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Raze craze
Frustrated that S.F. has no preservation plan, local officials find new ways to rein in developers.

By Savannah Blackwell

WALK INTO A tourist shop along San Francisco's waterfront and you'll see key chains, postcards, and snow globes bearing miniature likenesses of the city's famous attractions: Victorian "Painted Ladies," a cable car chugging up Hyde Street, the zigzag of Lombard Street.

But when it comes to protecting these unique sites, San Francisco has a nasty secret (one that residents who have fought unsuccessful battles against ambitious developers recognize all too painfully): preservation frequently gets the shaft.

Indeed, San Francisco is the only major city in California without a broad plan to protect its historic areas and features. And over the years, residents have watched helplessly as buildings such as the beaux arts City of Paris department store and the jazz-age Fox Theater met the wrecking ball.

"It's like killing the goose that laid the golden egg," said Sup. Aaron Peskin, who emerged as an activist in 1997 during a successful fight to spare the historic Colombo Building in North Beach from demolition. "The irony is that for a fistful of one-time dollars they want to ruin the number-one industry in this town."

But that could change.

Frustrated by what they say is Mayor Willie Brown's lack of concern for protecting the city's landscape, local officials – Peskin among them – intend to overhaul the Planning Code and to stop developers who find ways to ignore the demolition rules, however weak, the city does have.

More than beauty at stake

Perhaps the city's failure to protect historic sites is due to another unique San Francisco characteristic: since the days of the gold rush, the city has been considered a place where outsiders can make a quick buck.

"This is a serious problem, and it's because developers and speculators have controlled zoning and land use for so long," Sup. Jake McGoldrick said. "They buy their way into a planning process that couldn't give a fig, and what we get is cultural cleansing."

Over the years, Brown has gone out of his way to ease the way for developers by gutting the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board and making sure the city did not adopt an official preservation plan. In 1996, when he was first elected, Brown shut down all efforts to complete such guidelines. As a result, Vincent Marsh, the Planning Department's preservation expert, quit and left for Sacramento, which has since won a statewide award for its preservation plan.

Brown is also famous for filling boards that deal with preservation issues – namely, planning and landmarks – with appointees who know little about historic sites.

And all of this has led to the loss of significant buildings. Observers estimate that as many as 100 structures, including whole city blocks, disappeared in inner-city neighborhoods (particularly in SoMa) during the dot-com office boom.

If San Francisco had a preservation plan, it would be a lot harder for, say, Forest City Development to virtually demolish the historic Emporium building on Market Street.

Historic single-screen theaters such as the New Mission Theater and Chestnut Street's Presidio Theatre (which Gorilla Sports hopes to take over) could also be saved more easily.

"We lost Adolph Sutro's house, the Crocker Building, not to mention the whole Western Addition," said Gray Brechin, an architectural historian and the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin. "The impact is that besides losing many significant buildings, we've lost entire neighborhoods and lots of housing."

Affordable housing units for ethnic and minority communities have been demolished in the process as well.

In the 1960s, for example, the Fillmore – once a thriving African American neighborhood – lost blocks of housing in the name of redevelopment. The same thing happened to Japantown. And the same holds true for a block on Montgomery, which was, according to Brechin, "a great resource for the artists and bohemians."

Where there's a will, there's a way

With the mayor's go-go development administration entering its lame-duck period, signs of hope are emerging.

Even those in lockstep with the mayor are starting to speak out. Dan Reidy, a former Landmarks Board member who resigned Dec. 31, told the San Francisco Chronicle's Gerald Adams that under Brown's administration he was frustrated that the panel's efforts to save buildings were usually ignored.

Planning staffers are gaining a little more confidence in recommending protections, Peskin said. And the reformers on the Board of Supervisors are focusing on the issue.

For example, at the Board of Appeals' Jan. 9 meeting, the usually prodevelopment panel upheld a June decision by the Planning Commission forcing developer Tribecca Properties to accommodate neighbors' concerns that ongoing renovations of the Italianate 1860s structure at 290 Union St. were radically altering the edifice.

"There are little signs of hope that maybe the days in San Francisco when preserving our historic fabric and some of the greatest historic resources, which have been at their lowest ebb, may be slowly but surely on their way to repair," Peskin said.

Peskin is spearheading a plan to beef up the Planning Code. McGoldrick has called for hearings on a sneaky way developers get around the city's few regulations. Developers have often skirted demolition regulations by engaging in "serial permitting," meaning they continuously apply for various "modifications" to the building until it is gone.

To stop the practice, McGoldrick has suggested developers be required to list the history of all permits approved for a site when applying for a new one.

A group of residents working with the Department of Building Inspection is looking at another solution: making it impossible for developers to continue dismantling a building once DBI officials have slapped a "stop work order" on a site. Currently, if a developer appeals the order, he or she can continue tearing it down.

In addition, both the supes and residents say the passage of Proposition D, which would give the supervisors, and not just the mayor, the power to make appointments to the Planning Commission and the Board of Appeals, would solve certain problems.

"It's just not fair for one person to make all of these appointments," Daniela Kirshenbaum, who serves on the Working Group on Unlawful Demolitions, said. "I don't know one of the mayor's appointees – with the exception of Dennis Antenore, who got fired in 2000 – who seems to care about preservation. Prop. D will definitely give neighbors and preservation both a chance and a voice."

E-mail Savannah Blackwell at savannah@sfbg.com.