Devin Lewis is a California Licensed Architect that has spent the last 10 years working with real estate developers determining the highest and best use for properties across the country, and around the world. His understanding of the entitlements process is rooted in his experience with building and zoning codes, providing him with a specialized familiarity with the factors that determine a building’s height, square footage, and the materials used for construction. He strongly believes that we should strive to improve the quality of life for the users of the environments that we seek to improve.
Tell us a little bit about you.
I am a California licensed architect working for a firm that’s based in Sacramento called LPAS Architecture and Design. We design and document mixed use, mid-rise multi-family projects throughout the San Francisco Bay.
What are entitlements?
Entitlements, in a simplified explanation is what you, as an owner, are promising the city that you or someone that purchases your entitled design will build and it ultimately determines the value of the property. An entitled design is thought out enough to where the city can understand what will be built, what’s propose, what taxes it will receive from any of its operations. And the entitlements are based off of what architects consider a schematic design. So the design of the building will, after entitlements, develop significantly. And development for an architect means something different than development for a real estate developer. But the project will architecturally develop after the project becomes entitled with engineering systems. But in order to entitle a project, you need a good idea of the square footage, the functions, essentially, what you have planned for that piece of property.
What are some of the best pieces of advice that you can share with us in trying to get a smooth entitlement process as fast as possible in a very difficult city?
As a property owner developing a piece of property, I think the most important thing is to strive to have an understanding of the process. As an owner, you could experience a great deal of frustration if you’re not aware that an architect is your agent and the architect really is there to help you facilitate the process and that process, in most cities, including San Francisco, looks like this. You’ll get a schematic design, go to the planning department, set up a meeting and you’ll work with different departments like the police department, the fire department, traffic, public works, sometimes the trash management services for the city to really make sure that at a high level, your project will fit in to the city’s fabric, the city’s functions, and the way the city will tie in to what you’re proposing. You’ll work with a staff member and you’ll present to the planning department. The planning department will actually grant you entitlements. If it’s a large project, it’ll be presented to the city council. And when the staff member feels that it’s ready, he or she will recommend the project for approval. During this process, the architect is folding in the requirements and desires of many different parties. The city is going to bring its requirements and you’re going to meet with community members in community meetings, folding in their desires.
It sounds like we should be working with an architect from the beginning. Should we get in touch with an architect before purchasing the property to get an idea of what and how long the entitlements will take?
When you engage with an architect, typically the first thing that an owner will do is talk about what we refer to as a program, the uses, the square footages desired for those uses. The architect will put together what is referred to as a site feasibility study. I’ve also heard it referred to as a land use plan, and so an architect will look at the property and layout a building, or several buildings using the building code and give you an idea of what schematically, legally, can be built on your property.
Can they give an estimate of more or less how long it would take to get all the approvals from a particular city?
We put together a timeline schedule for each project. Entitlement is a difficult thing to quantify in terms of time, especially in San Francisco, because the neighbors have such huge influence over what becomes approved. And it’s a great thing that the neighbors have say in the character of their city. One of the main drivers for the amount of time that a project will take is CEQA, The California Environmental Quality Act, which I think, was put into place in California in 70s. And essentially what that does is it requires an environmental impact report for large projects. And it’s tough to really say, with CEQA in place, just exactly how long a project will take to get planning commission approval because the neighbors can form large, powerful groups and create lawsuits that actually will stall projects for a number of reasons. One of their concerns may be traffic in their neighborhood. One of their concerns may be the density, and type of use that is being proposed.
I know that sometimes there are other groups within the city that may also have a say in the approval of a project like the Historical Committee. And sometimes they can be contradictory with what the city approves. Do you have any idea of how to approach that?
I don’t have a huge amount of experience with historical restoration, renovation, preservation or rehabilitation. But I know that people have a tendency to want their city to remain the way they have always known it to be. And different people deem buildings of different levels of quality as historically relevant, and will form groups to endeavor to save certain buildings. And those types of issues raised by these groups can absolutely affect the approvals process and the schedule.
Let’s talk about an unsuccessful project or the most difficult one that you worked with and key lessons learned.
As an architect, I consider a successful project a build project. Most of the work that I’ve done in my career has been built work. There are plenty of architects whose work doesn’t get built as frequently, but I’ve worked for home builders and our projects tend to have a higher, what I would consider, success rate in terms of the architectural process. We meaning the companies that I’ve worked with, haven’t really struggled to design, document and administer the construction for projects. But I will say as an urbanist, with your audience in mind, an unsuccessful project in my mind would be a project of mine that is built. It’s a townhouse project in Dublin, California. It’s on a transit oriented development site near the BART station and it’s not only this project that I find unsuccessful. But there are several projects in that area that I just think the density is too low. I think that more units could fit on these pieces of property and taller buildings should have been built.
