisco, a city which prides itself on leading the world in technology. It attracts talent and wealth from all over the globe and has become a constantly evolving urban landscape. It is the most expensive city in the U.S.; a fertile place for creativity, forward thinking and entrepreneurship. With a concentration of residents earning well into the six figures, It also has a homeless crisis that is blatantly ignored(a story for another time). In SF, space is one of the last remaining commodities that people need to rethink, redesign and consume on a regular basis. Paradoxically, The City of San Francisco has yet to come up to speed with the pace at which things are moving. As one goes about rebuilding a home or developing property, it’s evident that the regulators are conflicted from within. They seem to be lobbying for a change in the law, that many believe contradict its own purpose. It is a pro-housing-anti-growth law that will impact property and a wide range of individuals and organizations: Owners, buyers, sellers, realtors, mortgage companies, developers, construction companies, contractors, interior and landscape designers, architects, and the list goes on…

On architectural law & communities

“We all commit to architecture. It’s good for everyone. It’s a public service and we work in a very public setting. We are leading edge and we are not interested in gratifying the wealthy or creating class warfare. We work with our client’s money, not just for it. That means we have to guide them wisely and collectively beyond fulfilling their aesthetic desires, contributing to a community without alienating potential.” — Ross Levy

“We have to take the blinkers off and manage egos on both sides of the fence, diplomatically,” says Levy. Supervisor Peskin’s proposed legislation is intended to revise and align the definition of demolition across The Planning and Building Codes, a much-needed clarification, but there are other aspects that more than one architect and their current, or prospective clients will take issue with. On the surface of the proposed legislation, it all sounds kosher: to preserve existing housing, recapture the value of expansion via additional units of housing and ensure compliance with and enforceability of, San Francisco’s Planning and Building Codes. But what this really means goes beyond that. In SF, most houses are old, built of wood and more importantly, are structurally unfit to survive a major earthquake. A proper upgrade generally means work throughout the structure, a scope that by the definitions included in this proposed legislation would be defined as “demolition.” Demolition requests require Conditional Use Authorization through the Planning Commission, a body that is already overburdened. Reviewing each and every small residential addition in the queue with downtown highrises and mass transit upgrades is clearly not going to alleviate the backlog or create housing in any meaningful way.

On the contrary, the proposal will lead to an exponential increase in the caseload, further compounding the issues of time and cost that make housing here unaffordable, to begin with, and penalizing families and longtime residents unfairly. Their proposed changes to the law will make it near impossible for anything to go ahead. By overlaying a series of compounding issues: demolition, preservation, housing and affordability, the legislation attempts too much and contradicts some of its better intentions.

The Planning Department has a different definition to the Building Departments’. In order to undertake a project, never mind complete it, one has to fulfill criteria in both planning and building regulations. Renovation always involves some level of demolition. The ‘don’t touch it’ or ‘leave it alone” attitude means nothing happens and this doesn’t help the Building Department maintain its standards, or The City to produce housing. If we want to preserve appearances, great. Honesty in construction is not saving an old building. Just not touching it is unrealistic, does not equal preservation and furthermore, it’s open to abuse. In a nutshell: the structural reality contradicts the Planning Code.

We need to agree on a method for recording how this structure appears currently so it gets put back exactly as it was. I also want to be honest and realistic about the construction of old wooden buildings. Just saying ‘I’m saving a piece of it’ is an out-and-out lie. No one does it, it’s a bad way to construct a building. It’s ridiculous. So let’s stop lying to ourselves, let’s stop lying to each other, let’s say what it is. If we like the appearance of historic buildings, let’s value that and not say that the only way to preserve it is just not to touch it because we need the upgrades, we want to make better buildings. No one is going to argue about that.We can work together to create a law and a system to record what was there and a standard to which you need to put it back. . — Ross Levy

Eminent domain across the city?

SF has recently seen its fair share of conflicts in developments with ‘monster homes’ reaching GodZillow(!) prices, not just due to demand, but also to process and time and a political process that anticipates and exacerbates acrimony. To support communities, what the legislation is suggesting is both ‘downzoning’, the total volume in which you are entitled to build is getting smaller, and ‘upzoning’ in that reduced envelope you are entitled, and encouraged, to build more units. In short: unless you give us an additional unit, we won’t let you build a bigger house, and if you do give the unit, your living space will likely become smaller. If this is eminent domain, isn’t there a potential requirement for The City to pay fair market value for the right?

Furthermore, if you want to make an application, you have to state your case publicly in front of The Planning Commission and argue why you want a larger home even though the zoning today allows you to do so. Stating your case in public is a waste of everyone’s time. They debate downtown skyscrapers, Treasure Island development, mass transit for the city and issues that exceed an individual’s small additional rendition. Surely the Planning Commission has bigger fish to fry than debating 10% additions on a private house. It’s social engineering: if you want a bigger home, go somewhere else. This is a huge bias against people who already have large homes to the detriment of those who aspire to have a slightly larger home.

Property rights are being taken in the name of the public interest. We already have a lot of layers before we can do anything. Streamlining is badly needed to address our housing issues. Why is the solution to regulate more and restrict potential? The public interest is pretty well protected. In every application for an addition, even the smallest is subject to discretionary review at the Planning Commission. Rhetorically, is the City looking to infiltrate the private realm for political reasons to show it’s dealing with the housing crisis? Privateers are not going to solve the housing shortage. The potential of one’s property changes as a function of this law. Its value diminishes; you can do less with the property that you buy. In their Expansion Reform document, they clearly state: Discourage so-called ‘monster homes’ by requiring the Planning Commission to determine that Major Expansions are ‘necessary and desirable’ to the community.

Definitions matter and alignment would mean progress at this point: how can the expansion of a house be necessary to the community? What defines ‘major expansion’ on a house? Who gets to decide if one needs a bigger home? And on what grounds? This not going to create more opportunity for people to come and live here.

Full circle

Oscar Wilde visited San Francisco in March 1882 and lectured at Platt’s Hall on the notion of Art Decoration! Being the Practical Application of the Esthetic Theory to Everyday Home Life and Art Ornamentation! Platt’s Hall on Montgomery Street in SF’s Financial District has morphed repeatedly into what the modern world has required at any given moment. Today, it’s retail units and offices. Tomorrow it could be a virtual space…

Perhaps that is the paradox of the Bay Area, the reluctant metropolis as outgoing Director of the think tank SPUR, Gabriel Metcalf reflected upon his departure: “It’s harder to tell stories that show how things could work out the right way. But that’s what we need to do: we need to be able to tell stories that show a path from where we are to where we want to be.” If San Francisco is to come through its various issues, it may need to take a good look at its tracks over the past few decades and consider its own history as part of its evolution.

Levy Art & Architecture is a San Francisco based architectural practice that is steadily developing homes in the Bay Area, with a mission to work alongside city planning beyond just getting the permits. We will be publishing perspective, articles and stories on a regular basis.