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Historic Preservation Commission stalls library renovations 

Wednesday, Nov 11 2009

One year ago, a successful measure creating a new Historic Preservation Commission threatened to freeze San Francisco in time. Now, it's the preservationists who seem to have gotten themselves trapped.

Proposition J, passed in November 2008, promised to give a committee of old-building buffs exclusive authority over land use in areas deemed historically significant. Critics said this would encourage blight in needy neighborhoods, spawn homelessness in a city short on new apartments, and prolong unemployment among construction workers idled by recession. Historic preservation districts would sprout up all over the city, naysayers said. "Contributory resources" — preservation jargon for buildings of a similar style, location, or age as historically important ones — would also be protected for posterity. But the business leaders, developers, and smart-growth proponents who harbored such fears didn't voice them openly prior to the election, thanks to a deal cut in which developers would hold back on funding an expensive opposition campaign as long as Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin built in a check on the new commission's authority.

Peskin, however, pivoted once the election was over, critics charged. He produced legislation that would have granted broad powers to the new commission which, opponents believed, went well beyond what voters approved. San Francisco, it seemed, would become Venice, changing imperceptibly from one century to the next.

But then something happened that almost never does in high-minded San Francisco: Residents began contemplating the possible unintended consequences of their actions.

In 2008, Proposition J backers posited themselves as San Francisco–loving preservationists fighting the good fight against rapacious developers. But during the intervening 12 months, reality looked more like this: A group of nostalgia-blinkered zealots is poised to usurp the needs of parents, union members, homeowners, and open-space advocates by making it illegal to tear down even the ugliest buildings — even to build a new library, playground, and park.

The first twinkle of the idea that all-encompassing historical preservation might not be as pleasant as it sounds blinked on in an unexpected place. On many issues, union members form part of the strange-bedfellow "progressive coalition" that includes antidevelopment and antigentrification activists. But San Francisco Building Construction Trades Council secretary-treasurer Michael Theriault, a bespectacled ex-ironworker with a college professor's diction and a runner's build, perceived that Peskin's maximum-preservation legislation might kill union jobs.

Among its proposed effects, Peskin's measure would allow any citizens' group with the term "historical preservation" in its bylaws to block demolition and construction projects for 180 days. The language raises the specter of ad-hoc groups pressing builders to fork over blackmail cash so that projects might proceed swiftly. "There are all kinds of mischief that are possible," Theriault said. "If you start fossilizing the city in amber, you make it difficult to achieve anything that a living city needs to achieve in terms of growth and change."

On April 21, union workers picketed a fundraiser banquet for the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, where Peskin was presiding as chairman. A number of politicos refused to cross the picket line, leaving empty chairs at the luncheon.

Supervisor Chris Daly, who had picked up what was supposed to be Peskin's fast-tracked legislation, eventually withdrew it. As things stand, opponents say they have four votes on the Board of Supervisors, enough to sustain a mayoral veto. The legislation is now "the sleeping giant of San Francisco politics," according to one City Hall regular, who, like half a dozen people I spoke with for this story, didn't want to be quoted for fear of retribution from the still-influential ex-Supervisor Peskin.

Peskin wasn't answering his phone last week; Theriault said he had met with Peskin recently, and that the ex-supervisor was out of the country. Peskin may return to see his cherished goal of embalming San Francisco slip away.

Crossing a group of calloused, overalls-wearing workers is not a sound method for gaining credibility in this town. Infuriating parents, library users, and open-space advocates simultaneously is a good way to get run out on a rail.

The new seven-member Historic Preservation Commission, mostly composed of architects and historians — who are nominated by the mayor, but may be rejected by the Board of Supervisors — has busied itself during its first few months of existence doing just that, crossing organizations such as Friends of the San Francisco Public Library.

In one of their first major acts, commissioners proposed granting landmark status to eight libraries designed during the 1950s and '60s by the architecture firm Appleton and Woodford. The buildings resemble brick suburban tract houses, and are considered by some to be important examples of post-WWII Western-style architecture. Six of the eight have already been renovated as part of a 2000 voter-approved bond issue. But the North Beach Branch Library on Mason Street has been slated for replacement, rather than renovation, because its unusually small, multistory design made restoration expensive, and made it impractical for library users. Tearing down the old library helps make room for a new playground and park.

"The branch library improvement program is a model of historic preservation," said Anne Wintroub, director of advocacy and communication for the nonprofit Friends of the San Francisco Public Library. "There are a few out of 27 branch libraries that are not appropriate for preservation, and North Beach is one of them."

San Francisco has been steadily renovating and building libraries since the 2000 bond issue passed. But North Beach is the last, thanks to a years-long neighborhood squabble around how to fit a new library, playground, tennis and basketball courts, pool, and open park space on a small block in the heart of North Beach.

Last year, the Library Commission unanimously voted to proceed with a plan to build a larger library. After a decade of contentious meetings, the matter seemed settled. Architects and engineers drew up plans. Work proceeded on an environmental review. But earlier this year, some of the new project's detractors turned to the Historic Preservation Commission, which began meeting in February.

After several hearings at which parents testified how a new library would be better for children — and commissioners responded by saying they were only concerned with historic preservation — the commission made a preliminary recommendation granting historic landmark status to the eight half-century-old libraries, potentially halting the North Beach project.

The North Beach branch is the least historically representative of the suburban tract-house library style, and, dare I say, the ugliest of the lot. The commission has asked the Planning Department to conduct a detailed historical study of the libraries before it makes its final decision. Planning director John Rahaim is scheduled to tell commissioners there's no money for this, and that they must find another way to get the study done, or simply make up their minds. Commission decisions go to the Board of Supervisors for final approval, in accordance with Proposition J.

If the supervisors abide by commissioners' wishes and nix the North Beach library project, playground and park planning would start almost from scratch. This would stall construction for years and potentially increase costs by millions of dollars.

By Theriault's reckoning, if the Preservation Commission can halt library, park, and playground construction, it can also stop renovation or replacement of firehouses, schools, or any other middle-aged facility that must kept be safe, useful, and disabled-accessible. Already, representatives for a group of neighborhood, parent, smart-growth, antipoverty, and labor organizations are planning their strategy for fighting Peskin and his commission. "This is going to be one of the biggest shitshows the city has seen in a long time," one opponent said. "I think you'll see ballot measures. I think this will release holy terror. ... Can this be taken down? If the fire department, the police department, and the schools realize that the Historic Preservation Commission wants to make all San Francisco into a museum, you might have a chance."

Theriault is laying groundwork. "We've talked with the firefighters to find out what the issues may be," he said. "And we've learned the modern generation of [fire] trucks is already too large where doors and ceiling heights are concerned, and doors are one of the things that preservationists obsess about." He called for a "very public and extended discussion. ... A variety of communities across the city need to be brought into this, including low-income communities and communities of color, because it does affect them."

These actions may produce results. Theriault said that after Peskin purportedly declined for months to talk to opponents about the matter, the two have recently had several informal conversations, and he doesn't rule out a compromise with Peskin. "Historic preservation is such a crude sentiment," he said. "It's a value we all hold in San Francisco. But to hold it as the supreme value doesn't uphold all of what San Franciscans believe in."

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Matt Smith


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