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Zoning and Bay Area real estate

On Behalf of | Aug 8, 2023 | Real Estate Development |

In this blog post, we are going to briefly explore one of the most controversial topics in Bay Area real estate: zoning.

Yes, zoning — municipal regulations governing land use — may seem rather boring on the surface, but the subject touches on hot-button questions of housing, business, environment, racial justice and more. And, on a more mundane level, anyone who is involved in the real estate market knows zoning can create serious headaches.

All of this may be particularly relevant in the San Francisco Bay Area, where buildable space is limited, prices are sky-high and regulations are strict.

Award-winning design could violate regulations

For one example of that last point, see a recent article about an award-winning design for an apartment building.

The American Institute of Architects’ San Francisco chapter recently invited architects to design residential buildings for San Francisco’s Sunset District. The goal of the contest was to promote density in urban living without sacrificing the visual charm and livability San Francisco is known for. The judges for the competition weighed the environmental impact of each design, their practical feasibility and how well they seemed to fit in with the character of the neighborhood.

The winning design, “Sunset Steps,” included 10 living units on one city lot. And that’s where the problem lies.

Current San Francisco zoning requirements would prohibit “Sunset Steps” from being built. Zoning ordinances call for most of the Sunset District lots to be devoted to single-family housing.

What is zoning?

Briefly put, zoning laws are municipal regulations that are mean to guide the development of real estate within their borders. Each municipality has its own set of zoning laws, but they all typically set aside certain areas for commercial, industrial or residential use.

Each of these zones can have its own regulations, which may set limits on the height of buildings, the number of rooms they may have, their general architectural style and where power lines must go.

Urban density

Urban planners say cities like San Francisco need much more residential density if they are to keep up with consumer demand and environmental imperatives. To that end, they propose sweeping changes to zoning. Currently, San Francisco is trying to change its residential zoning laws in order to build 82,000 new residential units in an eight-year period.

Of course, people who currently live in neighborhoods of single-family homes don’t necessarily want a lot of new condominiums and apartment buildings popping up next door to them.

Density can also have advantages and disadvantages for commercial real estate. If San Francisco and other Bay Area communities do build more dense residential areas, all their new residents will need grocery stores, medical clinics and other commercial enterprises near their homes. But at the same time, those residents won’t want noisy or smelly industry nearby.

When buying or selling real estate

All the above may seem pretty abstract and distant for people who are just trying to buy or sell existing real estate in the Bay Area, but it can quickly seem all too real for people who are trying to build a new structure. It can be important to seek out advice about zoning from professionals who have experience in Bay Area real estate law.