Wiener goes after historic preservation

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Sup. Scott Wiener is pushing a bill that would make it more difficult to create historic districts in San Francisco, and it’s already cleared the Land Use and Economic Development Committee.

UPDATE: Milk Club calls on Sup. Olague to drop her support for the bill.

The measure hasn’t received a lot of news media attention, but it could have a far-reaching effect on development in San Francisco.

In essence, the Wiener bill amends two parts of the city planning code to tighten the requirements for designating a part of the city as a protected historic area -- a designation that makes it harder to demolish or substantially alter buildings.
Developers and some property owners dislike the historic designation. Perservationists see it as a way to prevent the destruction of buildings and neigbhorhoods that are a part of the city’s heritage.

Classic example: In the 1980s, members of the Residential Builders Association were tearing down vintage Victorians in the Richmond district and replacing them with boxy, multi-unit apartments that were worth more money than a single-family home. The builders made a lot of quick cash; the city lost some elegant old houses that can never be replaced.

They couldn’t do that as easily in Alamo Square, which is a historic district.

On the other hand, the owners of those stately well-protected houses in these special districts have to go through increased Planning Department scrutiny any time they want to make any substantial alteration in the structure.

Context: Less than 1 percent of the developed part of San Francisco is currently in a historic district. It’s not a huge deal, and most people don’t pay any attention to this stuff.

But it’s important, and here’s why: One, this city doesn’t care enough about its past -- but more important, preservation is a tool that can be used to prevent very bad things from happening.

If we’d had good historic preservation laws in the 1970s, the International Hotel could have been designated an historic structure and wouldn’t have been demolished. Same, possibly, for the Goodman Building. Preservation laws could have been used to fight some of the horrors of redevelopment, which mowed down African American and Filipino neighborhoods in the 1960s and 1970s.

Some of Wiener’s suggestions are relatively benign. He wants to exempt affordable housing units from the laws that apply to historic districts, and Sup. Christina Olague, his co-sponsor, wants an economic hardship exemption so that the owners of buildings, particularly in communities of color, can avoid expensive battles over minor repairs and alterations.

I’m fine with all of that. I’m all for it. Good idea. Although it’s not fair to say that this process was driven by a concern for affordable housing; I spoke to Peter Cohen, at the Council of Community Housing Organizations, and he told me that the idea didn’t come from his crew. Not one affordable housing activist showed up at the Land Use hearing to support the Wiener bill.

But the measure also adds more burdens to the process of designating an historic district. It mandates a written survey of all property owners and occupants in an area proposed for historic designation -- an expensive and cumbersome thing that isn’t required for commercial development, demolitions, zoning changes, massive market-rate housing projects, full-on gentrification, or anything else that screws up neighborhoods.
It requires the Planning Commission to consider whether historic preservation conflicts with “the provision of housing to meet the city’s regional housing needs allocation,” which is odd because the commission didn’t consider that when it approved 8 Washington, which directly conflicts with the city’s housing needs allocation, or when it’s allowed 20,000 units of mostly high-end housing over the past decade without any provision for the proper corresponding amount of affordable housing.

In short, it gives opponents of historic preservation more ways to stop new protections. That’s going to make developers very happy.

I asked Wiener why he decided to do this, what the problem was that this law is meant to solve. His answer: There are lots of potential new historic districts (including where he lives, in the Duboce Park and Dolores Street areas) and he wants to be sure that there’s a “robust community process.” Excuse me, Supervisor: There’s a robust community process every time anyone does anything in this town, and designating a historic district is no different.

Also: “A lot of people believe that in some situations, historic preservation can be taken to the extremes. This is a real hot topic for the city.”

Now here’s where it gets interesting (and even more complicated). There’s a neighborhood group called the Mission Dolores Neighborhood Association that’s been trying for almost seven years to get the area between Market and 20, Valencia and Sanchez designated a historic district. Peter Lewis, a musician who has been leading the battle, told me that he got involved because developers were tearing down some important old buildings (a Willis Polk building on Dolores and 15th came down a few years ago) and he wanted to halt it.
The group’s got sophistication and resources -- MDNA has raised $80,000 for the necessary studies and has been working the the Planning Department and the Historic Preservation Commission.

Wiener is opposed to the idea -- particularly the concept of including the Dolores Street median (designed by John Mclaren, he of Golden Gate Park fame) and Dolores Park in the district. The median’s already a state landmark.

“He’s been very polite to us, but he’s made it clear he doesn’t want to see streets or parks included in any historic designation,” Lewis told me.
Why? Well, for one thing, the Planning Department is talking about building bulb-outs on Dolores as a traffic-calming measure. Historic designation for the median might make that more difficult. And Lewis opposes the bulb-outs for all the wrong reasons: “They just want to get people out of their cars,” he said, dismissively.

But really: Is this all worth pushing a measure that could undermine preservation and encourage demolitions and bad development all over the city? Is the current system really all that bad? Didn't a measure to strengthen historic preservation (placed on the ballot with an 11-0 vote on the Board of Supervisors) just pass overwhelmingly two years ago?

Because it seems to me that this is a solution in search of a problem.