San Francisco, California

The TDR program in San Francisco, California, is profiled in The TDR Handbook. Those interested in the mechanics and history of the San Francisco program should refer to that book. However, this mini-profile updates the San Francisco case study in The TDR Handbook based on statistics provided by a 2013 report to the San Francisco Planning Department prepared by Seifel Consulting Inc. and C.H. Elliot and Associates.

San Francisco

The San Francisco TDR program certified 112 landmarks as of 2011, including this historic building.

The cover memo to the 2013 report explains that a mid-2000s amendment allowed TDRs to be sold from City-owned landmarks zoned “P” (Public) near the downtown. That provision was only used once. The City Planning Department launched the 2013 study to determine whether TDR should be used on other City-owned landmarks in order to help finance seismic improvements and general building rehabilitation of these city-owned landmarks without impairing the private TDR market. In addition, the consultants were tasked with recommending the most appropriate price for and quantity of TDRs from city-owned landmarks.

According to the report, three landmarks were certified to send TDRs in 1986, the first year of the program and by the end of 2011, 112 landmarks were certified, representing a total of 5.3 million square feet of transferrable floor area. As of 2011, 2.7 million square feet had been transferred to 32 receiving site buildings. Another 2.3 million square feet were certified but not yet transferred. The additional 300,000 square feet represents square footage applied to receiving site projects that were subsequently abandoned.

Based on an estimated near-term demand for 860,000 square feet of transferable floor area, the consultants recommended putting 1.2 million square feet from city-owned landmarks on the market at a price of $25 per square foot, (the average price of recent private-market transactions) subject to annual review. As of 2011, city owned properties constituted 3.6 million square feet of transferable floor area, with another 924,000 of potentially transferable floor area from Piers 19, 23 and 29 if the city choose to make these properties eligible sending sites plus an unspecified amount of supply if the city also chose to allow landmarks in the Central Corridor planning area to serve as sending sites. The report also recommended that the City begin this effort with city-owned landmarks that are ready for certification and scheduled for improvements in the 10-year capital improvements program such as the War Memorial Opera House and the Veterans Building.

The success of the San Francisco TDR program has largely resulted from the City’s commitment to requiring TDR for almost all bonus development. However, the city has increasingly looked to bonus development approval as a means of achieving community benefits other than historic preservation. Consequently, TDRs are not required to exceed baseline in some planning sub-areas and individual projects have been granted exemptions from TDR requirements. For example, the city approved a development agreement in 2006 that waived the TDR requirement for the Trinity Plaza project, which otherwise would have been required to acquire 879,000 square feet of transferable floor area.

The 2013 report reports that developers and real estate professionals would like to have more information about TDR availability and sales. Because many eligible sending site properties have relatively small amounts of transferable floor area, receiving site developers must often negotiate with several sending area property owners to assemble enough TDR to build their projects. Interviewees generally did not support a TDR bank but they did advocate for a clearinghouse where buyers and sellers could find one another. More specifically, they urged the city to implement the annual TDR reports called for in Ordinance 68-13. Furthermore, the report authors recommend TDR program status reports at least every five years.


San Francisco Planning Department (2013) TDR Study: San Francisco’s Transferable Development Rights Program. Prepared by Seifel Consulting Inc. and C.H. Elliot and Associates.