As downtown San Francisco still has a glut of unused office space, state Senator Scott Wiener says he’s pushing legislation for a decade-long elimination of the environmental review mandate known as CEQA from downtown projects, in hopes of spurring conversion to uses like housing.

Do you remember that infamous 2021 case where the SF Board of Supervisors turned down the conversion of a Nordstrom parking lot into a 27-story residential tower? The rejection of that project was caused by a legal appeal that utilized a 54-year-old state law called the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). While that residential tower was eventually approved last April under slightly different plans, the New York Times reports that its developer has stalled on construction of the project because “it no longer pencils out financially after so much delay.” Meanwhile the Nordstrom store itself closed last year.


That New York Times report is about state Senator Scott Wiener’s apparently incoming proposal to eliminate CEQA reviews in downtown San Francisco for a period of ten years.

While CEQA laws were originally intended to protect the environment, the appeals it’s allowing often have nothing to do with environmental factors. The hold-up over the People's Park student housing development in Berkeley used a CEQA appeal claiming that students would be too loud, CEQA appeals have been used in attempts to block homeless shelters, and some people even used CEQA to thwart the opening of coffee shops.

SF Mayor London Breed on board with Wiener’s proposed bill. “We know we need to make downtown viable,” Breed told the Times. “We can’t let process get in the way.”

Per the Times announcement, Wiener was planning to introduce the bill today (Friday). He says it would be a ten-year suspension of CEQA appeals for a specified 150 blocks of downtown SF. The main goal appears to be facilitation of what’s called “infill housing,” that is, housing built in already-existing but underutilized spaces, as downtown struggles with office vacancies. But it would also help in converting office space to other uses too, like theaters, college campuses, or even that strange proposal to turn the Westfield mall into a soccer stadium.  

There would also apparently be some restrictions and exceptions in Wiener's bill. Projects would have to pay their construction workers a certain prevailing wage to qualify for the elimination of their CEQA reviews, and CEQA appeals could still be lodged against waterfront properties and hotels. The Times also notes that Wiener’s bill would not allow the destruction of “any building that housed tenants within the past decade.”

"We’re not taking away any local control," Wiener says, speaking to the Chronicle following the announcement.  "I’m not one of those people that thinks CEQA should be repealed. When you’re talking about dense, infill urban areas it’s different than some other contexts."

Wiener adds that the city is in a "transition period" right now, and he's "reasonably confident that there will come a period — it may not be very long [from now] — where we do see activity downtown."

Wiener wins some and loses some on these housing bills of his, so we’ll keep an eye on where this one goes. And there are factors other than CEQA appeals that have developers backing off projects these days, factors like spiking construction costs and higher interest rates. Those aren’t factors that state legislature can control, and it’s not certain that just eliminating CEQA appeals would lead to some sort of downtown San Francisco conversion bonanza.

Related: Ex-Fox News Host Pushing 2024 California Ballot Measure to Blow Up CEQA Legal Challenges [SFNews]

Image: Aerial view between skyscrapers in San Francisco's Financial district. Looking down Sansome Street towards the Bay on a sunny day. (Getty Images)