Chinatown Area Plan


San Francisco has the oldest and second largest Chinese American community in the United States (New York is first). The Chinese were participants at Portsmouth Square when San Francisco celebrated the admission of California into the Union. The Square was the heart of San Francisco and while the City expanded, the Chinese stayed in the area. For over 100 years, Chinatown has stood in this same location. In no other ethnic community of the City can be found such concentration and continuity of history.

The Plan Area

The area covered by this Plan area includes 30 blocks in whole or in part on the eastern slopes of Nob Hill as well as portions of Russian Hill. The financial district lies to the east of Chinatown and just south is the Union Square retail area. Grant Avenue, Stockton Street and the hill side blocks that intersect them comprise the core of Chinatown. The district is one to three blocks in width and about ten blocks in length.

Chinatown History

Chinatown contains blocks and streets laid out in the first official mapping of the city. Grant Avenue (called Dupont Street before the earthquake) is actually the oldest street in the City. The original activities in the area, especially around Portsmouth Square were maritime, handling the imported goods and supplying food, drink and entertainment to travelers.

The impetus for Chinese migration to San Francisco by young men of the Canton region of China (a major port) during and after the Gold Rush involved both political conditions in China and mining and railroad building activities in California. China's war with Britain over opium (China sought to reduce its trade) had forced opening of certain Chinese ports including Canton. Internal conditions and upheaval motivated many young men to seek to earn money outside China, with an intent to help their families and to eventually return.

The earliest center of Chinese business in San Francisco was along Sacramento Street (1853­63). San Francisco was also a staging area during the next decade for the many Chinese engaged in mining and railroad building in rural parts of California. During the American Civil War, the Chinese participated in emerging light industries in California, shoe, cigar and garment factories. In San Francisco most Chinese businesses sold Chinese merchandise, dry goods, food and medicines or provided services. As the Chinese population grew, the Chinatown business area grew too.

Labor unrest and hostility to Chinese workers built up after the Civil War. It was largely caused by unemployment from the slow down of the war time economy and the depletion of the gold mines. Anti­Chinese legislation was further stimulated by some bigoted politicians. Chinese workmen and businesses were harassed. Federal laws (Exclusion Acts) were passed to limit further migration from China. Local laws were passed that restricted Chinese businesses. Even a ghetto ordinance was once briefly in effect in San Francisco.

Strong organizations of mutual support, including consolidation of several associations (Consolidated Benevolent Association or "Chinese Six Companies") were formed to provide aid, mediate disputes and to protest anti-Chinese legislation. The restrictions on Chinese businesses and the ghetto ordinance were eventually found unconstitutional. Family and District Associations still form a very important part of the Chinatown community and own and occupy a number of buildings containing businesses, lodging and meeting space.

After the Civil War to 1900, Chinatown may have actually had a larger population than lives in the same area now. It was a male enclave. By 1890, the Census indicated that the total Chinese population in California was 72,472 and 96% male. By l900, this population has reportedly dropped to 45,753 and did not increase to over 40,000 statewide again until 1950. San Francisco's Chinatown sheltered a majority of this population.

Chinatown After the 1906 Earthquake

When the original Chinatown was destroyed in the l906 earthquake, it was quickly rebuilt in the same location on the south slope of lower Nob (short for "Nabob") Hill. Anti­Chinese political pressure was also felt in this rebuilding process. A civic committee recommended that Chinatown instead be relocated to the then distant Bayshore edge of the City.

Under the leadership of the merchant, Look Tin Eli, some of the rebuilding was consciously geared to the visible identification of Chinatown as Chinese. Use of lively red, green and yellow colors, balconies with Chinese motifs, roof details, pagoda style towers at the Grant and California intersection were meant to attract shoppers to Chinese art goods bazaars and restaurants. Look Tin Eli's plan was to create "veritable fairy palaces filled with choicest treasures of the Orient". Perhaps the popularity of a Chinese Pavilion in the Midwinter Exposition in Golden Gate Park several years before served as an inspiration.

Housing in pre-World War II Chinatown still reflected the mostly male population. Chinese men, by now aging, lived in small dormitory or hotel-type rooms.

The Residents of Chinatown Today

Chinatown's population began to change in the late l960's with the liberalization of immigration laws. Migration from Hong Kong and other areas of Chinese population in Asia brought about a large increase in Chinatown's population, creating a shortage of affordable housing. The new population brought new vitality to the neighborhood and enlarged the market for Asian goods. Concurrently, Chinese residents from Chinatown began to move into other neighborhoods of San Francisco, notably the Richmond and Sunset districts. Although many Chinese left Chinatown, they continue to shop there and to maintain a strong level of contact with the religious, social and political institutions.

The plan area resident population in l980 was estimated at 10,000, virtually all of whom are Chinese. The arrival of young families since that time has probably increased the population. The study area is part of 13 adjacent census tracts in the northeastern part of the city whose total 29,000 Chinese residents represent approximately a third of the total Chinese population in the City. In l979, the median household income of the plan area population was about $10,100, half of the median income in San Francisco at that time. The social and economic characteristics of Chinatown lead to concern about the standard of living space for the largely elderly or immigrant population, and the sustainability of resources including shopping and social agencies to continue to serve this population.

Preservation and Conservation


Maintain the low-rise scale of Chinatown's buildings.

Although adjacent to Downtown, Chinatown is not the appropriate setting for tall buildings. Seventy five percent of the structures in Chinatown are three stories or less in height. Height districts in the Planning Code should be based on the generalized height plan below. Requiring setbacks for new buildings above three stories will help achieve a complementary scale.

Promote a building form that harmonizes with the scale of existing buildings and width of Chinatown's streets.

The Chinatown area is primarily composed of small-scaled buildings. Most existing buildings are quite low and due to the pattern of the lots, many are relatively short in depth as well. The typical lot size is only 3,500 square feet. The few large buildings in the area intrude into this fine-scaled texture of development. Further development along these lines would severely damage the appearance of this historic part of the city and would also produce deeply shadowed streets.

Urban design guidelines should be applied to new construction in Chinatown, other than construction within the Chinese Hospital Special Use District, in order to (1) integrate new buildings into the dominant fine scale of development characterized by small varied buildings in a manner that does not create sharp contrasts in scale or significantly alter the texture of the area as viewed from surrounding areas and (2) maintain the unifying rhythm of facade widths and the general scale of street walls as viewed from the streets. Generally, buildings above a height of 40 feet should not exceed a width (measured parallel to the street) of 50 to 75 feet or a maximum diagonal of 100 feet. As buildings approach these dimensions, increasingly stronger measures will be required to minimize the apparent bulk and scale of the project and insure a harmonious fit with the contextual setting. Larger projects may necessitate division of the facade into independent designs, changes of height of several floors and setbacks to achieve the desired relationship.

These design controls have been presented as guidelines rather than rigid rules. This is essential given the wide range of sites and situations in which a project may be proposed. The ultimate development potential in a given property is dependent not only on the zoning and height limit by also on the nature of surrounding development.

Retain Chinatown's sunny, wind-free environment.

An oldtimers' expression about weather in Chinatown is that "the fog never comes to Chinatown." The sunny and wind-free climate is important to the comfort of residents and visitors because most people walk rather than drive in Chinatown. To achieve and protect as much sun as possible on public sidewalk during midday hours, setback requirements are needed for various streets in Chinatown. Retaining lower height buildings reduces the potential increase of wind currents at street level.

Protect the historic and aesthetic resources of Chinatown.

Chinatown has been an identifiable part of San Francisco for over a hundred years. Post earthquake Chinatown was built on its original site. In some cases, the original bricks were reused. The area includes over 250 historically and/or architecturally important buildings which date from Chinatown's early post earthquake years and retain their historic integrity. Insensitive alteration and dramatic shifts in scale threaten the character of the area.

Over the years, significant buildings have been demolished and original storefronts have been altered beyond recognition. Appropriate measures should be taken to protect these resources.

Mixed Use


Chinatown has three major roles:

Although the land uses associated with these functions tend to cluster, there is in fact, much overlap and intermixing.

Village, Capital City, Tourist Center

Define mixed use subdistricts based on the predominant type of ground level use.

Base zoning on the generalized land use and density map below.

Housing and Open Space


Conserve existing housing.

Chinatown's 6,500 housing units, with their moderate rent are a virtually irreplaceable housing resource. The protection already provided to residential hotel units (two thirds of Chinatown's housing) needs to be extended to apartment units as well. Demolition should be allowed only if that is the only way to protect public safety or for a specific use in which there is a high degree of community need. Low cost housing removed by new development should be replaced on a unit for unit basis and adequate relocation assistance for all displaced persons should be assured.

Increase the supply of housing.

New zoning controls in Chinatown should insure that a substantial part of new buildings will consist of housing. In selected areas of Chinatown, height incentives related to provision of affordable housing should be provided. New residential development should be linked to new commercial development. While market rate housing may have standard parking requirements, other forms of housing in Chinatown may not need as much parking.

Seismically upgrade unreinforced masonry buildings without imposing undue financial burdens or permanent displacement of residents.

Approximately half of Chinatown's buildings are unreinforced masonry. Many of these buildings should be retained because of their historical and architectural importance. The cost of full seismic upgrade is considerable and would cause displacement of tenants, but some safety measures allowing safe exodus are less costly. The City is investigating the feasibility of encouraging such safety measures as additional bracing and tying of floors. Such measures provide a substantial amount of protection and can be done at lower cost than a full upgrade. If work is done on an older building with low income tenants in an historic district, as much as 60% of the cost can be taken as federal income tax credits under the l986 tax law.


Protect and enhance neighborhood serving character of commercial uses in predominantly residential areas.

Most such uses occur in small stores and shops, so the regulation of size and the street frontage can protect existing smaller enterprises from displacement by larger operations and can help maintain diversity.

