I’m asked this question all the time when my clients who need parking consider a house that doesn’t have a garage. There are many older homes in San Francisco—and a Planning Department that likes to retain the historical character of these buildings. Garages usually don’t fit into the period detail thing.
The answer is that you typically won’t be able to get a definitive answer on a garage permit before you submit an offer. But you can get an informal answer that may help guide your decisionmaking.
I talked with architect Steven Whitney, who recently provided input on a garage-free house my client was considering purchasing. You or your architect may be able to meet informally with someone at the Historic Preservation division within the Planning Department to get initial feedback on whether you may be able to install a garage, says Whitney. He adds that Preservation is conservative about changing facades of older buildings, and that they would look at whether there’s a pattern of other homes that have been given permission to install garages.
But even if there is such a pattern, Preservation would likely require an environmental evaluation (EE) to clarify if the house is a potential historic resource, adds Whitney. The EE would involve getting a report from a preservation architect and then waiting a few months for Preservation to review the report. The cost for the report and EE would probably total around $6,500.
If the house is found to be a potential historic resource, a more detailed report and further review will be necessary. Non-preservation aspects of the proposed design are also reviewed by the Planning Department. Whether the house is found to be a potential historic resource or not, the department uses their Residential Design Guidelines (RDG) to evaluate the proposed design. They also review the proposed curb cut location to be sure that it doesn’t remove more than one parking space from the street parking (related to the location of adjacent curb cuts), and they determine if the amount of excavation triggers another form of EE, says Whitney.
Since projects vary so much and can trigger different parts of the Planning Code, it’s best to visit the department’s public counter, the Planning Information Center (PIC) at 1660 Mission Street, for information on each project. (Whitney warns that lines are often long at the PIC, so it’s good to allow for plenty of time for the visit and to bring something to read.)
So, unfortunately, it often takes a long time and an investment on such projects to clarify what’s feasible with Preservation. Make sure you’re comfortable with having no garage after your purchase, and have a contingency plan in case Planning doesn’t greenlight a garage.