Historic Preservation in San Francisco: Balancing our past with our need to evolve as a City

sfgatephoto.jpgJune 26th 2011

SF Gate

San Franciscans are proud of our history. We're a city of neighborhoods, and we work to maintain our neighborhoods' unique identities and histories. I'm particularly honored to represent the oldest neighborhood in San Francisco, Mission Dolores.

At the same time, we are a living, growing city - one that must change at times to meet modern needs. We have, and strive to have more, cutting-edge technology industries. We attract young people who come here to make lives for themselves and experience San Francisco's rich arts and entertainment scene. We have families that need good, affordable housing.

We have a growing population that needs a world-class transportation system. We value our access to great public spaces that reflect modern recreation needs.

Each of these things means change - not reckless change for the sake of change, but deliberate, thoughtful change when appropriate. To meet our housing requirements, we need to create new housing at all affordability levels and make changes to our existing housing stock.

Otherwise, the city will continue to become increasingly unaffordable. We also, at times, need to change our transportation system, parks, and other public spaces to meet modern needs.

In recent years, we've had an ongoing dialogue - at times, conflict - about how we embrace preservation. We acknowledge that our city is not a museum, and that we have many goals in addition to preservation. For example:

-- Some preservationists are attempting to designate Golden Gate Park, possibly including its plants, as a historic district. The Recreation and Park Department and park advocates have expressed concern that doing this could undermine the department's ability to manage and make changes to the park to reflect changing community needs.

-- A small group of people used historic preservation to delay and attempt to kill the plan to transform the North Beach Library into a modern, usable and accessible library and open space. After years of battle and huge expense, the project was approved, based on its broad support in the community.

-- A significant percentage of homes in San Francisco are more than 50 years old and thus potential historic resources. When homeowners attempt to make changes to these older homes, they face administrative scrutiny and much higher costs than for more recently constructed homes.

Replacing windows with energy-efficient models, adding bedrooms as families grow, or making staircases safer and more accessible can result in thousands of dollars for historic studies, and even after those studies, the changes may be prohibited.

Even homes that are not historic resources can be required to undergo significant review and expense under the theory that changes to them may impact nearby historic resources.

To its credit, the Planning Department is evaluating changes to this process to make it more efficient.

-- In my district, the J-Church Line transit shelter at 21st and Chattanooga streets was sealed up by Muni because of homeless issues. Muni may have a problem replacing it with an accessible shelter because the existing shelter is probably a historic resource.

Similarly, making pedestrian safety improvements on Dolores Street has run into claims that the Dolores median cannot be altered because of its historic character.

None of these examples means that historic preservation is bad. To the contrary, preservation is a critical policy that protects the fabric of our city.

That's why I joined a majority of San Franciscans in supporting Proposition J, which created the Historic Preservation Commission, and why I applaud efforts by my constituents in Duboce Triangle to create a new historic district there.

Yet, it's important never to lose sight of the wide variety of policy goals that we as a city have in addition to historic preservation. I look forward to a continuing robust dialogue, both in City Hall and in our neighborhoods, about how we achieve this balance - one that honors and respects our history while looking forward to what our city needs in the future.

Scott Wiener represents District 8 on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors

Links: SF Gate Editorial

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