Historic Preservation Work Continues While Policies Debated

Time will tell whether there will be significant reform to the City’s historic preservation policies, but a public hearing on the subject this week ignited the debate. At the same time, the City’s existing preservation policies kept rolling along.

On Monday, the Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee held a more than three hour hearing in the Board’s main chamber on the City’s historic preservation policies and the potential need to rebalance those preservation policies with other City policies on affordable housing, transit-oriented development, etc. Supervisor Wiener commenced the hearing with a presentation by the Planning Department. Early on, it became clear that it would be difficult to discern the many smaller issues within the broad penumbra of “historic preservation.”

The Planning Department noted that out of 4,900 permit applications last year, only 149 triggered a full evaluation by preservation staff and only 8 focused EIRs were prepared. While that figure seemingly indicated that few projects were being caught up in historic preservation issues each year, it didn’t tell the full story and certainly isn’t this firm’s experience. Supervisor Wiener emphasized that this figure doesn’t include projects that either get withdrawn or never proposed due to historic preservation policies. In addition, the figure fails to speak to the time and cost of completing environmental review for projects that are exempt from environmental review (yes, even a project that would be considered by most people clearly not an important historic resource and therefore exempt from review – i.e. CEQA doesn’t apply at all – often has to go through many months of costly analysis and delay to be absolutely, positively, 100% sure that, yes, in fact, it is exempt). A number of homeowners who have experienced this process commented on the difficulty and cost of renovating their homes. A documentary filmmaker, who has produced documentaries on historic preservation, told his story about buying a dilapidated home in San Francisco with his wife (a schoolteacher) and in-laws, only to have spent $65,000 – a quarter of their construction budget – dealing with historic preservation review and neighborhood appeals of his building permits for historic preservation reasons.

One thing became clear from the hearing: “historic preservation” is so broad a category that each person has their own view of what the hearing was about. While no one is arguing against the importance of historic preservation and the need for landmarking important buildings, many spoke as if the ferry building was proposed for demolition. Others spoke about ethnic representation in historic surveys. One speaker said we needed more historic preservation protection immediately after a speaker told the story of being unable to seismic on his building because he had to spend $11,000 on historic preservation review. As this discussion progresses, it is clear that a more targeted debate needs to occur. No one is attacking the need for historic preservation. However, many do find problems with the way the City is currently conducting historic review on projects large and small.

In the end, there was significant discussion of CEQA-related issues with historic preservation as well as the need to re-think the historic survey process – both important areas to focus on in future discussions.

Just two days after the hearing, the Historic Preservation Commission heard a presentation from the Planning Department about the recently-completed Inner Mission North Historic Survey. The survey assessed over 2,000 properties, and resulted in at least 811 properties being designated as a historic resource and 13 potential historic districts being identified. While many were quick to point out at Monday’s hearing that a survey doesn’t automatically designate a property or district as historic, these findings will have a significant result on the CEQA review process for these properties. To see the survey results, go to http://mytinyurl.com/fxjjsy4ntp.

Supervisor Wiener’s hearing could be a turning point in the City’s development of historic preservation policies. After a decade of expansion of preservation regulation, the debate now shifts to reviewing the current state of historic preservation and identifying ways that we can maintain the City’s historic character, while improving the historic review process.

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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