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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