Looking Ahead At San Francisco’s Past

​History: San Francisco has a lot of it.  From its oft-admired ornate buildings dating back to the Victorian and Edwardian eras, to its association with powerful political and cultural movements that helped shape our national identity, San Francisco has much to celebrate and preserve.   So, it’s not surprising that the City has developed and implemented a range of detailed administrative procedures and legislation surrounding the need to preserve historically-significant buildings, neighborhoods, and resources.   And, it is equally unsurprising that these procedures sometimes prove difficult for private citizens to understand and navigate.

In July 2013, SPUR, a local public policy think tank, and San Francisco Architectural Heritage, a non-profit known for its preservation advocacy, released a joint policy report aimed at trouble-shooting San Francisco’s historic preservation processes.   The Report, entitled: “Historic Preservation in San Francisco: Making the Preservation Process Work for Everyone” includes an overview of San Francisco’s existing system for the documentation and preservation of historic resources, as well as a frank analysis of which policies and procedures are currently working well, and which are not.  The Report is split into three parts: (1) the formation of historic surveys, (2) the creation of historic districts, and (3) the evaluation of resources under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”).

While the authors believe it is critical to protect the rich historic fabric of the City, they also recognize San Francisco as a major urban center with a projected growth of nearly 1 million residents by 2035, necessitating the need to support growth and change in appropriate areas.

Historic Surveys

Historic surveys are the process by which San Francisco identifies, evaluates and documents properties and places that reflect important historic themes.   They’re often conducted by the Planning Department (“Planning”) as part of an area plan or rezoning effort (such as the Transbay, Market/Octavia, and Easter Neighborhoods efforts in recent years), but are sometimes initiated directly by a community who engages their own consultant.  The City has implemented a range of procedures for conducting and certifying the results of these surveys, involving review of Planning and the Historic Preservation Commission.  

The SPUR/Heritage Report recognizes that these surveys provide valuable information to planners, residents, property owners and developers.  However, the existing survey process is complex, and the outcomes and impacts are not always clear to members of the public who may be affected.  

The SPUR/Heritage Report recommends implementing a range of measures to simplify and de-mystify the historic survey process, including (1) completing a citywide survey; (2) conducting surveys early in the area plan process so that their results can be used to inform planning activities; (3) soliciting public input in the development of historic context statements and themes; (4) notifying the public and other key stakeholders at the outset of the survey process and explaining its significance; (5) publishing community outreach standards and policies for historic surveys; and developing a user-friendly grievance process.

Historic Districts

An historic district is a collection of built resources (buildings, structures, landscapes, sites and/or objects) that are historically, architecturally, and/or culturally significant.   Since the late 1960s, the City has designated 13 local historic districts, in addition to the nearly 40 historic districts listed in the California Register of Historic Resources and National Historic Landmark Program.   

The SPUR/Heritage Report recognizes the importance of historic districts in ensuring that the most distinctive physical qualities of a community are maintained and fostering neighborhood conservation and stability.  However, the authors also note that the process for establishing new historic districts can be complicated, and the potential impacts of being included within such a district are not always known to landowners and area residents at the time districts are formed.

The SPUR/Heritage Report recommends the following measures to improve the City’s treatment of historic districts: (1) publishing Planning policies for community engagement and procedures for historic districts in a new administrative bulletin; (2) developing clear design guidelines that interpret how best to apply established standards for the treatment of historic districts; (3) providing clear mechanisms for project applicants to request advisory opinions from the Historic Preservation Commission on compliance with design guidelines early in the review process; and (4) expanding local access to historic preservation incentives, including state Mills Act property tax relief.

California Environmental Quality Act

At its core, CEQA is an information-gathering process that requires public agencies to analyze environmental impacts when deciding whether or not to approve a particular project.   In San Francisco, the CEQA process is administered by Planning through its Environmental Planning Division.  

CEQA affects the development of historic buildings and sites in San Francisco because any project that will cause a “substantial adverse change” in an historic resource is considered to have a significant effect on the environment.  As a result, CEQA can trigger a layer of state-mandated review on top of local historic preservation protections already in place for projects involving buildings that are 50 or more years old – more than 135,000 buildings in the City.

The CEQA review process for historic resources is highly-complex.  A thorough discussion is available for readers in the report.  The authors recognize that current CEQA procedures are valuable because they “provide broad protection for the vast majority of buildings in the City,” and “give ordinary citizens a powerful mechanism to question projects large and small, identify important aspects of history to matter to them, and propose alternatives and mitigation measures.”  However, they also includes unclear standards for evaluating the impacts of major alterations or demolitions of buildings that contribute to historic districts, and have the potential for inconsistent evaluation of potential historic resources.

The SPUR/Heritage Report identifies several recommendations for reforming current CEQA evaluation and treatment of projects involving potential historic resources, including, among others: (1) Publishing guidelines that identify significant historic themes, associated property types and thresholds of significance for the purpose of making CEQA determinations on individual buildings; (2) revising Preservation Bulletin 16 to provide clear guidelines on how to evaluate the impacts of major alterations or demolitions to contributor buildings within an historic district; (3) encouraging collaboration between Planning and property owners (and their architects) so that compliance with standards for the preservation of historic resource can be achieved more quickly and efficiently; (4) providing a clear mechanism to enable project applicants to seek an advisory opinion from the Historic Preservation Commission when they cannot reach agreement with Planning on interpretation of standards for the preservation of historic resources;  and (5) completing a citywide survey so that historical resources are identified systematically and prospectively, rather than on an ad hoc basis during CEQA review.

How effective this joint policy report will be in influencing change remains to be seen, but it offers a fresh perspective on San Francisco’s local historic preservation procedures that will likely be welcomed by many landowners and residents.  A copy of the full report containing detailed recommendations is available on the SPUR web site at: http://www.spur.org/publications.

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 & Rose, 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.