By Rebecca Bowe
The San Francisco Building & Construction Trades Council is planning a “Rally for Jobs” on May 5 at Civic Center Plaza to oppose “a measure on historic preservation that would kill much of our work,” according to an announcement on the council’s Web site. “Work is hard to find now. Don’t let it go away forever,” the announcement declares. At issue is the rewrite of Articles 10 and 11 of the city’s planning code, which deal with historic preservation and are integrally linked with the newly created Historic Preservation Commission.
There’s no question that the effects of an unstable economy and the downward slide of the housing market have led to a shortage in construction jobs, and it’s clear that the workers in this industry are hurting. At the Democratic party luncheon picket last week, I spoke with a number of masons, electricians and others who were struggling to make ends meet while they were out of work. Some 400 workers in the bricklayers union alone have lost their jobs, one union member told me, and times are tough.
But is the Historic Preservation Commission to blame? Would the pending revisions of Articles 10 and 11 really be the last nail in the coffin for development in San Francisco, obliterating the last remaining construction jobs in the city? I called the city Planning Department to find out what this rewrite will mean for the city and was directed to Tara Sullivan, who works in legislative affairs and has been deeply involved in the process. “There’s some speculation that this will halt development around the city,” Sullivan told me. “But it’s not an anti-development tool at all. And it’s not citywide.”
Article 10 deals with individual landmarks and historic districts throughout the city, of which there are very few because it is such a lengthy and complicated process to obtain historic designation, Sullivan said. “It’s kind of like the crème de la crème” of San Francisco’s historic architecture, she explained, consisting of somewhere around 250 individual landmarks citywide, and 12 historic districts. New ones can always be designated, but as it stands, “maybe one to two percent of the building stock in the city is subject to 10 and 11.” Beyond these specially designated buildings and clusters, the provisions do not apply, she said.
If we’re only dealing with one or two percent of the building stock in the city, then what are the construction-trade workers so fired up about? I asked Michael Theriault, Secretary-Treasurer of the council, and he told me his concern is that certain proposed revisions “provide for substantial expansion” of preservation districts. “It could propagate itself throughout more of the city,” he said.
Article 10 was put into place in 1967, and hasn’t been updated since. Article 11, added in 1985, deals only with historic preservation downtown.
Voters approved Prop J last November, which created the Historic Preservation Commission, a replacement body for the former Landmark Preservation Advisory Board. The move brought San Francisco up to speed with cities all over the country that have similar advisory bodies in place. The HPC makes recommendations directly to the Board of Supervisors, bypassing the Planning Commission, whereas the old board made recommendations only to the Planning Commission.
In areas subject to Articles 10 & 11, the permitting process would be more strict and the historic-preservation standards would be higher, but development wouldn't be altogether prohibited.
For now, nothing is set in stone. There are several versions of the revised rules, which came out of a process of the Planning Commission and the Historic Preservation Commission submitting their suggestions and hashing out the details. Now it’s up to the Board of Supervisors to make the final call, which they could do as early as May 12.
In the meantime, both the developers and the preservationists seem anxious about the outcome.
Although the whole purpose of Prop J was to strengthen historic preservation standards, “It’s not that much strengthened, frankly. In some ways, it’s weaker than the old board,” architectural historian Bradley Weidmeyer, who is familiar with the rule-change proposals, told me. “The Planning Department is grabbing every possible procedure to take it away from the Historic Preservation Commission,” he says. “The developers are really present in the Planning Department. They over-accommodate these developers.” And as for construction jobs, he says, “preservation is way more labor intensive per construction dollar than new construction.”
Theriault, the driving force behind the May 5 rally with the tag line “we are fighting for our lives,” says that he favors the Planning Commission version of the rule change over any of the others. He says he’s been in touch with Board of Supervisors president David Chiu, and that his fears have been eased a bit: “We’re hearing that they’re hearing our concerns.”