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New Bill Would Expand Zoning to Allow Housing Units on Shopping Mall Property

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- With much of the Bay Area already built out, it is a challenge to find places to create much-needed housing. But a bill in the state legislature would make it easier to build homes in commercial areas such as shopping malls.

The Hilltop Mall in Richmond isn't really a mall at all anymore. Its main anchor stores Macy's, Sears and JC Penney closed up years ago.

It's not so bleak at Stonestown Galleria in San Francisco, but inside, there are currently a number of vacant storefronts.

"A lot of people that I know just shop online, honestly. Or they find cheaper options online," said Jennifer Gonzalez. She and Valerie Varrigan are students at nearby SF State University.

There is a proposal by the mall's owners to turn the property into a town-center setting, adding 3,000 housing units to the mall's vast parking lots.

"I think it's really interesting that we're trying to use the resources that we already have, creating housing for people that need it," said Varrigan. "Especially right now, because it's hard to find housing for students."

At malls across the Bay Area, the expansive properties are being seen as a golden opportunity to build large mixed-use housing projects on land that is already developed along transit corridors and near residential neighborhoods.

Todd David with the Housing Action Coalition considers this so-called "adaptive reuse" a win-win.

"These malls are existing structures in existing neighborhoods, right? It is a great way to add housing in an environmentally friendly manner," said David.

But malls are not eligible for residential use under most cities' general zoning plans and changing those can be a time-consuming hassle. So SB-6, which has now cleared the State Senate, would automatically include "residential use" in the malls' commercial zoning statewide.

"This would be an opportunity to build new housing units in already existing buildings. To repurpose, basically, the inside or parking lots or things like that," said David

Housing advocate say some cities are opposing SB-6 over a possible loss of tax revenue because residential property is taxed at a lower rate than commercial property. The bill wouldn't force cities to allow housing in commercial developments, but it would make it easier for those who want to try it.

And with the pressure that cities are under to meet housing quotas, "living at the mall" may become popular again.

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