Public Comment

Strong Preservation for San Francisco, Berkeley

By John English
Thursday May 07, 2009 - 06:01:00 PM

As Berkeley tackles major planning issues this year, let’s note very well some things voters said last November about historic preservation. In Berkeley preservation-minded voters decisively rejected Measure LL. And like-minded San Franciscans approved that city’s Proposition J—by a quite similar decisive margin. 

One attempted criticism of preservation here had been the claim that little Berkeley has more designated landmarks than big San Francisco (or even than San Francisco and San Jose combined). That argument was wildly misleading. Let’s look at the facts.  

Berkeley now has about 252 city-designated “landmarks” as such and 43 “structures of merit.” (By the way, some 15 of them have been wholly or partly demolished.) San Francisco so far has designated at least 264 “landmarks” per se, under Article 10 of its Planning Code. 

But that comparison ignores what both cities call “historic districts.” Berkeley has only four or five city-designated districts and most of them are quite small. Under its Planning Code’s Article 10, San Francisco has already enacted 11 or 12 historic districts and some of them are very large. The Alamo Square and Liberty Hill districts each cover literally hundreds of properties. 

The comparison also ignores the San Francisco Planning Code’s separate Article 11 under which different, and especially strong, preservation controls have been applied within the Downtown C-3 zone. There, 433 or more “significant buildings” or “contributory buildings” have been designated. Also designated there under Article 11 are six “conservation districts.” One such district covers nearly all of the big Union Square shopping area. 

And a great many other buildings in San Francisco enjoy protection because they’ve been identified as historic resources by various adopted area plans, by certain surveys, or by inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places and/or the California Register. When alterations to these buildings are proposed, Planning Department staff compares the work against preservation standards. If a proposal doesn’t meet these standards, the staff can initiate what the Planning Code calls “discretionary review.” 

While San Francisco thus has long had extensive landmark, district, and other substantive controls, preservation lacked till now a strong and clear enough institutional voice within the municipal government. In essence San Francisco’s old Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board could merely make recomendations to the Planning Commission and staff. That board’s humble status was prominently illustrated when key parts of its advice about the historic Laguna Street campus were ignored by the Planning Commission. 

Now, voter-approved Prop. J has amended San Francisco’s Charter to correct that institutional weakness. It was sponsored by the Board of Supervisors’ then-president Aaron Peskin and backed by important groups including San Francisco Tomorrow, San Francisco Architectural Heritage, and the San Francisco Democratic Party. Prop. J gives preservation increased weight in municipal decisions. It replaces the old advisory board with a full-fledged commission having a clearly broad role: the new “Historic Preservation Commission.” (Preservation involves much more than just “landmarks.”) Prop. J explicitly gives this HPC strong and diverse powers as to regulations, historic-resources surveying, and other matters. 

Yes, all of this has happened in San Francisco—which has much higher densities than Berkeley’s and much greater development pressures! 

Voters in both cities evidently want historic preservation to be strong. They realize that preservation is green. Indeed it’s a truly vital ingredient for long-term environmental, cultural, and (yes) economic sustainability. 

Some time after the November election, Supervisor Chris Daly proposed a set of related amendments to the Planning Code’s Articles 10 and 11. The HPC, the Planning Commission, and staff have commented on them. The comments might be regarded as amounting to competing versions. 

Now a noisy alleged controversy has developed involving the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council (and abetted by unfortunate statements by San Francisco Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius). Claiming that Daly’s version “would kill much of our work,” the Trades Council instead supports the Planning Commission’s presumably milder version. At noon this Tuesday in Civic Center Plaza, it held a so-called “Rally for Jobs.” 

But the Trades Council’s concerns are basically unfounded. The future application of preservation controls in San Francisco clearly will include ample opportunities for public input. And very importantly, preservation is in fact quite good for building-trades jobs. Rehab of existing buildings tends to be much more labor-intensive than new construction. 

As for the presently competing versions of code amendments, it appears that the differences between them are fairly minor. In any event, the fact that Prop. J’s mandates are embedded in the charter will guarantee a strong voice for preservation in San Francisco. 


Longtime Berkeley resident John English is an avid aficionado of planning and preservation.