If you are planning a new multi-unit residential project or a commercial project, you may need one or more development approvals from the City, in addition to building permits. Depending on the size, nature, and zoning district of your property, your project will likely require a multi-step review process, including pre-application and staff review steps and one or more public hearings.
Obtaining Development Approvals
There are several steps required for a large construction project in San Francisco. Selected major steps are as follows:
|By the Applicant:||By City Agencies:|
|Schedule a Project Review meeting (optional)||Project application review|
|Meet with your community (Pre-Application Meeting)||Public hearings and project approval|
|Submit Preliminary Project Assessment application||Post-approval permit review|
|Submit development application forms and pay fees||Collection of impact fees|
|Submit building permit applications|
The City’s Planning Code describes the development type, height, density, and uses allowed in each zoning district. For any location at which you plan to build, you should first find out its zoning and permitted uses to determine whether your project can be approved there. See more detailed Zoning information. For many projects, it will also be useful to schedule a Project Review Meeting.
Almost all development projects and permit applications are required to undergo environmental review to evaluate and disclose any level of environmental impact. There are several levels of environmental review, depending on the size and nature of the project, which can range from projects for which no review is needed, to infill projects that can take advantage of previous environmental review for Area Plans, to those requiring an environmental impact report that may take a year or more to complete. As part of the Planning Department’s Preliminary Project Assessment or review of your entitlement applications, staff will determine what level of environmental review is needed for your project and will provide you with information about the fees and time required to complete the review.
Neighborhood notification is required by the Planning Code for many discretionary permits within certain zoning districts. When an applicant submits a Building Permit to the Department of Building Inspection (DBI), the Planning Department is the first reviewing agency and will issue the neighborhood notification. Neighborhood notification is typically mailed to residents and owners of properties located within 150 feet of the subject property and registered neighborhood groups for a 30-day public review period.
Building Permits for work located within most Residential, Neighborhood Commercial, and Mixed-Use Districts are subject to neighborhood notification dependent upon the scope of work. Typically, building expansions, certain changes of use, and formula retail uses (a.k.a. chain stores) require neighborhood notification.
For more information, including a list of the types of projects that require notification and a detailed guide to the process, see the Neighborhood Notification Handout and the Conditional Use Authorization Application.
Regardless of notification requirements, it is always a good idea to reach out to neighbors and neighborhood groups early in your project planning process to inform them about the project and to hear about any concerns they may have. Planning staff can help with neighborhood outreach resources and contacts.
Inclusionary Housing Requirements
San Francisco's Inclusionary Housing Program requires developers of projects with 10 or more residential units to sell or rent a percentage of the units at a "below market rate" (BMR) price that is affordable to low and/or middle-income households, or instead to pay an Affordable Housing Fee. More information about this requirement is available on the Inclusionary Housing Program page.
Housing Bonus Programs
The Planning Code provides for an increase in the overall number of allowable housing units in exchange for including more affordable housing units. Several types of density bonuses are currently available for residential projects in San Francisco, including the Affordable Housing Bonus Program, HOME-SF; and the State Density Bonus Program.
Residential Project Review Timelines
In 2017, Mayor Edwin M. Lee issued Executive Directive 17-02, charging all City Departments to work together to speed up approvals for housing development projects. The Executive Directive includes new approval deadlines for entitlement and permitting of housing development projects to ensure that enough units are approved each year. In response, the Planning Department developed a plan for process improvements to reduce the time needed to approve and build new residential projects. These process improvements, the City review timelines, and more detail about the Executive Directive and the Planning Department’s response to it are available on the Executive Directives page.
San Francisco law restricts the amount of new office space that can be approved in a given year. The Office Development Annual Limit Program – sometimes called the “Prop M” limit, after the 1986 law that established the current limits - aims to ensure a manageable rate of new development and to guard against “boom and bust” development cycles, among other goals. An Office Allocation is required for any project that proposes to add more than 25,000 gross square feet of office space, regardless of the project site’s zoning.
A total of 950,000 gross square feet (gsf) of potential office development becomes available for allocation each year, of which 75,000 gsf is reserved for projects with between 25,000 and 49,999 gsf of office space. Office space not allocated in a given year is carried over to subsequent years.
An Office Allocation is required even if other entitlements, such as a Conditional Use Authorization or a Variance, are required. A Planning Commission hearing is required to approve or disapprove the allocation.
Development Impact Fees
The City imposes impact fees on development projects to mitigate the impacts caused by new development on public services, infrastructure and facilities. For example, the burden on the transit system created by a new office building is offset through the payment of an impact fee used to improve MUNI.
Impact Fees are different from, and apply in addition to, application fees, which are used to cover the cost of the City’s review of a given proposal. Most impact fees are assessed by the Planning Department and are collected by DBI upon permit issuance.
Some impact fees apply throughout the City to various types of development projects, while others apply only in certain neighborhoods. Some impact fees only apply when a builder chooses to pay them in lieu of meeting a particular Planning Code requirement (for example, providing usable open space). More information is available here.
Transportation Sustainability Program
The Transportation Sustainability Program is a comprehensive program to help the City’s transportation network keep pace with growth in both jobs and residents. It includes fees to improve transportation systems as well as measures that must be included in projects to reduce the demand for solo car trips; these are known as Transportation Demand Management (TDM) measures. TDM requirements apply to any project with 10 or more new residential units or 10,000 new square feet of commercial use.