Commercial Use in Residential Districts (ex. Corner Stores)
Commercial establishments/uses in residential zoning districts are also referred to as "Non-Conforming Uses (NCU)" or "Limited Conforming Uses" (LCU). A NCU is a use that was legally created with appropriate permits but due to changes in the San Francisco Planning Code (view the code online) has since become a use that would not be permitted in its zoning district, (i.e. the use is now non-conforming to the zoning district regulations). A LCU is low-intensity, neighborhood-serving commercial use, such as a Corner Store or a Restaurant, permitted in most Residential, Residential Commercial (RC) and Neighborhood Commercial Cluster (NC-1) zoning districts.
Read the FAQ.
There is an underlying presumption in the Planning Code that Non-Conforming Uses should be eliminated over time because they are contrary to other regulatory goals in the Code. Therefore, in residential districts (excluding Residential Commercial (RC) districts) Non-Conforming Uses (NCU) are given time limits to change to a conforming use and/or cease operating (i.e. they are "subject to termination"). However, in residential districts (with some exceptions), "neighborhood-serving" uses known as Limited-Conforming Uses (LCU) are not subject to termination and may continue for an indefinite period (see Section 186 of the Planning Code). LCUs may also change their use to other commercial uses as specified in the Planning Code (see Understanding What's Allowed).
Your NCU/LCU new building construction and/or NCU/LCU change of use project in a residential district will require the submittal of a Building Permit Application. Depending on the scope of work and zoning district of your property your project may require Neighborhood Notification and several accompanying Pre-Application steps. There is a Building Permit Application form and associated checklists and other materials that need to be provided (see Applying for My Permit below).
Most often, changes of use in residential districts refers to an addition or removal of dwelling units. The removal of dwelling units follows some additional procedures and is discussed separately on our Removal of Dwelling Units permitting page.
Depending on the scope of your project, you may also want to review the information for changing the use of buildings other than dwellings, such as Child Care or Religious Facilities.
It is recommended to visit or call Planning staff at the Planning Information Center (PIC) early in the planning of your project. The PIC is at 1660 Mission Street, 1st floor and may also be reached by phone at (415) 558-6377 or via email at email@example.com.
We also recommend you contact the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) to confirm their requirements before submitting your Building Permit Application. They can be reached at (415) 558-6088, or at 1660 Mission Street 1st floor Public Information Counter.
Understanding What's Allowed
Residential building expansion or change of building use are regulated by the San Francisco Planning Code. To maintain the character and purpose of distinct areas in San Francisco, the City's geography has been divided into distinct zoning use districts (view these zoning use districts on the San Francisco Zoning Map and Section 201 of the Planning Code). For each activity or use of land in any given zoning district, the Code states if that activity or use is either: Permitted; Conditional; or Not Permitted. Therefore knowing the zoning district of your property will help you identify what specific limits may apply to your project and which application materials you will need to submit.
You can find the zoning use district and height limits of your property on the Find My Zoning page, or directly from our San Francisco Property Information Map by entering your address or Assessor's Lot and Block number and click the "Zoning" tab. Once you know the zoning use district of your property, you can reference our useful handout, "Summarizing San Francisco's Residential Zoning District Controls" which summarizes regulations and Code controls for projects in residential districts.
Other Things To Consider
In addition to the zoning district and land use regulations in the San Francisco Planning Code, your application will also be reviewed under provisions in all of San Francisco's Municipal Codes, the San Francisco General Plan, and Department policies based on a number of criteria (e.g. the historical significance of your property, the environmental impact of your project, or other regulations).
Here are the most common regulations you will need to consider:
Pre-Application Process & Neighborhood Notification requirements
Most NCU/LCU permit applications require Neighborhood Notification, a process where the Planning Department mails a notice alerting neighbors and neighborhood groups in the vicinity of your proposed project and they are given a period of 30 days to respond with concerns or to request a Discretionary Review (DR). Depending on the scope of your project, you may also need to provide a "Pre-Application Notice" to nearby neighbors, and/or you may need to hold a "Pre-Application Meeting." The triggers for the Pre-Application Process are explained in the Pre-Application Information Packet.
LCU and Section 186 of the Planning Code
Certain Limited-Conforming Uses are not subject to termination and may continue for an indefinite period (see Section 186 of the Planning Code). Section 186 also allows you to:
Change the use of a LCU to certain specified Commercial uses.
Change to uses otherwise allowed only in Neighborhood Commercial Cluster (NC-1) districts, most notably hours of operation, which are limited to 6AM to 10PM. In this case, changes of use for an LCU would be subject to the same approval requirements as an Neighborhood Commercial Cluster (NC-1) zoning districts (e.g. uses that require a Conditional Use Authorization (CU) in NC-1 zoning districts would also require a CU in LCU).
LCU and proximity to nearby Neighborhood Commercial Districts
Limited-Conforming Uses may have additional limitations based on proximity to other nearby Neighborhood Commercial (NC) districts. If the LCU is within ¼ mile of certain other NC districts, uses otherwise allowed in Neighborhood Commercial Cluster (NC-1) might not be allowed in the LCU. The controls for NC-1 and other Neighborhood Commercial (NC) districts are in Section 710.1 of the San Francisco Planning Code. Contact the PIC to determine if this rule applies to your property.
Reverting back to NCU or LCU
Once any type of non-conforming use, including Limited-Conforming Uses, changes to a conforming or conditional use, it cannot revert back to an NCU or LCU in the future. In other words, it has lost its grandfathered non-conforming status. However, the Code allows that if such uses are destroyed by an “act of god,” they may be restored to their prior lawful use. Therefore, an LCU or NCU in a building that is destroyed by a catastrophic event may be reestablished.
LCU Expansion and Abandonment
A Limited-Conforming Use may be maintained and operated indefinitely, but may not expand. However, if they are abandoned (i.e. cease operating for a specified period of time), they are deemed to have lost their non-conforming status and any new use must conform to the current zoning.
NCU "Subject to Termination"
If your project involves a Non-Conforming Use that is not allowed in an Neighborhood Commercial Cluster (NC-1) district, it is subject to a termination date. An extension of the date may be requested by Conditional Use Authorization (CU). Typically this option would remain available even when an approved time extension has expired. For more information on "subject to termination" rules see Getting Started above.
Compliance with Residential Design Guidelines
In addition to the specific requirements of the Planning Code, buildings in Residential districts must conform to the Residential Design Guidelines which insure that the building's scale and architectural character are consistent with the surrounding neighborhood.
If your project involves alteration to structure that has been identified (through a Historic Resources Survey or other means) as a historic resource or if the structure is 50 years old or greater then there will most likely be additional materials and process involved in order to determine if the proposed work is appropriate. See our Historic Preservation section to read more about evaluating historic character and the additional procedures that might be required if a historic structure is impacted. Preservation Technical Specialists (planners with specialized training in evaluating impacts on historic resources) at the Planning Information Center (PIC) can help you understand what's allowed on your building. There are regularly scheduled hours where Preservation Technical Specialists are available to help you at the PIC, click here for more info.
Environmental impact of your project
Projects may require a separate Environmental Evaluation Application depending on the scope of the project. Typically, alterations to existing structures that do not substantially enlarge or intensify the uses on the site nor significantly impact an environmental resource such as a historic building do not require an additional environmental review submittal. Contact the PIC if you have questions as to whether your project will require environmental evaluation.
Removal of a street tree
If a tree needs to be removed due to construction, a tree removal permit will be required from the Department of Public Works (DPW) and a new tree would need to be installed. (Follow this link to apply for a tree removal permit on DPW's site.)
Through an effort to protect the City's most valuable, relevant and historic trees, the City has adopted tree protection legislation regarding certain trees. Be sure to check that a protected or landmarked tree won't be impacted by your project.
In some instances impact fees may apply to a change of use. Contact the PIC to determine if that is the case for your property.
Applying for Your Permit & Paying Fees
The following information must be submitted when applying for a Building Permit to construct a new building (with or without demolition) and/or change the use of a building in a residential district:
- Construction plans and/or drawings (existing and proposed floor plans are required for change of use projects). See our Plan Submittal Guidelines.
- Neighborhood Notification materials (if required)
- Forms provided in the Pre-Application Packet (required only if Pre-Application is required as part of the Neighborhood Notification process.)
- Forms provided in the Conditional Use Authorization (CU) Application (required only if seeking a Conditional Use Authorization)
Since every project is unique, we have a useful matrix handout, the Permit Application Checklist which explains submittal requirements based on the proposed work as described under "How to Use This Matrix." A checklist of required materials to be submitted with the Building Permit is also included in the Building Permit Application Packet which also describes the Neighborhood Notification process.
To submit a permit, prepare the Building Permit Application and bring it along with all necessary plans and materials as described in the Permit Application Checklist and/or Building Application Packet to the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) at 1660 Mission Street. If you are a new user, we recommend you come to the Planning Information Center (PIC) also at 1660 Mission Street before proceeding to DBI.
Permit fees are based on the construction cost of your project. To estimate permit fees, the Planning Department's fee schedule is available online. We also have a fee calculator for Building Permits reviewed by the Planning Department. If you have any questions, please stop by or call the Planning Information Center (PIC) staff at (415) 558-6377. Depending on your location and project type, impact fees may be required for new construction. Contact the PIC to see if these requirements apply to your property. Please note this is for the Planning Department's review fees only. Fees for review by the Building Department are available here. You may also call DBI at 558-6088.
Don't forget: Should the cost of staff time exceed the initial fee you paid, it is possible an additional fee for time and materials may be billed upon completion of the permit review process. Additional fees may also be collected for preparation and recordation of any documents with the San Francisco Assessor-Recorder’s office and for monitoring compliance with any conditions of approval.
Permit Review Process
If you have already visited the Planning Information Center (PIC) at 1660 Mission Street and you are confident you have all the correct materials for your Building Permit Application, your next step is to submit your application materials & fees listed in Applying for My Permit & Paying Fees to the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) at 1660 Mission Street.
After initial screening of your application by DBI, the Planning Department will review the application to confirm it is complete for Planning Department requirements. If information is missing, or if corrections are needed, you will be asked to return with that information. If Neighborhood Notification is not required, planners at the Planning Information Center (PIC) will review the application to determine if it complies with the San Francisco Planning Code (view the code online) and is consistent with our Residential Design Guidelines and the additional regulations detailed above in Understanding What's Allowed. If so, it may be approved over-the-counter. If Neighborhood Notification is required, the application will be taken in and routed to an assigned planner at the Planning Department.
3. Plan Review
Similar to Screening in Step 2, when the Planning Department reviews your application, an assigned planner will determine if the application complies with the San Francisco Planning Code (view the code online) and is consistent with our Residential Design Guidelines and the additional regulations detailed above in Understanding What's Allowed. In addition, according to Planning Code Sections 311/312 Neighborhood Notification procedures, prior to filing any Entitlement Application (this includes but is not limited to Building Permits, Variances, and Conditional Use Authorizations) the project sponsor must conduct a minimum of one Pre-Application Meeting if the proposed scope of work triggers such a meeting. The triggers for the Pre-Application Process are explained in the Pre-Application Information Packet. Once the planner determines that your project is approvable, he or she will initiate the Neighborhood Notification process.
Neighborhood Notification entails mailing an announcement of your project to neighbors and neighborhood groups so that they, or any person, may voice concerns they have over the proposal or so that they may request a Discretionary Review (a hearing seeking denial of the project or changes to the proposal before the San Francisco Planning Commission). The permit is held by Planning for a 30-day period from the date of mailed notification to allow adequate time for public review of the proposal. During the notification period, any person may ask the San Francisco Planning Commission to exercise its power of Discretionary Review over the Building Permit Application.
You will meet with review staff from different departments as directed by DBI, who will check your construction documents to verify the proposed construction will meet the various City Municipal Codes (view all codes online). Staff from the following departments will check a typical Building Permit for new building construction in a residential district (with or without demolition) and/or change the use of such a building:
- Department of Building Inspection (DBI)
- Department of Public Works (DPW)/Bureau of Streets Management (BSM) (if use of streetspace/sidewalk is needed)
- San Francisco Fire Department (depending on occupancy)
- Public Utilities Commission (PUC)
Other agencies may be involved depending on the scope of your project.
When all the reviews are complete, the permit will be issued, and you can begin work. Note, there is a 15-day period after Building Permit issuance in which any party may appeal the permit to the Board of Appeals.
Inspections of permitted work is the responsibility of the Department of Building Inspection. DBI's Inspection Services page explains their inspection function.
Applications & Handouts
Applications Mentioned On This Page
- Pre-Application Notification Packet
- Environmental Evaluation Application
- Conditional Use Application Packet