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Urban Design Guidelines

Project Status: Completed

The Urban Design Guidelines were adopted by the Planning Commission on March 22, 2018.

The Urban Design Guidelines are intended to create a coordinated and consistent design review process and promote a more thoughtful and holistic approach to city building.

As articulated by the City's Urban Design Element, design quality is not a luxury, but a core value. Good city building aims to enhance the human experience and our connection to the environment in which we live. Therefore, it is important that new development be compatible with and compliment the character of its surroundings.  

As the City moves through this period of unprecedented development, greater attention has been placed on the need to coordinate design review with preservation issues, public realm improvements, and transportation to ensure that public and private projects are consistent with the goals, priorities, and policies of the Planning Commission and the City.  

The proposed Urban Design Guidelines will serve as the document for design review in the neighborhood commercial, downtown, and mixed-use districts in the City, providing a framework for the review process for Planning staff, the Planning Commission, project sponsors, design professionals, neighborhood groups and the general public. Like the Residential Design Guidelines, which would continue to apply as they currently do in the R districts, the Urban Design Guidelines are intended to guide all development where they would apply and establish a set of expectations, goals, values, and qualities by which projects are evaluated in design review.

In response to concerns about smaller-scaled neighborhood commercial districts, the Department is also proposing the development of Special Area Design Guidelines, area-specific guidelines to be developed and adopted by the Planning Commission to help projects be more intentionally responsive to unique neighborhood characteristics. 

Special Area Guidelines supersede the Urban Design Guidelines and will also be mandatory in the approval process. 

Improving the organization of the guidelines will enhance their usability for project sponsors, their design teams, the public, Planning staff and the Planning Commission. Refining and incorporating design related guidance into clear and compact documents will also provide a common language. This greater initial clarity will result in more compliant projects at project initiation, fewer design iterations, shorter approval time, and higher quality projects overall.

Design Review

The proposed Urban Design Guidelines will serve one of the important documents for design review throughout the City. They are intended to provide baseline guidance for all building development in the neighborhood commercial, downtown, and mixed-use districts; and establish a citywide set of expectations, goals, values, and qualities by which projects are evaluated in design review. They outline clear expectations that projects must demonstrate to be successfully entitled.

The Urban Design Guidelines consist of three topics: site designarchitecture, and public realm. Each section is then organized from general to specific issues. Each section is described along with illustrations that provide a variety of suggested means for achieving it.

Application of the Urban Design Guidelines is mandatory in the permit review process, and other design guidelines may also apply depending on the zoning, location, building type, and scale of the project. Goals for the clearer, coordinated, and consistent design review process include the following:

  • Establish a well-defined mandatory review path for projects;
  • Ensure applications specifically address how projects address each applicable guideline;
  • Formalize interdepartmental coordination;
  • Educate and train Planning staff;
  • Require design review findings in Planning Commission case reports; and
  • Establish interagency design review and coordination for large or public projects.
What are the Urban Design Guidelines, and why do we need them?

The proposed Urban Design Guidelines will serve as a tool for neighborhood groups, the public, designers, developers, planners, and the Planning Commission to establish a citywide set of expectations, goals, values, and qualities by which projects are evaluated. The Guidelines are intended only to address how a building impacts and supports the character of the existing City fabric. They are not intended to change growth, height, or transportation policy.

There is no single design guideline document used today. Rather, depending by site, there may be several guidelines or no guidelines that apply. Currently, urban design policy and guidelines are found in the Urban Design and the Commerce and Industry Elements of the San Francisco General Plan, in addition to more than thirty existing documents that vary in direction and scope. However, there are still many zoning districts in the City that are not clearly addressed by the guidelines as they exist now.

A single, graphically illustrated, inclusive, and consistent guideline document, used in concert with the neighborhood specific guidelines currently in place, will provide a common and functional language for design review and improve the process for all.

What is Design Review?

Design Review is a comprehensive evaluation process in which Planning Department staff architects assess a proposed project to ensure that it meets the City's existing policies and general principles of good design and neighborhood compatibility. These include:

  • Supporting a project's compatibility with the neighborhood scale and character;
  • Encouraging site and ground floor design to enhance San Francisco's walkable environment; and
  • Fostering architecture that is both reflective of its time and offers a sense of timeless presence for future generations.
What is the Design Review process?

A project sponsor submits a Preliminary Project Assessment, or PPA, for projects that are over 6 residential units or include non-residential uses. A PPA is an introductory process that evaluates a project before the development application is filed.

The Urban Design Assessment Team then provides design feedback to the project sponsor through a Preliminary Project Assessment letter.

Upon submitting an application after the PPA, the sponsor team is expected to respond to feedback and, if necessary, will receive further comment from the Urban Design Assessment team until the project satisfies each guideline.

Where will these apply?

The Urban Design Guidelines are currently proposed to apply to non-residential districts which include mixed-use, neighborhood commercial, and downtown zoning districts.  They are also proposed to apply along with the Residential Design Guidelines in residential districts to larger sites or non-residential use projects. The Residential Design Guidelines would still apply everywhere where they do now.

Are the Residential Design Guidelines being eliminated?

No, the Residential Design Guidelines will not be eliminated. They will continue to remain as is and apply everywhere where they do now.

Are the Residential Design Guidelines integrated with the Urban Design Guidelines?

The Residential Design Guidelines will continue to be a separate document from the Urban Design Guidelines, and apply where they do now: to all RH (Residential House), RM (Residential Mixed), and RTO (Residential Transit Oriented) districts. The Urban Design Guidelines address all zoning districts where the Residential Design Guidelines do not apply.

However, there may be cases where both documents apply to the same project. These would typically be larger or non-residential sites where urban design principles not covered in the Residential Design Guidelines will be necessary to help a new project reflect the existing neighborhood's pattern and size.  

These two guidelines are intended to work together as the Urban Design Guidelines focus on larger scale issues of site design, while the Residential Design Guidelines have a finer-grained detail that allows for more specific guidance to support the character of smaller scale neighborhoods. In these cases, both scales are critical for a successful project, and both will need to be met to proceed through the design review process.

Will the Residential Design Guidelines be revised?

While our Team is focused on the Urban Design Guidelines, we will likely look to updating the Residential Design Guidelines when time allows. A comprehensive outreach and engagement process will be included from the initial stages of the effort.

When is the document planned for adoption?

The Urban Design Guidelines will not be submitted for adoption until extensive community outreach has been conducted and input from that outreach is incorporated into a final Draft Guideline document. There is a tentative date for adoption on December 21st, 2017.

Why did the process start with a draft document and not with community meetings?

The first step was the very technical and labor intensive process of incorporating policies from the Urban Design and Commerce and Industry Elements, the overall General Plan, and about thirty additional existing documents (including redundancies and inconsistencies) into one draft. Then, an advisory group consisting of planning, design, and land use professionals and community members, identified through consultation with the Planning Commission, department leadership, and staff, reviewed and produced a second draft. That second draft was released for review to the general community.

Since then, a number of community organizations have expressed interest in further discussion and providing feedback. Hundreds of comments have been received, and Planning welcomes additional input.  

The draft Urban Design Guidelines includes a waiver provision. What authority executes the waiver?

The waiver is no longer included as an option in the draft Urban Design Guidelines.

The Urban Design Guidelines were adopted by the Planning Commission on March 22, 2018. 

Internal Review

  • Urban Design Assessment team develops initial content from existing policies and design guideline documents.
  • Urban Design Assessment team incorporates additional Planning staff review and comments for initial draft.
  • Winter/Spring 2016: Urban Design Assessment team works with an external advisory group of planning, design, and land use professionals and community members to assure inclusion and comprehension of existing policies and best practices to produce a second draft document for general public review.



  • November 16, 2016 at San Francisco Planning
  • December 6, 2016 at CPMC, Davies Campus
  • January 18, 2017 at San Francisco Planning
  • April 12, 2017 at San Francisco Planning
  • December 12, 2017 at San Francisco Planning
  • January 3, 2018 at San Francisco Planning