Why A Laundromat Might be Considered ‘Historic’

A large housing project is delayed because a laundromat is being considered a “historic resource,” so we looked to see if this claim holds any water.

Some San Franciscans’ eyeballs were rolling on spin cycle last week when a 75-unit housing development was delayed four months, so the Board of Supervisors could consider whether the Wash Club laundromat (above) should be considered a potential “historic resource.” How in the heck could a laundromat constitute a valuable piece of San Francisco history? Why is the history of a laundromat holding up a development project in the midst of a housing crisis? SF Weekly dug through documents submitted to the Planning Commission, to iron out why a laundromat is being evaluated for possible historic significance.

Wash Club Lavanderia is a 1990s-era laundromat at Mission and 25th streets. It’s much larger than most coin-op laundromats, but nothing about it seems historic at first glance — unless you count the vintage arcade video game machines like Ms. Pac-Man. The laundromat has about two dozen adjacent parking spaces offering “Free Parking for Laundry Customers Only,” and its front windows bear a giant notice of a Planning Commission hearing that already happened five months ago. (Planning delayed the project at that meeting, but then approved it Nov. 30, 2017.)

Last week, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to kick a Planning Department appeal of the project out to June 19. Sup. Hillary Ronen, who represents the laundromat’s district,  told SF Weekly, “Planning Department staff just recently identified a potential impact that had been overlooked during the initial environmental review and requested a continuance to evaluate whether the building has historical significance. Both appellant and sponsor were in agreement to continue the appeal. It is standard practice for the Supervisor of the District to make a motion to continue an item when planning makes the request and both parties are in agreement. “

SF Weekly spoke with the property’s owner Robert Tillman, and an attorney for the appellants opposing the project — Calle 24. We also dug through documents submitted to Planning to evaluate the claims of historic significance.

Turns out that the “historic resource” claim has nothing to do with the laundromat itself, but instead the tenants who were in the building before it was a laundromat. Between 1973 and 1985, the building appears to have been occupied by advocacy organizations named Mission Hiring Hall, the Mission Housing Development Corporation, Mission Child Care Consortium, the Mission Model Neighborhood Corporation, and Mission Community Legal Defense. Some of these groups still operate at other addresses, others have disbanded.

Calle 24’s attorney J. Scott Weaver argues that the existence of those tenants in previous decades makes the building historically significant. “It was the first time that the Latino community came into the mainstream of San Francisco politics,” Weaver says.

Property owner Robert Tillman is not moved by the claims of historic significance. “A couple Mission organizations from the mid-70s through the mid-80s, mainly Mission Hiring Hall and Mission Housing, were located in the space,” he tells SF Weekly. “These weren’t the first places they were ever located and they weren’t the last.”

“There’s nothing remaining of anything,” he continues. “Even if there was something historical, there’s nothing remaining of what it was.”

Calle 24’s appeal is based on more than that property’s historic significance, but also the Latino historical context of the neighborhood and some of the adjacent neighbors. Instituto Familiar de la Raza is across the street, the Mission Cultural Center is a half-block down, and the Zaida T. Rodriguez Early Education School is right next door, as is a child development center with the same name. “It’s going to impact those playgrounds and it’s going to impact that school,” Weaver says. “It’s going to be this big, imposing edifice right next to these schools.”

Tillman estimates the historical resource study will cost him some $8,500, but he stresses that it will cost the city a great deal more in lost taxes and spending of city resources on the matter.  “The economic impact of these delays on me is nothing compared to the economic impact on the city,” he says of potential costs the city could incur. “The total cost could easily be in the $2 million or more range. Now you know why housing is expensive in the San Francisco Bay Area.”

There is also the matter of fewer units being available. “How do you calculate the value of housing that’s not there for nine months?” he says. “What is the effect on rents around the city of not having these units of housing available?”

Tillman has agreed to the historical study and wants the matter settled on record. “The Planning Department is doing a good job, I have no complaints with the Planning Department,” he notes. “I don’t think that they’re trying to delay. They’re really strong professionals trying to operate in a very difficult political environment and do the right thing.”

The laundromat’s owner may feel he’s being taken to the cleaners by additional frivolous delays. But for now, 75 units of Mission housing are in limbo while we see if these historical claims wash out.

This article has been updated with comment from Sup. Ronen’s office.

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