About the Author
Karin Payson is a LEED-accredited architect, licensed in California and New York, with over 25 years experience in planning, design and project management.
You’d think that everyone would be happy about a new public library in the neighborhood, right? You can’t imagine that anyone would stand up to oppose building one, right? You might think city government could get something done faster than a private party. Wrong! The City of San Francisco wants to replace an existing, out of date and inflexible 1950’s branch with a new and thoughtfully designed library near my office in North Beach. Amazingly, a very vocal opposition group has been doing everything it can to stop the project, including appealing to the State to landmark the old building.
When it comes to residential projects everyone in the neighborhood wants to hold the pencil. I once had a planner grab the pencil from my hand and sketch with it over my drawing! Neighborhood groups will sometimes put forth a self-described expert --someone who took a few design classes in college -- who will assert the authority to say how the building ought to look: window patterns, trim, finishes, colors, you name it.
These are maddening occurrences for sure, and when they result in serious delay, real money is wasted. It is also part of the game in California, where planning rules guarantee the right of discretionary review to anyone who cares to challenge a proposed construction project.
But hear this: While you might assume that opposition is inevitable, you can prevail through research, patience and perseverance. And by swallowing hard and undertaking the pride-sapping art of politics.
Community groups often assume that if it involves construction, it’s no good. A lot of people just don’t like change. And some folks just have too much time on their hands. Wringing your hands won’t help. The best way to start dealing with these aggravations should be obvious: Get the Planning Department on board! Of course we review the Planning Code carefully, but in addition we always go to Planning before we begin to draw anything. Give them a reason to support you, and you’ll get plenty of background information to work with, including the gossip that will guide your grassroots political campaign. In San Francisco we request a formal meeting, which gets someone assigned to our project.
Most importantly, assess what you are likely to achieve. Read-up on recent cases and look closely at failures as well as approvals. Know the code, but also be familiar with local Planning Department trends in interpretation. Officials don’t want trouble, so this year’s approved project could be next year’s contested permit. When you see grey areas in the code that may favor you, go for it, but arm yourself with a solid grasp of recent precedents. And be patient!
We have never benefited from hiding the obvious. Cultivate support early and often. Owners sometimes worry that if word of a project gets out in advance, the opposition has more time to organize against them. Maybe, but our experience convinces us that the earlier you show community members what you are up to the easier it is for you to tell your story in your own words. Follow the lead of politicos and talk to your neighbors. A developer friend calls it “baby kissing.” People will generally be mollified by personal attention. Making friends will help outflank those who are irascible.
Many years ago we were hired as the second architect for a mixed-use project in Pacific Heights which had already been the subject of neighborhood controversy and at least one failed attempt to gain Planning approval. Our client had let her first architect draw up plans to remodel her dilapidated, pre-earthquake Victorian in a neighborhood-commercial district and submit them for review without informing any neighbors. By the time the original public comment period ended the neighbors had joined forces with city-wide organizations to stop the project. When we took over the project, more than one year into the mess, there was plenty of rancor all around, much of it irrational. We made some changes to the design, asked other historic preservation specialists to weigh in, and spent many tense meetings with planners and the opposition activists. Eventually we applied to the city for approvals, including a variance, and won on all counts. The project sponsor had her entitlements more than two years after beginning her project with the original architect.
Do not put your head in the sand! No one likes to be surprised, and sometimes a disproportionate response to required notifications can be triggered when interested parties believe they’ve been ignored. Silence is read by some as sneaky and people may think they’ve been deceived. And yes, some are just downright awful. (We once had a client’s neighbor complain, at a Planning Commission hearing, that our client was getting this great new house and he was not getting anything out of it!). But ignoring even the worst of them often leads to unnecessary delays that cost real money. While the delays caused by opposition to the North Beach Library are an unfortunate convergence of polarized politics and participatory democracy, our client in Pacific Heights would have saved on both cash and heartache if she had approached community groups before they received notification letters in the mail.
Bottom line: Expect neighborhood opposition, no matter how benign you believe your project will be. Do your research, talk to your neighbors, be patient, negotiate, and you will get what you need, and most of what you want.