Thousands of new homes could be built in four neighborhoods on San Francisco's east side if the city's Planning Commission approves a plan today that tries to encourage development while preserving affordable housing and working-class industries.
Together the neighborhoods - the Mission, Showplace Square/Potrero Hill, east SoMa and the central waterfront - represent much of the heart of San Francisco's industrial past, but also opportunities for new construction of market-rate and affordably priced housing.
"We're really pleased this is coming to a conclusion and we believe it addresses concerns of a broad cross-section of the community," said Planning Director John Rahaim. "Even if we had done nothing, you would have seen a lot of changes in that part of the city, but now we'll have some certainty to development there."
Nearly a decade ago, after live-work lofts and dot-com offices replaced a big chunk of the area's industrial land, neighborhood advocates demanded new zoning that would protect working-class jobs and ensure that residents were not displaced by gentrification.
Advocates wanted land dedicated for light industry - or what the Planning Department calls production, distribution and repair uses - and they argued that new housing projects should include homes affordable to low- and moderate-income residents.
They also sought fees to pay for new impacts on the neighborhood - such as more transportation services, sidewalk improvements and parks.
Some developers welcomed the rezoning because they hoped to avoid clashes with advocates that had routinely stalled projects in the area and they worried that without clear guidelines fees would be imposed arbitrarily.
The city found itself caught between the two groups, wanting to add badly needed housing - at both market and affordable levels - and needing to improve districts that were transitioning from their industrial origins to complete neighborhoods with homes, offices, retail shops and restaurants.
Now, after years of planning and thousands of community meetings, hearings and negotiations, the Planning Commission is expected to approve the so-called Eastern Neighborhoods plan.
Many involved in the rezoning process say it appears to balance the competing interests.
"If everyone follows through with this plan it will get the city a lot of jobs and create some infrastructure," said Debra Walker, an artist and community activist who lives in the northeast Mission neighborhood. "It's a good compromise, if everyone does what they say they will do."
Brett Gladstone, a lawyer who represents property owners in the area, said some of the new rules provide creative alternatives for developers and property owners.
"In a way this is cutting-edge urban planning," Gladstone said. "It incentivizes development rather than penalizing it and it provides for middle-income affordable housing instead of just low-income."
Under new zoning, the amount of land dedicated to production, distribution and repair is expected to decrease by roughly 2 million square feet and approximately 7,500 new housing units would be added, according to City Planner Ken Rich.
However, unlike current rules, in which housing and commercial developers can get special permission to build on industrial land, the zoning would create areas where only light industry is allowed and new housing and office development is banned.
Gladstone and Walker each said the city was wise to use a flexible definition for the kinds of businesses allowed in zones where only industrial uses are allowed.
Instead of sticking with a traditional definition of what counts as light industry - such as auto repair, printing, storage and shipping - the city is allowing "hybrid" industries to locate in industrial areas.
The hybrid industries, which include industrial design and digital media, involve light industrial work but also utilize office space.
Property owners have eagerly awaited the zoning changes, many of them frustrated because they have paid taxes, mortgages and insurance on land with an uncertain future while the new rules were hashed out.
At a minimum, builders will be required to pay community improvement fees of $8 per square foot for new residential development and $6 per square foot for nonresidential construction. And developers of any new housing development must rent or sell at least 15 percent of their homes at levels affordable to low- and moderate-income residents.
In some areas, in exchange for being allowed to build beyond current height limitations, developers will be required to pay additional fees or sell more affordable housing.
Approximately 80 projects - nearly all of them for new housing - currently are on hold, awaiting Planning Commission approval. Presuming that hurdle is crossed, the plan must be sanctioned by the Board of Supervisors.
Rahaim said he hopes the zoning receives final approval by Thanksgiving.
"Some of what we've done here will be a blueprint for other areas," Rahaim said. "But the size of this zoning is unique ... we hope to never do an area this big at one time again."
The Planning Commission is scheduled to vote on the Eastern Neighborhoods plan at the commission's meeting today at 1:30 p.m. at Room 400, San Francisco City Hall.
If you're interested in learning more about the planning process, zoning changes and other new rules, go to links.sfgate.com/ZELF.
E-mail Robert Selna at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page B - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle