Commercial Real Estate News: Central SOMA’s Coming Boom

Source: San Francisco Business Times:
Reporter: Cory Weinberg
Posted: February 27, 2015
Link to Article: Central SOMA’s Coming Boom

John Elberling has been in the middle of preservation and development fights South of Market for more than 40 years. Now he’s thrown his considerable influence behind the Central SoMa rezoning process — an effort to transform 250 acres of remaining industrial heartland into San Francisco’s next development frontier. It’s seen as an area where billion-dollar technology companies, affordable housing and warehouses can work and live together.

“We can’t take the neighborhood back,” said Elberling, head of the nonprofit housing group Tenants and Owners Development Corp. “We have to create the next one.”

What form that creation could take will be clearer – and probably more contentious – by later this year, when the Central SoMa rezoning process started in 2011 should be mostly complete. With San Francisco squeezed tight, Central SoMa will be designated as one of the only places left to build new, tall office buildings.

Some of the country’s most deep-pocketed real estate investors aren’t waiting for the plan to be completed. Developers such as Tishman Speyer, Boston Properties, Kilroy Realty Corp., SKS Investments and the CIM Group have already locked up sites that together would hold millions of square feet of new office space in anticipation.

If Central SoMa rezoning represents a huge opportunity for developers, it’s also one for the city. Officials, and activists like Elberling, want to leverage the impending development bonanza to confront the affordability crisis, tying development to thousands of units of affordable housing and preserving some of the neighborhood’s industrial heritage.

In November, the Planning Department announced that it wants Central SoMa developers to provide or pay for a much higher proportion of affordable housing units – 33 percent – than they would have to in other parts of the city. The department may also require developers to set aside space for nonprofits and production, distribution and repair (PDR) businesses that once ruled the area.

In all, the city stands to gain about $600 million from the new development in Central SoMa, according to a 2013 Planning Department draft plan.
The big dollars mean big stakes. This process has also rewritten the script for development battles in San Francisco, which typically pit developers with aggressive plans against resistant neighborhood activists, with city planners trying to chart a course between them. Not this time.
“For the first time in my experience as a planner, there are members of the community pushing for more development,” said Planning Department veteran Steve Wertheim, who is steering the Central SoMa plan. “We would make a big mistake if we didn’t use this economic engine for civic benefits. …The profit is there to be made, and I’m trying to turn that into public value.”

How much the city and neighbors can demand before developers balk remains to be seen. Developers think the city is already asking for too much, which will backfire when an inevitable economic downswing hits.

“There are lot of problems when you say you want to have everything,” said Amy Neches, a partner at TMG Partners, which is proposing a 200,000-square-foot office building at 5th and Brannan streets. “There really is a limit. You need a plan to not only work when (the economy) is perfect.”

In demand: Why so many developers want a piece

Affordable housing advocates — and potentially the city — are asking so much of developers because of how hot the area will soon become. The zoning changes won’t drastically change the skyline because the potential 400-foot height limit means buildings will be significantly shorter than their peers in the Financial District or Transbay redevelopment district. Instead, the large parcels are prime targets for developers to build the kinds of buildings that tech companies want: ones with large floor plates, tall windows, open-office layouts and a grittier feel.
“The most exciting thing about Central SoMa is it is finally a large area where the city is looking to entitle offices that actually meet the needs of tenants. It’s not a bunch of skinny highrises,” said Mike Sanford, Kilroy Realty’s executive vice president for Northern California. “The modern workers want bigger floor plates, more creative space. It’s not just about view space.”

Kilroy has already had to try to navigate plenty of hurdles to provide that space. There’s a ballot threat looming to block the tech towers that Kilroy wants to build on top of the historic Flower Mart site.

The area is already a magnet for tech companies. Twitter’s first major office presence was on Folsom Street before it moved most operations to Mid-Market. LinkedIn will park its San Francisco hub at 222 Second St. next year.

Once the rezoning is done – adding the potential for 50,000 new jobs and 9 million square feet of new office space over the next few decades — one of the city’s new tech centers will sit on the corner of Brannan and 5th streets. That’s where four major development sites each span more than an acre.

“That will become a very desirable address,” Sanford said.

Jobs matter too: Why the city’s priority is office space, not housing

The Central SoMa rezoning area includes wildly different environments. The commercial district next to Market Street’s Powell BART station is directly north of it. The zoning area spans south nearly to AT&T Park on the waterfront, stopping at Townsend Street on top of the Caltrain station. To the east, luxury condo towers have sprouted on Rincon Hill. On the area’s western border on 6th Street, some of the city’s poorest residents crowd into residential hotels.

The northern part of Central SoMa is mostly built out. What will change dramatically is the southern portion, where several large development sites that are zoned for light industrial uses will get new zoning for offices and some housing. The area’s development will get a boost from the $1.59 billion subway line now under construction that will run 1.7 miles from SoMa to Chinatown. The new transit line was part of the impetus for the Planning Department to push for a rezoning that would prioritize office space over housing.

That priority may seem surprising at a time where everyone from neighborhood activists to the mayor’s office have committed to addressing the housing crisis, but Planning Director John Rahaim points to the numbers.

If housing fills out over over the next few decades in areas like recently rezoned eastern neighborhoods, Mission Bay, Hunters Point Shipyard and Parkmerced, the city will have enough housing to accommodate residents, according to Association of Bay Area Government projections. The same isn’t true for jobs, where the city would fall well short of meeting expectations even after incentivizing new skyscrapers like the Salesforce Tower.
Rahaim gestured to a map in his Mission Street office, pointing out that office zoning is restricted mostly to the Financial District and Mission Bay. “We’re going to have an issue on the job side if we don’t do something to grow the capacity,” Rahaim said.
Of course, the city still faces an office space cap because of the 1986 ballot measure Prop. M. None of the sites acquired in Central SoMa have a Prop. M allocation, so developers may have to wait a while to build projects even after the rezoning.

How to save SoMa’s soul

Affordable housing advocates are concerned about different numbers. For one, there’s the fact that median earners could afford only about a quarter of recently available rental units in the city of San Francisco in 2013 – the second-lowest rate in the country after New York – according to a study this month by the New York University Furman Center for Real Estate & Urban Policy.

As such, TODCO and Elberling are proposing that four large sites on Fifth and Brannan Streets be zoned as special-use districts that would put tech offices side-by-side with affordable housing buildings, student housing, public open space and PDR space.”The number one civic priority is affordable housing in City Hall and everywhere. It’s not that new space for tech offices isn’t a priority, but it’s not number one,” Elberling said.
Here’s what the city has to do to get new 2,400 housing units in the area, with 35 percent as affordable, according to TODCO’s plan: Push up inclusionary housing requirements to 20 percent and 33 percent for on-site and off-site, respectively; build hundreds of affordable housing units on public sites in the area; and get four majors office developers to set aside land for affordable housing. “TODCO is planning a June 2016 ballot initiative that will add to the final Central SOMA rezoning whatever it takes to achieve this,” according to the plan.

The Planning Department would be wary that the affordable housing goals in Central SoMa are too ambitious. If it asks for too much, and it won’t get the office development the city needs and that companies are pining for. Fees that the city demands aren’t metered to respond to economic nosedives and upswings.

Wertheim, the Central SoMa chief planner, sees a way to make it all work, although he admits the three-decades-long plan will have low periods where it doesn’t seem to click. “We’re in the honeymoon period right now,” he said.

He said the plan area could make use of an infrastructure finance district that would allow it to keep property tax increments in Central SoMa for public improvements and affordable housing. It could also try to channel the office buildings’ jobs-housing linkage fee to neighborhood projects instead of sending it to the city’s general fund.