San Francisco’s Prop M Puts Development Under the Gun

Bay Area Council, San Francisco, Bay Area, East Bay

San Francisco Panorama 3

By Joe Gose

With demand for office space in San Francisco at its highest level in 15 years, anxious developers are waiting for the city to determine how it will approve projects under Proposition M’s construction constraints.

[contextly_sidebar id=”Iny155we31iH217CB1XfqrmKPSjdjYjC”]The San Francisco Planning Commission most likely won’t implement a selection process until midway through 2015 at the earliest, but in mid-November an industry discussion panel provided an update on the city’s Prop. M policy formation and state of the office market.

The event was closed to the media, but presentations and attendees indicate that city planners continue to debate whether to institute a “competitive pool” policy, in which a group of projects compete for approval, or to continue evaluations on a project-by-project basis.

“What you can gather is that there are a lot of options about how to do this right now—there are procedural questions, substantive questions about criteria and questions about implementation,” said David Blackwell, who moderated the panel and leads the land use practice group for the Allen Matkins law firm in San Francisco. “There are a lot of variables that haven’t crystallized yet.”

Approved in 1986, Prop. M caps the amount of large new office projects at 875,000 square feet annually. Unused allocations are rolled forward, and the current cap is at a little more than 3 million square feet. But about 3.2 million square feet in applications are pending, and nearly 8 million square feet are in the pre-application process, according to a presentation that John Rahaim, the planning director for San Francisco, gave at the event. That amounts to a pipeline deficit of about 8 million square feet.

Meanwhile, office rents have skyrocketed amid a demand for space that parallels the height of the dot-com boom in 2000, a trend that shows no signs of slowing down absent an economic downturn.

Average asking rents since 2010 have doubled to $61.69 per square foot, while the average vacancy rate has dropped 150 basis points to 6.7 percent over the last year, according to a presentation made at the event by Phil Tippett, an executive vice president of CBRE in San Francisco. Users have absorbed 4.3 million square feet in the last three years, and tenants looking for an aggregate of about 6 million square feet are in the market.

History suggests that the planning commission will institute a competitive pool. The commission used the process the last time developers butted against Prop. M in 2000 and 2001 and then reverted to the project-by-project review during years of lower demand.

But the commission still must decide what criteria to use in such a process. In 2000 and 2001, for example, competitive pool principles focused on public views, shadows, housing displacement and a handful of other elements. By comparison, in the late 1980s, broader standards concentrated on design, location and consistency with the city’s general plan.

A planning department staff memo in September suggested that a competitive pool for this round of development include criteria such as green building design, proximity to transit and the impact on production, distribution and repair space.

According to Rahaim’s presentation, if the commission decides to implement a competitive pool process, it also needs to determine how to score or weigh different elements, when to officially begin the competition, how long review periods should be, and whether to approve proposed projects that are ready to move forward before launching the policy.

Overall, office supply constraints have put existing landlords in enviable positions. During their most recent earnings calls, executives with large publicly traded office real estate investment trusts discussed Prop. M amid concerns that the current level of demand is unsustainable.

Officials with Boston Properties, Inc., for example, suggested that their 61-story Salesforce Tower in the South of Market neighborhood, which is expected to be completed in 2017, is further along than most projects and that the views from the top 30 floors generally available for lease provided a competitive advantage. (The firm is asking for more than $95 per square foot, according to CBRE.)

Additionally, Hudson Pacific Properties Inc. earlier this year finished leasing up the 1 million-square-foot 1455 Market St., a property it repositioned to appeal to technology tenants after buying it from Bank of America in 2010.

“From our standpoint [Prop. M] is a non-existent issue because we don’t have ground-up development—everything we have and everything we’ve looked at is on a renovation basis,” Hudson Pacific CEO Victor Coleman told analysts in response to a question about Prop. M’s influence. “If you’re a landlord in San Francisco and you like your portfolio, I don’t think it hurts you.”

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