October 22, 2012

You've Been Warned: Let There Be Less Light And Fewer Views

1856%20Pacific%20Avenue.jpg

As proposed, a story would be added atop the four-story building at 1856 Pacific Avenue and its façade redesigned, resulting in a 55-foot building within an 80-foot height district.

1856%20Pacific%20Avenue%20Rendering.jpg

In the words of the owners of 1870 Pacific Avenue, the 7-story building directly adjacent to the west of 1856 Pacific Avenue, and the residents of 1870 Pacific Avenue apartment number 505 whose lot line windows would be blocked by the addition, all of whom are opposing the project in the form of a requested Discretionary Review (DR):

The project does not provide decent light, air, privacy or convenience of access to our adjacent property located at 1870 Pacific Avenue.
This project creates exceptional and extra ordinary circumstances that justify a DR, including, but not limited to infill of 2 (or more) windows on our property, elimination of light, air, views from 4 (or more) windows. Project diminishes the quality of 4 (or more units), which effects 8 (or more) residents. The project [greatly] diminishes privacy for the 2 (or more) units.
Our property is the adjacent building to the west of the subject property. We were not consulted on the proposed plan.

In the words and opinion of San Francisco's Planning Department:

The [Residential Design Team] did not find exceptional or extraordinary circumstances with regard to the DR requestors’ concerns regarding the potential loss of light and air access, loss of privacy and safety, and increased noise.
As property line windows and private views are not protected under Planning and Building Codes, and the project is a residential use, the project is within the minimum standards of the Residential Design Guidelines to be expected when a reasonable building expansion is proposed. The proximity of the project to the adjacent building is also within the reasonable tolerances to be expected when living in a dense urban environment such as San Francisco, and particularly the RM-3 Zoning District which is zoned to allow high-density residential buildings. Furthermore, the project proposes a 55-foot tall building within an 80-foot height district.
The property line windows that will be affected by the project are not the primary windows to the Requestors’ units, as the dwelling units on each floor also contain windows that face onto the street, the rear yard and/or a large existing lightwell; these windows will continue to provide considerable light and air access to the Requestors’ units.

The Planning Department recommends San Francisco's Planning Commission reject the Discretionary Review of 1856 Pacific and approve the project as opposed. We recommend buyers, or renters, of buildings with lot line windows understand the risks involved.

Discretionary Review: 1856 Pacific Avenue [sfplanning.org]

First Published: October 22, 2012 9:00 AM

Comments from "Plugged In" Readers

This is epic, I've seen people win approval of such projects before but the strong and clear language used here would be cited in the future.

If a lot line window is illegal it shouldn't be protected, it's that simple. SF planning in the past was very protective of incumbency and supportive of grandfathering anything, glad to see it change

Posted by: someone at October 22, 2012 9:05 AM

And a big new Range Rover in the driveway. Welcome to the NEW San Francisco. I remember a time when people with wealth would shrink from driving such vehicles in the city, now the car brand and image helps to sell condos.

Posted by: anonfedup at October 22, 2012 9:32 AM

Regardless of the car in the driveway people need to understand a lot line window is illegal and shouldn't be protected. The SF planning needs to follow the law and that's the law. Its time that we stop allowing a waste of time and money on these reviews that shouldn't be happening. If the project owner is following the codes and laws that should be enough. It's a sad thing that you might lose a view or window you have had for 5o years but it shouldn't have been there in the first place and you have been lucky to have it for that period of time.

"As property line windows and private views are not protected under Planning and Building Codes!"

Posted by: MarinaBoy at October 22, 2012 9:36 AM

I am curious, were they ever protected under planning code? I see these all the time in older buildings, were people just violating the law? If they used to be protected, one could argue that they should be grandfathered in.

Posted by: NoeValleyJim at October 22, 2012 10:09 AM

They will be losing one side window which appears to be part of a bay window with three other windows letting in sunlight. Whoever lives there shold be thankful they get that much sunlight at all in SF's core.

Posted by: sf at October 22, 2012 10:09 AM

You would think with all the work being proposed that the architects would figure out a better solution for the fire escapes. The overall design is pleasing just hate the fire-escapes.

Posted by: Me at October 22, 2012 10:19 AM

They were never protected but aren't violating the law either. You can have them but they aren't protected.

Also they are not part of the bay window. You can see the bay window is three sets of windows. These are side windows that were added to take advantage of the view from not having a building next door. The lower floors don't have them becuase the building was in the way. So these units will now match the downstairs tenants. That have lived for years without the windows.

Posted by: MarinaBoy at October 22, 2012 10:35 AM

yup, this is definitely great news. A sensible recommendation from planning, although it's a little sad that a sensible response is such a noteworthy event...

Posted by: lyqwyd at October 22, 2012 10:44 AM

That side window is clearly not part of the bay window. It's on the property line wall.

Yes, I'm also glad the Planning Department is enforcing regulations that are in writing and part of the current code.

But I don't get the relevance of the comment about the Ranger Rover at all. Why is that important and how does it matter?

Posted by: futurist at October 22, 2012 11:08 AM

I like the new facade. A lot of these condo/apts in Pac Heights East could you some sprucing up. This design is tasteful and, I think, timeless. I really just looks like at most a window and a half are being covered. The next owners/renters of the condo/apt or whatever it is will never miss it.

Posted by: Denis at October 22, 2012 11:30 AM

The neighbor should have NEVER been allowed to DR the project, obviously. I would propose property line windows for the new vertical addition, just to annoy them.

Posted by: Another Architect at October 22, 2012 1:42 PM

only 55 feet?

in retaliation for the NIMBYism, the developer should come back with a plan to take building up to the legally permissible 80 feet, blocking a few more windows in the process.

Posted by: make-my-day at October 22, 2012 2:03 PM

The developer could have designed a light well around the soon to be blocked window as a friendly gesture.

Posted by: wc1 at October 22, 2012 4:14 PM

Fire escape design and construction and materials is precisely defined by the SF and California Building codes. There is very little leeway in re-designing them. The alternate solution would be to remove them completely AND the owner would have to add interior fire stairs. They make more sense and are in fact safer, but they take up valuable space that reduces available rental/sales area.

A light well built around the existing property line windows would serve no real purpose: the existing windows would simply be looking at very close blank walls.

Posted by: futurist at October 22, 2012 4:37 PM

"A light well built around the existing property line windows would serve no real purpose: the existing windows would simply be looking at very close blank walls."

You do know what a light well does, yes?

Posted by: wc1 at October 22, 2012 10:41 PM

Sure do. and they do make sense in some situations. In this one I don't believe a light well would make sense. The subject window is not a required window, first of all. A small light well would do little to let light into that location.

Solution: block off the property line window as proposed.

Posted by: futurist at October 23, 2012 10:00 AM

In the staff report, they tell us that the subject property was constructed circa 1966, but they don't say anywhere in the document when the property that the complainants live in, 1870 Pacific Avenue, was built (at least that I can find), so we can't know or even figure out the answer to NoeValleyJim's comment above at 10:09 AM.

I too see lots of lot line windows in older buildings, and I always assumed that when those buildings were built, they weren't illegal.

All that said, the residents of the neighboring building should have their request rejected; their numerous appeals to protecting views in the DR complaint, when they appear to be well aware that views are not protected, are quite telling of their true motivations.

Like make-my-day said above, if I were the developer, after this gets smacked down at the planning commission, I'd come back for a few more stories if I could manage the financing.

Posted by: Brahma (incensed renter) at October 23, 2012 11:27 AM

"... I'd come back for a few more stories if I could manage the financing."

The developer probably did consider more stories but the incremental cost made it not worthwhile. Going one more story might have triggered significant foundation and framing rework.

Posted by: The Milkshake of Despair at October 23, 2012 3:07 PM

"The developer probably did consider more stories but the incremental cost made it not worthwhile. Going one more story might have triggered significant foundation and framing rework"
Going just this one story likely triggered a seismic upgrade anyway and reworking the foundation. Going more may have required a change in construction type though, that would be even more $$.

Posted by: knock at October 24, 2012 10:21 AM

If it was your window would you want to replace it with a view of a wall? These windows were built before rules regarding lot line windows.

the new building is too tall.

Posted by: kathleen at October 24, 2012 12:53 PM

@ kathleen: If it was my window, I would become fully educated and aware that said window MAY be blocked in the future. Buyer beware.

And let's be clear: The Planning Dept. specifically noted that the blocked windows are NOT primary windows, nor code required.

BTW: if the subject building is too tall (I assume you're joking) then what is the building with the property line windows? A supertall?

Posted by: futurist at October 24, 2012 1:10 PM

They should take a picture of the view and frame it in the place of the (future) blocked window.

Posted by: lol at October 24, 2012 2:09 PM

Instead of revisiting the ethical and legalistic arguments, I'd like to talk about the economic aspects as I see them.

The subtext here is that the residents of the unit(s) at 1870 Pacific Ave were sold "views" as part of the benefits they were getting/buying. Now that those views are going to be obstructed, the views they paid for are being taken away, and thus they paid for something that they aren't going to have following completion of the proposed project.

Since they're being deprived of the positive utility of their (current) views without compensation, after the expansion next door the amount they paid for their units in effect went up retroactively.

From complainant's attachment #1, pg. 4 (pg. 35 of the .pdf file linked-to above), Reasons for Requesting Discretionary Review:

Loss of View

As seen from the pictures herein attached, the Applicant's apartment also enjoys a view from their living room window as well as the dining room and kitchen windows. With the proposed construction the views from all these windows will either completely disappear or will be substantially reduced, thereby decreasing the value of the Applicant's unit.
Emphasis mine.

Now of course they know, of their attorney knows and knew before writing and filing this, that views are not protected.

When I read kathleen's comment above or even better the socketsite editor above saying "We recommend buyers, or renters, of buildings with lot line windows understand the risks involved", what I take that to mean from an economics perspective is that a buyer should "price in" the risk that their views will be blocked by future development or expansion by applying an appropriate discount to the amount they are willing to pay.

However, I don't think that's practical or reasonable in a highly competitive real estate environment.

All it takes is a few buyers bidding up the price of real estate with potentially blockable views (and winning properties by outbidding potential buyers who have accounted for the blockable views) and market dynamics then will ensure that most future buyers of similar units will pay for such views, even if they don't want to do so, because the marginal contribution to the asking price to cover "the view" will get included if, as is likely, the majority of successful buyers don't apply an appropriate discount to compensate for the risk that "the view" will be blocked in the future.

I don't really need to get into how commonly potential buyers get outbid on properties in S.F., do I?

And of course all this just assumes, chicago school of economics-style, that one can discern what that appropriate discount should be and that most rational or high-information bidders/buyers will in practice attempt to apply it.

If, however, bids from non-discounting buyers are consistently higher, they'll acquire more properties and the marginal increase in price will get passed along to other similar properties via the usual mechanisms (appraisals, etc.).

Therefore, for someone that actually wants to acquire a property with a blockable view in the case where multiple bids from low-information bidders are being accepted, "understand[ing] the risks involved" to said views is a waste of time because it's not going to help them.

Posted by: Brahma (incensed renter) at October 24, 2012 2:38 PM

You lost me at your second paragraph.

How do you know, for a fact, that the disclosure statement for the buyers (of the blocked windows) did not say: "said property line windows are non-compliant with the current planning codes and MAY be subject to blockage due to potential construction of the adjacent property".

Posted by: futurist at October 24, 2012 2:52 PM

I agree with Brahma that many buyers will too often overlook a flaw. For instance some neighbors who purchased recently were sold the bet that there was a possible expansion and paid a premium for that possibility. Of course, there was no warranty and it was clearly stated at time of purchase. And of course they cannot expand due to resistance from other neighbors... They overpaid by 15% compared to a similar property sold the same month.

Posted by: lol at October 24, 2012 3:54 PM

"Possible Expansion"...that means maybe yes,maybe no.

too bad they overpaid, but that's their fault.

Posted by: futurist at October 24, 2012 5:05 PM

How do you know, for a fact, that the disclosure statement for the buyers (of the blocked windows) did not say: "said property line windows are non-compliant with the current planning codes and MAY be subject to blockage due to potential construction of the adjacent property".

Posted by: huijj002 at October 25, 2012 4:43 AM

Dramatic improvement over the old building appearance. Well done.

Posted by: Gregg at November 14, 2012 4:27 PM

Does anyone know where I can find distance limitations of windows in adjacent buildings in the SF code. A building is being constructed on the adjacent property, zero lot line, and a window will be directly against our patio on which sits the glass sliding doors of our bedroom, a distance of about 5 feet. Looking to find references in the event we can stop this before construction is completed.

Posted by: J bean at March 13, 2013 10:00 PM

J bean,

How far off of their property line is the new window?

Posted by: sparky*b at March 14, 2013 10:50 AM

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