Control proliferation of uses that tend to crowd out the needed neighborhood services.

Such uses as financial institutions, conventional fast food vendors and jewelry stores tend to displace smaller retail spaces and neighborhood shops and need to be limited or subject to discretionary approval.

Guide the location of tourist oriented uses away from predominantly residential neighborhood commercial areas.

Such uses as large restaurants and gift stores do not belong in residential neighborhood commercial areas because they do not primarily serve the local residents. Furthermore, the neighborhood economy is vital for the tourist industry itself. Tourists come to Chinatown not only to shop and eat, but to see a thriving Chinese community with small businesses and institutions that cater to residents. These uses should not be crowded out by tourist-oriented uses.

Expand open space opportunities.

Chinatown has long been designated as a high-need neighborhood and has been granted acquisition funds for a new park in the Prop. J Open Space acquisition program. Chinatown has been the only designated high-need neighborhood which as of 1987 had not yet received a new park. Site acquisition in such a densely built-up area containing so much residential population has been extremely difficult, but the City is proceeding to acquire a site on Powell Street.

Both conventional and innovative means of assembling open space should be explored. In addition to the much needed new park, Chinatown has opportunities to use and develop alternative forms of open space including, school yards, alleyways and sidewalks. Air rights on existing publicly-owned property such as Ping Yuen housing complexes should be used for additional open space. Finally, existing resources should be used in ways that enable more people to benefit from high quality outdoor areas.

The following specific measures should be pursued:



The San Francisco Convention and Tourist Bureau reports that of the two to three million visitors to San Francisco each year, at least three out of four visit Chinatown. During peak visitor days, visitors may outnumber local residents. An estimated one third of the estimated 20,000 jobs in Chinatown are related to visitors and therefore its tourist role is important to the neighborhood.

Maintain Grant Avenue as the traditional specialty retailing area.

Grant Avenue is a specialty shopping street with a concentration of Chinese style architectural detailing that contributes to the City's visual diversity. Many of the tourist-oriented restaurants and gift shops are concentrated here. The street's present character, use and scale should be retained while allowing a modest potential for future economic expansion.



Chinatown functions as a capital city and center of civic, religious and political organization, as well as a specialized shopping area for the larger Chinese population of the Bay Area. There are about 200,000 Chinese in the Bay Area and about 2/3 of this population lives in San Francisco.

Provide incentives for location and expansion of institutions and cultural facilities.

Institutional land use including space for social agencies comprises a significant share of all floor area in Chinatown. Family and District Associations whose roots go back to the first settlement of Chinatown are important agencies in the provision of various support service to their members. There are approximately 140 family and district association in the planning area. There are also a number of health and social service agencies. Public and private health, educational and welfare agencies which provide support services to Chinatown residents should not have to compete with commercial uses for activity space. Limits on commercial floor area should not apply to institutional land uses.

Provide for modest expansion of community business offices related to Capital City role.

Kearny Street and vicinity have more potential for added office development than other parts of Chinatown. Changes should be carefully managed, however, to avoid excessive new development.



Chinatown is characterized by high pedestrian volumes and intensive use of public transportation. During peak shopping times, the sidewalks, especially along Stockton Street and Grant Avenue, fill with throngs of visitors and residents. At these times, buses may move at the same speed or even more slowly than pedestrians.

Pedestrian space needs to be maximized where possible. Chinatown residents, 75% of whom have no cars echo need for more frequent and less crowded bus service and better east-west links. Paratransit is also an important part of the transportation system in Chinatown.

Implement measures responsive to pedestrian needs such as scramble system intersections, increased duration of walk signals, and limits on auto use in alleys

Make MUNI routes more reflective of and responsive to Chinatown ridership, including bilingual signage, schedules, maps.

Improve and increase parking enforcement; use enforcement and rate structures to encourage short term parking; operate meters seven days a week. Improve and increase parking enforcement; use enforcement and rate Improve Improve and increase parking enforcement; use enforcement and rate structures to encourage short term parking; operate meters seven days a week.

Increase public short-term parking opportunities; set rates to discourage long-term parking.

Parking is extremely difficult to find in Chinatown. Provision of a new off-street parking facility is a high priority. However, locating such a facility without displacement of residents or businesses is a problem. Other parking solutions include increasing the joint use of existing parking, expansion of metered spaces, increased enforcement to increase the turnover of on-street parking, and increased parking fees and improved transit service to reduce demand.

Since Chinatown is adjacent to the financial district, downtown commute patterns and goods movements are major contributors to congestion. Morning peak traffic often conflicts with local truck loading, particularly for meat and produce. Changes in timing for deliveries could reduce such conflicts.

Minimize truck loading/unloading conflicts.

Implement concentrated commercial loading zones and uniform truck delivery schedules.



Amendment by Resolution 13907 adopted on 7/6/1995.

Amendments by Board of Supervisors Ordinance 0193-12 adopted on 12/09/2003.