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.
That's the position of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers Association. Really. These are not no-growth loonies.
Of course, if the association doesn't concur with the outcome of the Planning Department's balancing act, the group could press the point further. With the study adopted as a city policy document, activists could ask that city planners require, as a condition of permit approval, a developer to adhere to federal government historic preservation standards when a building is altered. [page]
In the case of more severe development plans that would eliminate or seriously alter buildings, an “official” Bloomfield study could call into play the California Environmental Quality Act, known by its acronym CEQA (and usually pronounced SEE-kwuh). In such a case, the city would be required to prepare an environmental impact report, which in turn would have to acknowledge a building's historic significance, and, more important, discuss possible development alternatives to demolition. The EIR would also trigger public hearings at the Planning Commission and the city Landmarks Board; these hearings could, of course, provide political openings for Peskin and other preservationists.
As always, though, the planners would still have the final say-so. Their discretion would be left intact.
What the North Beach activists are doing — raising money to complete a study of their neighborhood's architectural and historical significance, and presenting it for the city government to use — is rightly, properly, and, legally speaking, the official job of the Department of City Planning. That's right. The only reason Peskin and his allies are involved in this mundane issue is the Planning Department's willful abandonment of a critical part of its duties.
Under state law, municipal governments can be certified by the state Office of Historic Preservation to receive state funds to conduct surveys and studies on the architectural and historical significance of buildings within their jurisdictions. These studies are then supposed to be used as part of the arsenal of city planning. Modest preservation of the kind Peskin and his allies are pushing is meant to be a government function, not the sole purview of outside activism.
Oakland, for example, routinely applies for and receives state money to conduct such surveys. Forty-two other cities in the state get grants to do surveys as well. Somewhere along the way San Francisco lost its certification, but, ironically, became certified again on the eve of the election of Willie Brown.
Fat lot of good it did.
So far, Willie Brown has seemed more interested in dismantling the landmarks and preservation arm of government than building it up with state funds. In 1996, he fired the entire Landmarks Board and filled nearly all the vacancies with pro-development shills such as Nancy Ho Belli (whose distinguishing feature as a historic buildings expert is that she once tore one down). The next year Mayor Brown fired the only two outspoken preservationists on the panel at the same time he moved the board's longtime secretary (read: institutional brain) and preservation coordinator for the Planning Department, Vincent Marsh, into a backwater planning post, and had him replaced with a man of little preservation experience, Neil Hart.
Development projects that impinged on or eradicated historic buildings have been approved without complaint. Shriners Hospital went down. And in North Beach, the Pagoda Theater, an art deco wonder, was slated to become a Rite Aid drug store until neighborhood activism forestalled the chain. Still, the Planning Department approved a complete gutting of the interior of the theater to facilitate the Rite Aid store. Many of the architecturally significant art deco flourishes were lost.
Peskin complains that it would have been possible to both maintain the art deco design of the interior and allow the owner to do what he wanted. But, at least in theory, the Planning Department possessed no document that would have instructed planners about the significance of the structure. (At least in theory; the Bloomfield study was well known. It just wasn't official.)
The Telegraph Hill Dwellers learned of the Bloomfield study around the time the Pagoda was being mutilated. At the same time, Willie Brown named Ferlinghetti poet laureate, and among his first words were his wish to have North Beach named a historic district. Inspired by Ferlinghetti and depressed over the loss of the Pagoda's interior, Peskin and his association members started raising money for the update of the 1982 North Beach survey until Bloomfield's illness intervened.
Even so, the next time a significant structure in North Beach was to be developed out of existence, Peskin and the Telegraph Hill Dwellers were ready. Last year, a developer wanted to demolish what's called in preservationist lingo an “earthquake shack,” a small residential structure built immediately following the 1906 earthquake and fire. Located at 2 Nobles Alley, the “shack” was, obviously, an important part of city history. Still, Peskin stresses, activists didn't want to see the development project halted. They just wanted to slow things down, take a serious look at the historic nature of the building, and see if anything could be done to save some or all of it.
