The Supreme Court declared last week that, under the Fifth Amendment, local governments might have to compensate property owners when local laws suspend existing private property rights.

I wonder how this is playing in San Francisco, where unusual policies adopted in 1985 are controlling urban growth. To preserve the city's character, ensure architectural quality and direct development, San Francisco drastically curtailed land use allowed under previous zoning.

The new law imposed city-wide annual quotas on office space -- 950,000 square feet for 1986, reduced by voter initiative to 475,000 square feet for 1987. The government down-zoned properties, delineated no-growth districts, increased open space requirements and earmarked hundreds of older buildings for mandatory preservation.

Costly fees for off-site public facilities, amounting to more than $15 per square foot of building floor space are "exacted" from developers of office projects exceeding 25,000 square feet.

Moreover, the city planning commission is empowered to approve or reject individual projects based on seven criteria, including consistency with master plan objectives and policies, design quality, suitability of project location and contextual impact, market need and effect on employment.

What have been the consequences of San Francisco's controversial experiment and how have people reacted to it?

In the eyes of many, the city may be confiscating without just compensation. Skeptics claim that these aggressive policies, while stifling future real estate development, will add punitive time and money burdens to any new developments.

In 1986, the plan's first year, every project proposed was rejected, usually because architectural merit and market need were judged to be lacking. The development community was outraged.

There was speculation that the planning commission was trying to show the public that it and the plan had teeth, perhaps a ploy to deter voter sentiment from modifying the original 950,000-square-foot quota. If so, it backfired; a few months later, Proposition M passed by a slim margin and cut the quota in half.

But finally, this May, a med- ical office building was approved under the annual limit. Architect Jeffrey Heller, whose firm designed the building, said he was "relieved; two years of intense and costly effort resulted in the first project to survive the nation's most demanding process."

Heller and others support the intent of the plan but are critical of the procedures and quotas that they feel are onerous and unfair. They point out that the process is particularly daunting for developers of small projects, as well as their architects, who often have insufficient resources and staying power needed for the lengthy, expensive ordeal.

They also point out that the office space limit, while aspiring to link project development to market need and availability of infrastructure, only applies to certain projects. Many other types of projects are exempted -- buildings in redevelopment districts, hotels and residential structures. Nor does the limit apply to projects that started through the building permit review process prior to adoption of the new law, "old dogs that nobody would have built," according to Heller.

And some San Franciscans believe that planning commission decisions are motivated largely by political and economic considerations, despite the design goals stated in the law.

Reflecting this concern, a recent symposium on the new plan was titled "shaping San Francisco's skyline: by power politics or architectural merit."

For the projects still pending in what has been dubbed the annual "beauty contest," the commission appointed a new architectural review panel.

National in scope, it included Richard Bender, dean of the College of Environmental Design at the University of California at Berkeley, Boston Globe architectural critic Robert Campbell, and architect Robert Geddes, a professor at Princeton University.

The panel just recommended three high-rise projects totaling 626,000 square feet, much to the satisfaction of the development community. They were designed by nationally known architectural firms -- Johnson (as in Philip) and Burgee, Skidmore Owings & Merrill, and Kohn Pederson Fox -- for consequential clients -- Gerald D. Hines Interests, the London and Edinburgh Trust (a British developer), and the Federal Home Loan Bank. The commission votes on the projects next week.

San Francisco Chronicle architecure critic Allan Temko reported that the recommended projects "generally conform to the antimodernist policies of the downtown plan.

"Their masonry services are vigorously articulated and replete with purely decorative or psuedo-historical touches as the plan demands; and although none has the sort of pointy top lately favored by the planners, each in its own way meets the sky with finality," Temko wrote.

However, two other projects, totaling 607,000 square feet, were not recommended after being rated less-than-excellent architecturally. Their sponsors were advised to improve the designs and resubmit them next year. Fortunately, unused portions of the 1987 space quota can be carried over to 1988, but the delay could be costly.

The panel scrutinized everything from density to choice of materials to details. Even the comments about the winners were qualified: "a modest and inoffensive building that respects its context"; "the window and door frames of the base are richly ornamented, but the cornice is corny"; "the design is less succcessful than many of the older buildings it is based on."

Clearly, a process that includes this kind of review and subjective judgment, one in which developers must compete just to get permission to risk building a project, is making everyone think twice about design, economics, politics and the law.

The plan and its protocols may well elevate the standards of architecture and urban design while preserving San Francisco's historic image. And they may succeed in forcing development to occur where it is the most beneficial socially and economically, and in limited quantities presumably geared to actual need.

But the city has taken a big chance. No new downtown projects have been proposed for the coming year because of the quotas and the rigors of gaining approval, Heller said.

He believes that with a strong, visionary plan and high design standards, quotas should be unneccessary. "You can't legislate good design," he argues.

Courts ultimately may agree. The city soon may have to prove legally that some of its restrictions on private property are not confiscatory. It may have to show that the need to protect public health, safety and welfare -- and the city's image -- are compelling. And arguing that safeguarding "image" is constitutionally mandated could be a tough legal assignment.

Regardless of court rulings, San Francisco undoubtedly will have to continue testing and fine tuning its plan and regulations to get everything it wants: good design, new investment, sustained economic vitality and a liveable city whose cityscape and architecture are preserved.

NEXT: Architectural review bodies. Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.