Why do you think that they went for a lower number of units?
This project was a townhouse project, in our feasibility study, looking at many different site constraints fit 30 units per acre on a side that was close to 2 acres and must have fit into what the city had zoned for that property. But just as as an urbanist thinking about responsible ways of developing housing near transit stations, I think that the city and state actually, this is an issue that the state is really grappling with, I think that development near transit centers should have a better mix of commercial and residential functions, business functions, and low density housing has no place in transit oriented development.
Let’s take an example of one of the projects that I mentioned in an earlier episode that I’m thinking of working on, which is a retail project, and we found a property in the Mission area of San Francisco. What do you think would be a good first few steps in determining if something could be transformed from an old warehouse to a retail center in this area of San Francisco? And is this even feasible from an investors perspective? In your opinion, is it worth the time to deal with this kind of property in this type of city where it can be somewhat difficult to get entitlements?
Outside of an architect’s services, a developer should, when thinking about entitlements, think about community engagement. So much of the approvals process for an architect is ink on paper, putting together your vision, documenting and illustrating it for the community, the city, and the stakeholders to see and get an idea of what they can anticipate on that property. I think that reaching out to the community is important, particularly in San Francisco, and not necessarily with an architect’s plan. Sometimes people see a plan and they’re so quick to become critical of exactly what you have delineated. And that can oftentimes discourage people from accepting essentially an idea that you have. Whether that is a plan or maybe you’ve determined what you want the elevations to look like, and you have this rendering of this welcoming, beautiful, wonderful development, the city members, some neighboring members of the community will inevitably be drawn to it and some will not. And so really, you can go to the community and just talk about what you want to do. You don’t necessarily have to show them exactly what you have planned in terms of graphics, and what you’re using to determine the value of the property. But to rally support from the members of the community is really an important aspect of what a developer does in order to secure entitlements.
When a project is being considered by the planning department, there’s a whole different set of factors that, because you have neighbors in close proximity and not just the person renting the unit in the building next door with the window facing above the roof that you’re going to redo or when restoring this property, or demolishing it and doing ground up construction. There’s going to be, due to the density in San Francisco, many more people having a say in what you can do.
Is there anything else that our audience should know?
Just an overview of entitlements, again, from a lofty, abstract way of talking about them for an architect, as we consider what can be built on a piece of property, we’re looking at a number of different factors and we’re looking at how the occupancy category so that the use can yield a certain square footage based off of construction type. And there’s five construction types. They range from most flammable to least flammable. If you’re building type 1, which is the least flammable, non combustible materials, then you can build taller. You build out of concrete and steel. And if you’re building out of type 5, the most flammable construction type, then you’re limited in stories and footprint.
There’s a number of factors when designing a project. And by that, I mean determining the value of a piece of property, aAnd securing those entitlements. When I think of schematic design, I think of determining the shape of a building. So you could create a facade on that building that is very modern. Or you could be restoring a historic facade, or creating a very minimalistic facade, or a facade with great deal of decoration.
But ultimately, the shape of this building, volumetrically the way this building takes shape, it’s almost like in schematic design during these feasibility studies, it’s very malleable. It’s like a piece of clay that can stretch and grow vertically and horizontally, and can step back and create terraces, and outdoor courtyards that can be U-shaped or L-shaped or O-shaped. And those are broad generalizations. This building can really take shape. And what happens in entitlements after you go through the city, and you work with public works, and you say we’ve located the utility rooms based off of where we can get water and where we can get electricity. And we’ve really worked with the city enough to get an idea of what the shape of this is going to be, and what the construction type is going to be, and how tall it’s going to be, and what’s the square footage of the floor plates are going to be, which is all absolutely through cost estimates tied to the proforma. And essentially what’s happening conceptually is this piece of clay, when it goes to the planning department, is entering the kiln, it’s solidifying. And oftentimes what will happen after a project has received that level of scrutiny and has been approved at that level, the project is sold. In determining the square footage, the height, the construction type, and many other factors, all of these things need to be determined and legally approved by the city in order to determine the value of the property.
What we’re doing when we look at these feasibility studies and develop it schematically is we’re determining the highest and best use for that property. And that’s the way I see it. That’s my notion of entitlements. And I’m a young architect, but that’s in my experience what we’re doing in that phase of the process. That’s the service that an architect provides.