The property owners of One Montgomery admit that their building has been tenantless since 2019 and that their attached roof garden — which is supposed to be open to the public — has been inaccessible since 2019.
But as city agencies hone in on potential fines against One Montgomery for not maintaining the roof garden, a privately owned public open space, typically referred to by the acronym “POPOS,” the building’s property owners have started pushing back. And they aren’t alone.
For 40-plus years, downtown San Francisco has been littered with POPOS, which include small outdoor areas, atriums and other gathering places. The idea is straightforward: Passersby and workers and anyone else should be able to enjoy greenery and free communal spaces amid the city’s skyscrapers. The POPOS are generally supposed to be open to the public during business hours.
As SFGATE reported in December 2022 , a selection of POPOS has been shuttered for quite a while. For roughly three years, dating back to the start of the pandemic, San Francisco’s Planning Department made exceptions and didn’t enforce financial penalties against properties with closed POPOS. The Planning Department’s patience has since run out. On March 17, it issued a notice of violation — basically, a final threat to reopen a POPOS before fines really start adding up — at One Sansome. On April 13, the Planning Department filed a separate notice of violation at One Montgomery.
The One Montgomery situation will ultimately come down to a chicken-or-the-egg interpretation of local ordinances currently being decided on by the city’s zoning administrator.
In its notice of violation, the Planning Department noted that over a four-month span between December 2022 and late March, it conducted four site inspections at One Montgomery, each time observing that the roof garden was not accessible to the public. The department gave One Montgomery’s property owners 15 days to reopen the POPOS or appeal the notice of violation to the zoning administrator, who enforces the city’s planning codes.
One Montgomery’s property owners — believed to be REDCO Development, which purchased the site for $82 million in 2019 — opted to appeal. In an April 27 appeal letter, their legal team countered that One Montgomery currently has no staffing or security, since it has no tenants. “It is simply unreasonable to require the POPOS be open to the public while the Property is closed,” it wrote. “It would require the owner to undertake significant expense to open, staff and operate the vacant building solely to provide access to rooftop open space.”
If and when the One Montgomery property owners find a tenant, which is a big if and when, they’ve assured the Planning Department and zoning administrator that they’ll promptly reopen the POPOS. In the meantime, they don’t want to budge.
That’s not really their call, though. On May 16, Zoning Administrator Corey Teague held a brief hearing to gather more information about One Montgomery’s appeal. Representatives for the property insisted that their empty building presents safety issues to POPOS visitors and that they don’t have the staffing to oversee the POPOS itself. Teague hinted that he was looking into how to alleviate those safety issues, if he decides to rule that the POPOS needs to reopen with or without tenants. But he also signaled that he was weighing One Montgomery’s arguments.
“We’re having multiple engagements with property owners about reopening their POPOS at different stages of the conversation and process. … There’s a lot of city effort to encourage people to go back downtown, especially during weekdays,” Teague said. He later added, “[We’re] definitely not singling out this property. This is a larger issue we’re trying to address.”
Teague will issue a new letter within 30 days of May 16, with three possible outcomes: He will side with the Planning Department’s original notice of violation, he will amend it to be more flexible in light of downtown San Francisco’s struggles or, perhaps, he will side with One Montgomery entirely.
The outcome at One Montgomery has many implications for downtown’s other POPOS , especially at similarly tenantless buildings.
One Sansome’s notice of violation has veered off in a different direction. The building’s POPOS, an atrium, was also closed for years, dating back to 2019. One Sansome’s property owners, Barker Pacific Group, repeatedly cited building renovations and ensuing supply chain issues for the continued closure of the atrium.
The good news for POPOS fans is the atrium did recently reopen. The less-good news for POPOS fans is what comes next: One Sansome’s property owners have pitched the city a new proposal that would make the atrium into a sometimes-private ritzy events space, which includes a restaurant and bar .
As the property owners described it in a March 24 letter to the Planning Department, their proposal “will bring people back to Downtown San Francisco at a time when it is struggling to recover from the Pandemic, while also preserving the Conservatory for public use during most hours of the day when people would be expected to use public open space.”
One Sansome is asking for “up to 12 24-hour weekday uses of the [atrium] for private events per year, with no monthly limit,” as well as “up to 24 partial weekday closures of the [atrium] per year.” The owners say that’s just a small fraction of the amount of time the atrium will otherwise be open to the public and constitutes a fair compromise in a changing downtown that’s in desperate need of foot traffic.
“The Project will be a bellwether to achieving the Mayor’s vision for Downtown,” they wrote in their proposal. “It will activate a key corner with a new and flexible — albeit infrequent — use that will contribute to Downtown’s reputation as an event destination at a time when the area is still reeling from vacancies and low patronage. The positive impact of the Project will be felt throughout Downtown.”
The next step for One Sansome is a hearing with the Planning Department — the date is still to be decided but will be relatively soon.
It too will have implications for the future of POPOS, the presence of which seems to be viewed increasingly by downtown property owners as a nuisance rather than a benefit.