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Interview: SF planning director defends city as more architects allege obstruction

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Eight-year City Hall vet John Rahaim says we’d be sorry if planning rules weren’t in place

MidMarket growth. Photo by torbakhopper.

Ever since esteemed San Francisco architect Stanley Saitowitz sounded off with complaints about San Francisco’s city planners, whom he deemed obstructionists, Curbed SF has heard from architects all over the Bay Area about the problems they face designing in the city.

Some are sympathetic about planners’ tricky jobs and heavy workload. Geoff Gibson of Winder Gibson Architects tells Curbed SF that, although he has “a lot of frustrations with the slowness and complexity of the process,” he “truly believe[s] their heart and intentions are in the right place and that they have a good vision for San Francisco overall.”

But many others echoed Saitowitz’s sentiments, like Karin Payson of Payson Architecture + Design, who alleges, “It’s completely maddening. The department decides behind closed doors what to permit, clients pay thousands of dollars in fees in advance, and there’s no recourse. It’s an outrage. It’s corrupt.”

In light of the criticism we spoke with John Rahaim, San Francisco’s planning director since 2008.

Curbed SF: We’ve heard from a lot of designers who are very unhappy, and I assume you’ve worked with everyone over the years. What do they tell you about working with the city, and when you get complaints, which ones have the most to them?

Planning Director John Rahaim: Well, that’s an interesting way of putting the question. I’ll just say that in all the cities I’ve worked in, architects have their visions and they don’t like to have people tell them what to do. Our issue on the city side is not how a building looks but how it relates to the street and what’s around it. And some architects are better at that than others.

The biggest complaint I hear is that it takes too long. I get that. It’s a long process, everyone knows. But we are required to review more projects than any other city in the country. In most places, most projects are built as of right. But here we have to deal with a much higher percentage.

You said it’s an interesting way to phrase the question, but all we meant is probably everyone agrees that the process could be better. So are there ways the city is interested in doing that?

Sure. We need and are getting more in-house architectural design experts, for one. Many planning schools don’t train people in design, so we have three full-time positions (and I think we’re getting a fourth) for architects working on a whole range of projects with staff.

The other thing we’re doing is a set of citywide design guidelines. We’ve never had design guidelines for big projects before the way we have for smaller ones.

Why not?

We just never have. So we’ve been at this for 18 months and we’ve been meeting a lot with the AIA [American Institute of Architects].

Going back to in-house architectural expertise, I’ve heard that complaint a lot: that the planning department doesn’t have enough architects. Is there a reason there aren’t more? Do architects even want to be planners?

Well, they’re not here processing applications; they’re giving us design review expertise. We want people who speak the same language and understand how to present the city’s point of view on a project. And we are adding more.

What about the time it takes? This is the big complaint we heard—people keep saying, “In a city that really needs more housing, et cetera,” and they’re right. Can we make it faster?

It’s a big process, but the design review is only one fairly small part. We’ve got environmental review, zoning review, and of course, as you know, the neighbors can do more. Having said that, the guidelines we’re doing are one step that will help, as a statement of the city’s position. And there are other tools for other parts of the process—we just implemented a new way of doing transit studies that will help as well.

You said your concern is how a building relates to what’s around it. What things cause trouble when a design doesn't do that?

There’s a certain degree of transparency that we’re looking for. You don’t want big blank walls facing the street. If it’s residential at street level, since every building can’t have retail, that’s always a challenge with street-facing residential units. And you have to find some way of raising them up, or setting them back, or creating a stoop, essentially.

Some designers get that, some don’t. Some come into the door with those designs already in hand, but some take more time, and that’s the sort of thing that leads to more delays. What we do hear often is concern that we’re overstepping our boundaries when we have conversations about materials.

NE Studio

That’s come up, yes, some people are very unhappy about that.\

My attitude is, I’m not interested in buildings that look like crap in five years. Some materials do not stand the test of time. Some hold up in this climate, some don’t.

You told John King, in effect, the rules are a pain, but you think we’d be sorry if they weren’t around?

Yes, entirely. What it’s really about is not creating great architecture—it’s not. It’s about preventing really egregious architecture. Because you can’t create great architecture through zoning and review; that’s not how it works.

But look at the 1990s, when there was not a robust process in place. You can see the results of that and it’s not a pretty picture, frankly. We don’t want that, and I think the public and the city has a serious vested interest in making sure that that’s achieved.

Let me make sure I’m understanding you: When you say it’s not about creating great architecture, do you mean that it’s architects’ job to create great architecture, and it’s your job to head off problems?

Yes, that’s it.