Off the Preservation
About a year ago, some folks in North Beach, including the city's poet laureate, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and one of the city's pre-eminent architectural historians, Anne Bloomfield, thought they'd come up with a fairly commonplace idea. They wanted the Department of City Planning to adopt Bloomfield's long-standing and respected study of the architectural and historical significance of buildings in the neighborhood as an official policy-making tool.
It's really hard to overstate the uncontroversial nature of this notion. Under normal circumstances, it would be too inconsequential to appear in a newspaper.
But these are not normal times.
Six months ago, the Telegraph Hill Dwellers Association, under its president, Aaron Peskin, and with the help of Ferlinghetti, began raising money to pay Bloomfield to update her architectural study, which she first authored in 1982. Thousands of dollars were raised -- largely due to the poet laureate's good standing -- but the project soon hit a tragic obstacle. Peskin and his allies learned that Bloomfield might not be able to finish the job. She'd been diagnosed with a serious illness; she might be dying. At the very least, the update was indefinitely delayed. (Bloomfield and her husband told me last week she is gravely ill, but expects to survive. She can't say, however, when the update will be done.)
As a fallback position, Peskin and his cohorts asked the Planning Department to adopt Bloomfield's 1982 study as it stood, while they waited to see if the historian would recover and return to her work.
This was not asking for the unreasonable.
As recently as last month, state preservation officials opined that the 1982 study was still valid and could be relied upon by the city. In fact, the state Office of Historic Preservation, a division of the California Department of Parks and Recreation, which funded and then adopted the study in 1982, said it still happily includes the Bloomfield survey in its massive registry of historically and architecturally significant places.
North Beach residents wanted the Planning Department to adopt the study so it could be used to support the pursuit of simple, modest forms of preservation. When a developer proposed demolishing or significantly altering a historic structure, the residents wanted to be able to use the study to argue the building's larger merits, hoping city planners would recognize the aesthetic and historic worth of the structure when contemplating development applications.
Because development pressures have never been keener, these North Beach residents thought asking that the study be adopted now was prudent and, actually, routine, given that the exact timing of the update can't be predicted.
Yes indeed, quite an ordinary little idea. A modest request. It was, they thought, like asking the mayor to officially recognize sunshine and puppies as good and wholesome things.
But everything is relative in the world of development- and deal-mad Mayor Willie Brown, including what is an ordinary request, and what is an alarming act (especially when it comes to the appetites of developers, some of whom are the mayor's best buds and former law clients, and, it seems, members of the only group left that unanimously supports the Brown mayoralty).
Instead of doing the routine thing, and adopting the Bloomfield study, city planners have reacted with extraordinary alarm and resistance, viewing the request by North Beach residents as radical and dangerous. The Planning Department went on record opposing the adoption of a study most everyone who is anyone agrees is thorough and accurate.
Peskin and his fellow North Beach activists had to turn to the Board of Supervisors to find a modicum of sanity and start the long process of forcing Mayor Brown's Planning Department to do the ordinary. On Aug. 16, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to recognize the study as a valid and useful planning tool, and to transmit it to the Department of City Planning.
But the vote constituted only a minor victory. The supervisors can't make the Planning Department use the study. The supervisors did mail a copy of the study to the Planning Department (the department already had a copy, of course), with a note (in the form of a resolution) saying, essentially, We think this study is valid and useful, and we think you should think so, too.
But the state Office of Historic Preservation has already told the Planning Department the same thing. If city planners won't listen to Gov. Gray Davis' administrators, why would they pay heed to the puny voice of San Francisco supervisors?
Given the Planning Department's reaction so far, odds are the study will be used as a dust-collection device -- unless Peskin and his allies can hector the government into doing its job or, in the absence of a functioning government, do the job themselves.
Peskin and the Telegraph Hill Dwellers Association have a limited goal: They want the city Planning Department to refer to the Bloomfield study when considering requests from developers to alter or tear down buildings. If a building is listed in the study as historically or architecturally significant -- there are different levels of significance, which I won't bore you with -- the activists would like city planners to take that significance into consideration. If the benefits of development outweigh the social good of maintaining a facade, a cornice, a balcony, or a whole building ... well then, so be it. The trade-off would have been considered, and sometimes the trade-off tilts in the direction of development.