Hearing On Historic Preservation Issues:  May 2, 2011

Back in January, as one of his first acts in office, Supervisor Scott Wiener called for a hearing on the state of historic preservation process in San Francisco. Citing the potential that overly-burdensome historic preservation regulation could pose problems for affordable housing and transit-oriented developments, Wiener’s goal is to “establish an understanding of what constitutes an appropriate balance between historic preservation and other policies, including housing, parks, libraries and pedestrian safety.” The hearing has been scheduled for Monday, May 2, at 1:00 p.m. before the Land Use Committee. The hearing will be at City Hall, in room 263 on the second floor. In addition to public comment, the committee will take testimony from the Planning Department, the Municipal Transportation Agency, the Recreation and Parks Department, the Public Library and the Mayor’s Office of Housing.

The hearing comes after a decade of increased preservation awareness that has coincided with a dramatic increase in historic preservation regulation. A zenith of sorts may have been reached with the passage of Proposition J in 2008, which created a powerful new charter-level Historic Preservation Commission. The HPC has already weighed in on controversial subjects such as the North Beach Library replacement and the proposed historic designation of the entirety of Golden Gate Park.

Some view historic preservation as simply another tool to stop new development. Historic surveys have been completed on broad swaths of the City. Any designation or recognition of a building as “historic” has significant consequences: any proposed alteration or demolition of a historic building requires heightened environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), increasing the time and cost of a project, irrespective of size, and seemingly irrespective of the importance of the historic resource.

Everyone can agree that historic preservation should play a role in land use decisions in the City. The question many are asking now is should historic preservation dominate over other priorities? Take, for example, the recent “Automobile Support Structures” historic survey conducted by the Planning Department. The survey will likely result in a number of low-rise automobile garages and related buildings along Van Ness Avenue being designated as historic structures. Van Ness has long been identified in the City’s General Plan as a high-density residential district, with easy access to transit options. Designating automobile support structures as historic could make it that much more difficult for the City’s stated goals for more housing along Van Ness. Is the preservation of these increasingly-obsolete structures more important than developing the City in a way that reduces automobile traffic and provides a residential base for neighborhood-serving businesses?

Supervisor Wiener’s hearing is a sign that many would like to engage in a broader discussion about the effects of preservation policies on other important policy goals of the City. Coincidentally, at its meeting yesterday, the Planning Commission certified the EIR and approved rezoning measures that will allow the demolition of the existing North Beach Library to make way for a new, state-of-the art facility (the Board of Supervisors shot down the proposed landmarking of the building late last year).

We will of course keep you posted as this important policy debate moves forward.

The issues discussed in this update are not intended to be legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is established with the recipient. Readers should consult with legal counsel before relying on any of the information contained herein. Reuben & Junius, LLP is a full service real estate law firm. We specialize in land use, development and entitlement law. We also provide a wide range of transactional services, including leasing, acquisitions and sales, formation of limited liability companies and other entities, lending/workout assistance, subdivision and condominium work.

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