Information on building expansion or changing the use in a Commercial district.
Your building expansion and/or change of use project in a commercialdistrict will require the submittal of a Building Permit Application. Depending on the scope of work and zoning district of your property your project may be approvable over-the-counter (OTC) if the project is exempt from environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), or, it may require Neighborhood Notification and several accompanying Pre-Application steps.
Got permitting questions?
Read the FAQ
Depending on the scope of your project, you may also want to review the information for changing the use of buildings other than commercial structures, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
Building expansion or change of use in a Commercial district is 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.
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 building expansion and/or change of use projects require Neighborhood Notification (with a few exceptions, see below), 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.
Expansions or change of use in Residential Commercial (RC) zoning districts do not require Neighborhood Notification and may be approvable over-the-counter (OTC). Follow the instructions above for how to find the zoning use district of your property to find out what requirements apply to your project.
Additionally, there are some minor expansions within Neighborhood Commercial districts otherwise subject to notice where Neighborhood Notification is not required, see Zoning Administrator Bulletin 4 regarding notification for minor expansion Building Permits.
Yard and setback requirements
In some of San Francisco's residential commercial zones the Planning Code requires property owners to follow yard and setback requirements. For more details, you can reference our handout, Zoning Administrator Bulletin 5.
"Buildable are of the lot"
You may expand your building within the "buildable area of the lot". For these expansion projects and most change of use projects, "notification" to neighbors (known as Neighborhood Notification) will be required (except in Residential Commercial (RC) districts).
- Historic Resources
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. Generally, most commercial or industrial changes of use without an increase in the building footprint and/or envelope are considered "categorically exempt" from environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and do not require an environmental evaluation. You can read a summary of the environmental review process on our Environmental Planning (formerly MEA) web page which includes a list of projects other categorically exempt projects. However if the proposed new use is large and/or considerably more intense than the prior use, additional environmental review may be required. Likewise, if the proposed project would expand existing building(s) with an addition of greater than 10,000 square feet, it is likely environmental review will be required. If your proposed project is not exempt from CEQA, you will need to submit an Environmental Evaluation Application. The application also includes contact phone numbers if you have questions about the need for environmental review. If environmental review is required it must be completed before any approval actions are taken. Contact the PIC if you have questions as to whether your project will require environmental evaluation.
Loss of dwelling units (i.e. housing units)
If your proposed project or change of use would displace any dwelling unit, please see our Removing Dwelling Units permitting how-to page.
Affordable housing requirements for new construction of five or more dwelling units
New construction of five or more units is subject to an affordable housing requirement (see Section 415.3 of the San Francisco Planning Code).
Construction of more than six dwelling units
Projects that include more than six residential units are subject to a Preliminary Project Assessment (PPA). This is a preliminary process that evaluates moderate to large projects before development applications are filed. Our goal is to provide you with assistance in advance of your application submittal, so that the application materials are complete and accurate, reducing the need for correction cycles that will delay approval.
"Change of Use" as defined in Planning Code vs. Building Code
Don't forget that what constitutes a change of use is very different under the San Francisco Planning and San Francisco Building Code. The Planning Code defines uses more narrowly based on the type of activity taking place. Understanding "Change of Use" as it's defined in both City Codes is complicated. We recommend you contact the PIC to ensure you know exactly what is legally allowed for your project.
Formula Retail Use
Certain uses may be considered “Formula Retail” uses under the Planning Code and may be subject to additional regulations and process (i.e. chain retail stores). For more information, see our Formula Retail page.
Hours of operation & "Conditional Use Authorization" (CU)
Commercial uses in certain districts such as Neighborhood Commercial districts (NCD), Chinatown Mixed Use Districts and specific Downtown Residential Mixed Use Districts may have restrictions on the hours of operation. Depending on the scope of your project and the zoning district of your property, later hours will require a Conditional Use Authorization (CU) or in some cases it may not be permitted.
Expansions of commercial buildings or changes of use may require a new parking space or require an exception to that requirement through a Variance Hearing. Contact the PIC for help in determining your parking requirement.
If your proposed project would include any live entertainment, amplified sound, or amusement devices it may require a permit from the Entertainment Commission. Also, in certain zoning districts, entertainment activities accessory to, or within other establishments (e.g. live music in a bar) may constitute a separate use under the San Francisco Planning Code with separate Neighborhood Notification and/or approval requirements.
Any new signage would require a separate sign permit. See our Signs permitting page.
Addition of street trees
Alterations to buildings that add substantial additional size, garages, or additional parking, among other things, must install street tree(s) (see San Francisco Planning Code, Section 138.1).
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 an expansion or 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 expand a building and/or change the use of a building:
- 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 (if a Pre-Application Meeting is required)
- 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 under "Other Things to Consider." If so, it may be approved over-the-counter (OTC). 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 under "Other Things to Consider." 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 building expansion and/or change of use:
- 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 Health Department (if food handling is required)
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
Handouts Mentioned On This Page