Little House demolition stirs fresh controversy between developers and preservationists
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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. It looked to me like people had just left it open."
Megan Allison Wade, who blogged about the demolition of the Lombard Street house, wrote in an e-mail to zoning administrator Larry Badiner that she perceived "a very clear case of willful neglect in an attempt to degrade the property into demolish-able condition."
Badiner responded: "This emergency demolition permit supersedes historic preservation and housing preservation procedures. ... Without commenting on whether this is willful neglect, public safety would trump any concerns regarding how the building became unsafe."
An article published by the San Francisco Chronicle noted that Nunemacher denied that he and Cassidy had neglected the property. When we called Nunemacher to ask him directly, the conversation didn't go so well. He said he was busy, and told us to read the other news reports. When asked if this meant he didn't want to comment, he said, "You are putting words into my mouth. I don't like what you are doing." Then he threatened to call the police.
Whether or not the property was in fact neglected on purpose is a question that may never be answered conclusively. City Attorney's Office spokesperson Matt Dorsey told us he was not at liberty to say whether an investigation is underway, but it's clear that any investigation would have to go forward without a crucial element the house.
Attorney Arthur Levy made a last-ditch effort to try to save the Little House just before it came down, sending a letter transcribed on his office's letterhead to a list of city department heads. "What makes San Francisco different is our built environment," Levy says. "It seems to me that when a property owner willfully neglects a building, and that results in demolition ... there ought to be some consequences."
For some of those engaged in the fight over the cottage, the incident brings to mind past controversies involving the same players and others close to them. When an historic Victorian shipwrights' cottage at 900 Innes Ave. which the city designated as a historic landmark last year was under the ownership of developer Joe Cassidy, he had plans to demolish it and build condos, retail space, and a kayak center. In that 2005 battle between the RBA developer and preservationists, the preservationists won.
Another project that involved both Joe Cassidy and Nunemacher was a residential development at Fourth and Freelon streets. At the time that project was being permitted, one of the top-selling agents at Vanguard Properties, Jean-Paul Samaha, worked as a liaison between the Board of Supervisors and the Planning Department. In 2005, architect Kepa Ashkenasy lodged an Ethics Commission complaint against Samaha alleging he had failed to disclose a $100,000 loan from Nunemacher, who had been his romantic partner at the time, even when he was in a position of testifying before the Planning Commission in his professional capacity about the Fourth and Freelon development, Ethics records show.
The complaint was dismissed after Samaha lodged a counter-complaint against Ashkenasy with the Human Rights Commission, noting that loans from spouses and domestic partners are exempt from financial disclosure rules, and charging that her allegation was motivated by a kind of homophobia, a HRC document shows. Ashkenasy told the Guardian that she only sought to illuminate a conflict of interest and added that she is a lesbian.
Servetnick said the case of the Little House highlights a broader issue of vacant historic properties throughout the city that are allowed to go to waste because it's more profitable to knock them down and build new. Draft legislation introduced by Board President David Chiu seeks to address this concern by requiring owners of vacant properties to register their empty buildings with the city so that inspectors can play a more proactive role in detecting problems before it's too late.
At a March 26 Planning Commission meeting, Charles Marsteller, former head of government watchdog group Common Cause, told commissioners he had attended the demolition of the Lombard Street cottage. When it came down, he says, he realized how unique it was and earnestly told planning commissioners that he thinks the Little House should be reconstructed, and the lot turned into a park.
As for the demolition, "It was just a put-on by some insiders in City Hall working the network that they normally work," Marsteller says. "And it shouldn't have happened."