When the Planning Department approved plans to replace the building, neighborhood activists cited the Bloomfield study's finding that the building was historically significant. But the head of the Planning Department's environmental review unit, Hilary Gitelman, ruled that the study was too old to be valid and approved the demolition. (The decision is on appeal.)
At the time, the Planning Department said it was eager to include Bloomfield's updated study among its planning tools, once she was done with it.
To Peskin and his allies, including Bloomfield, this bureaucratic nicety rang of dishonesty. It was unclear when the updating might be complete, given the unpredictable nature of Bloomfield's illness (which she requested I not identify). Also, the city planners knew full well that the age of the study was irrelevant. City planners routinely use two older architectural studies — one from 1968 and one from 1976 — in making their determinations.
Upon hearing of the Planning Department's ruling, the state Office of Historic Preservation fired off two scathing letters — at least, they were as scathing as bureaucrats can be — upbraiding the planners for their ignorance and mischaracterization of the study. The state officials also offered some not-so-subtle reminders that it was the job of the Planning Department, rather than the Telegraph Hill Dwellers Association, to conduct and update such studies.
But it got worse than that. It isn't just that the Planning Department has abdicated its duty to protect the historically and architecturally significant. When Peskin and his friends tried to do what the Planning Department refused to, the department moved to stop them. [page]
You should've been at the Board of Supervisors' Transportation and Land-Use Committee meeting last week when the Planning Department, communicating in the coded language of the Willie Brown era, tried to scuttle attempts to have Bloomfield's 1982 survey of North Beach adopted as a planning document.
Neil Hart, the department's so-called preservation expert, spoke of the resolution to adopt the study as if it would do things extraordinary and harmful. He told the committee members that if the resolution were to pass, historic buildings could not be demolished or altered, unless the city, abiding by CEQA, prepared environmental impact reports and held hearings. Actually, Hart was just saying, Supervisors, for heaven's sake, if you do this we will have to start following the law.
But Hart used a dire, Chicken Little tone of voice. He warned the supervisors of the “consequences” of their actions. He revealed to the supervisors on the committee the exact danger, the precise awful consequence, that the resolution would effect. “The environmental review officer would have to review things, which could delay building permits,” he said.
Until a few years ago, this kind of comment would just roll off supervisors' backs. But with Willie Brown as mayor, such a statement is code for something along these lines: This could hurt any number of the mayor's development deals. And we don't want that, right?
Supervisor Leslie Katz, who was first appointed to the board by the mayor, seemed to understand the code, and responded in kind. To calm poor little alarmed Neil Hart, she stressed that the resolution was merely an advisory measure, one that urged the Planning Department to adopt the study, but did not require adoption.
It was more Willie Brown-era code that translates, roughly, as follows:
Oh, Neil, don't make such an awful fuss. Look, it isn't like this thing we are voting on actually has the force of law or anything. You guys can simply ignore it (and us) if it messes with any of Willie's deals.
Make no mistake about why the Planning Department is avoiding its responsibilities by ignoring a natural part of its job. The permit applications might not be filed yet, but I would bet substantial amounts of money that Willie's friends have development plans for North Beach — and a lot of other places in this city — if their patron gets re-elected.
And perhaps that's why the mayor's underlings are in such a state over the prosaic research of a gravely ill woman.
Aaron Peskin helped fight City College for more than a year to save the historic Colombo building from demolition. He may use “ciao” and “ta-ta” in everyday conversation, but he is serious as can be when it comes to preserving the character of North Beach. He and his fellow activists will watchdog every project. They will keep reminding city planners of the intellectual dishonesty of their position on the Bloomfield study. And who knows, Bloomfield's condition might improve, and she might ram an updated North Beach survey down the mayor's gob.
And — who knows — this kind of thing might be catching.
I hear some folks in the Sunset are already thinking of hiring their own historian and doing their own survey with some of the state money the city doesn't seem interested in. Imagine how hard it will be for the mayor's friends to make the maximum amount of money possible if every neighborhood follows the North Beach example. Heavens, those development-minded friends might actually, every now and then, be forced to respect the character and integrity of the city, as they get rich.
I guess the mayor's planning lackeys are correct. The North Beach preservation activists are dangerous radicals.
George Cothran (email@example.com) can be reached at SF Weekly, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco,