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Architect Stanley Saitowitz calls SF planners “obstructive,” others agree

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Designers claim city is inconsistent with planning code, doesn’t understand architecture

 Stanley Saitowitz/Natoma Architects’  616 20th Street in Dogpatch, San Francisco.
Photo by Brock Keeling

Noted local architect Stanley Saitowitz rankled the San Francisco Planning Department by calling planners “obstructive” in recent interviews. And he’s not alone.

First, San Francisco Chronicle urban design critic John King quoted Saitowitz’s comments in a column this week, which were pulled from Michael Webb’s new book, Building Community: New Apartment Architecture. In part, the starchitect says:

Dealing with the city Planning Department, which doesn’t understand architecture, is a very slow process. [...] We have a lot of trouble with the preservationist spirit in that department, now that almost every district of San Francisco is considered historic and every new building has to comply with its character. We firmly believe in respecting scale; Planning wants textbook replicas.

Saitowitz echoed those sentiments in a follow-up interview with King, adding that he wouldn’t mind the city’s process if the department produced better, bolder buildings.

His words loosened more than a few designers’ lips.

Curbed SF contacted more than 30 local architects asking their opinions about working with city planners. (Note that they were not asked whether or not they specifically agreed with Saitowitz’s comments, though a handful brought up his name in agreement.)

Most declined to comment on the record, but a few offered their own perspectives.

Eliza Hart of Hart Wright Architects says:

Certainly I don’t bemoan the individual planner doing his or her job, but I do think the process is obstructive. [...]

As a small firm specializing in single-family houses (new and renovations) it has become the norm for us to measure the planning approval process in years rather than weeks.

This sort of long waiting period occurs even on simple renovations where no favors are asked, no height increase is requested, and no change to the existing facade is proposed. All this in a city that is supposedly in need of housing.

Edward Kaplan, of Kaplan Architects, told Curbed SF via email that he backs Saitowitz’s comments, saying:

I agreed with everything he said about the Planning Department. I think the Planning Department would be greatly improved if they hired a few architects to be on their permanent staff.

I have respect for the professional training and value planners bring to the table, but [...] the department’s general approach to historic preservation many times produces very bad architectural solutions. [...]

As an example, the preferred approach to a third story addition (setting aside any neighbor concerns which as you know is another can of worms) is to treat the existing building envelope as sacrosanct. [...]

They don’t want you to incorporate architectural features and details of the original building into your addition. The idea being that the new work is just set up there like it landed on top from another time and era.

Kaplan added that he too finds the length of time it takes to build unreasonable, particularly given San Francisco’s housing shortage.

Christian Dauer of ChrDAUER Architects adds, “With someone who pushes the envelope like Stanley, it’s easy to understand why he might get some grief. But it happens even with little guys like me.”

Dauer says he sympathizes with the Planning Department, which must handle a huge workload with limited staff and budget.

“But if it takes three years for a family of three to renovate a house and add a bedroom or two, [...] they will likely move somewhere else,” says Dauer. “Then I lose a client, the schools lose a student, and the city loses a middle class family.”

(The percentage of households with children in San Francisco has remained almost flat for 30 years, but this is a problem given that the city population is increasing.)

Irving Gonzales, former board president of the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Architects, alleges that city planners aren’t consistent with how they apply the law.

“We’ve got this voluminous planning code, and the interpretation is subject to the whims of the planner,” says Gonzales. “They vary from different portions of the city, building to building; one solution next door will be different from the one right next to it.”

He adds that this might not happen “if we had more architects on the commission and on the planning staff.”

Stanley Saitowitz’s design for 2740 McAllister, a three-story white building with inset balconies taking up almost the entire facade.
Saitowitz’s design for 2740 McAllister.
Courtesy Natoma Architects

Gonzales is heartened by more recent urban design guidelines that he feels leave more room for creativity: “There are places like Candlestick that get a whole new set of guideline, so that’s progress.”

But by and large, Gonzales echoes a common complaint by architects and developers that San Francisco is stuck in the past.

“There’s a thought that people come here because of how it looks and so it doesn’t hurt to keep it that way,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t make it better” — if given the chance.

Saitowitz’s design for 603 Tennessee.

No one at the Planning Department responded to requests for comment, but Planning Director John Rahaim told John King, “Our guidelines make it clear we want architecture of our time,” and said that long waits and inconvenience prevent terrible designs and “egregious stuff” from proliferating.

Rahaim also noted that Saitowitz’s buildings in particular “have been built pretty much as he proposed them to staff.”

King himself adds, “Planners get tired of architects who view anyone who disagrees with them as design illiterates.”