It may seem odd that the loss of a two-story vacant building would ruffle so many feathers, spur multiple phone calls to the police, and inspire a push from Board of Supervisors president David Chiu to make changes to San Francisco's building code. But the March 16 demolition of the Little House, a 148-year-old Russian Hill cottage on Lombard Street, struck a nerve and raised a slew of questions many of which continue to go unanswered.
Controversy may have started swirling because a property that has stood since Abraham Lincoln's presidency was razed with scarcely a week's notice on a swiftly issued emergency-demolition permit. It might also have been because the co-owners of the property, Michael Cassidy and James Nunemacher, represent the high-profile Residential Builders Association and the real estate firm Vanguard Properties, respectively both politically well-connected entities that have been behind projects in the past that drew criticism from various citizens groups.
The Little House, which previously stood at 1268 Lombard St., was by some accounts one of the 10 oldest homes in San Francisco. Under the California Environmental Quality Act, a building of that age would normally require an environmental impact report before the Planning Department can issue a demolition permit. According to Department of Building Inspections spokesman William Strawn, the emergency demolition permit was issued after a structural engineer who had inspected the property on behalf of the owners sent a letter expressing concern that it was in danger of collapse. DBI staffers, including department manager Ed Sweeney, inspected it, and Strawn said the permit process started once they concluded that it presented a safety hazard.
Word that the cottage would be razed sparked an outcry from a group of concerned neighbors and historic preservationists, including architect F. Joseph Butler, who says he discovered it 15 years ago when he learned that it was one of the few structures on Russian Hill to escape the 1906 earthquake and ensuing fires. Butler says he doubts the building was in danger of collapse, and says he tried in vain to convince DBI to allow him to bring in a third party who could offer a second opinion. When asked about that possibility, Strawn said, "The building department would not rely on a third-party source."
The building was torn down March 16, with tensions simmering in the days leading up to it. When a demolition crew showed up March 9 ready to go to work, several days before the emergency permit had actually been issued, a neighbor who was trying to save the cottage phoned the police to halt the demolition. Police reports show that a few days later when the crew arrived on the property and were greeted by a small group of protesters, the cops were called twice more by both sides. Joe Cassidy, Michael Cassidy's brother and a prominent member of the Residential Builders Association, is the president of the demolition company.
Protesters charged that the building was neglected on purpose to hasten its demise, so the owners could skirt the regulatory EIR process. "It appears the property owner has exceeded the scope of their permit to replace dry rot by structurally damaging the building and claiming it is in imminent danger of falling down," Cynthia Servetnick, an architect with the SF Preservation Consortium, wrote in an e-mail to the City Attorney's Office not long before the demolition. Building Commissioner Debra Walker, who also inspected it, noted that "the windows were out, and the doors were out in the back.