San Francisco has a terrible record preserving its past. In the past 50 years, so many parts of the city's history have been demolished, bulldozed, flattened, or destroyed in the name of development. The number of landmarks that are gone vastly exceeds the number of buildings or landscape features saved by historic preservation laws.
So when Sup. Scott Wiener called a hearing May 2 to discuss possible changes in the city's historic preservation policies, it got a lot of neighborhood activists nervous. And for good reason. In a city where developers always seem to call the shots, where blocking a bad project is a difficult and expensive process, anything that removes a weapon from the quivers of the neighborhoods is potentially dangerous.
And coming in the wake of a 6-5 February vote at the board to appoint an unqualified, pro-development candidate to the Historic Preservation Commission, there's a disturbing trend here. And the supervisors should be careful not to dismantle the protections that the 2008 ballot measure, Proposition J, put in place to protect the city's history.
Wiener assures us he's not out to gut preservation — he supported Prop. J and doesn't think that the preservation movement has gone too far. "I just want to make sure that we are taking into account other policy priorities," he said.
Wiener pointed to a few potential situations where historic preservation could get in the way of improvements to transportation and streetscapes. The street lights along Van Ness Avenue might have to be removed to make a bus rapid transit lane work — and some people might consider them historic structures. Pedestrian safety improvements along Dolores Street might require minor changes in the tree-lined median, which is not a landmark but potentially could be. He's looking at changes in the City Planning Code provisions dealing with historic preservation — and potentially, with the way the Planning Department applies the California Environmental Quality Act.
There are always times when preservation conflicts with progress, and there will always be dubious uses of preservation law. But overall, in the course of many, many years, the pendulum has swung far in the other direction: historic preservation has been trumped again and again by the greed and political power of developers and the construction industry. And even well-meaning attempts to adjust city law will almost certainly become loopholes for more destruction.
Almost everything good in this city, from the cable cars to the Presidio, has been threatened with extinction at some point. Battling to save the city’s treasures is a full-time occupation.
There are ways to balance preservation against valid public policies like the need for affordable housing (almost never blocked by preservationists) and street improvements (one anti-bicycle character delayed new bike lanes for years, but not on the grounds of historic preservation). But there has to be a clear line: no changes or loopholes aimed at helping private, for-profit developers. Nothing that limits the ability of neighborhood groups to stop the destruction of city history.
The problem in San Francisco is not too much historic preservation, it's that we allow too much to get lost. That's why Wiener needs to tread lightly on this ground — and his colleagues have to make sure he doesn't go too far.