San Francisco Heritage Works to Preserve the City
Morgane Byloos interviewed Mike Buhler, executive director of San Francisco Heritage, about development pressures in the City, and how they may impact historical resources.
Buhler: We were established in 1971 in the wake of redevelopment efforts in the Western Addition and other parts of the City where parts of the neighborhood would be demolished. That was a time when a lot of preservation organizations emerged. SF Heritage has a mission to preserve and enhance San Francisco’s unique architectural and cultural identity. In more recent times we have broadened to focus on cultural preservation as well. An example of this would be an initiative we launched this year called Legacy Bars and Restaurants aimed to protect the City’s legendary eating and drinking establishments, many of which have been threatened with displacement or closure in recent years.
Buhler: We have also been very active on the waterfront. I, myself, serve on the Central Waterfront Advisory Group and work closely with the Port in reviewing developments and projects in the Southside neighborhoods. Through our Issues Committee, which is comprised of members of our board and staff, we often review proposed development projects early in the entitlements process. That gives us, as the City’s leading historic preservation organization, an opportunity to provide early feedback to developers to avoid or minimize impact on historic resources for proposed development projects.
Buhler: In more recent history, we did the survey work of the Dogpatch landmark district, which led to the nomination of that residential district as a San Francisco historic district. Also, another thing that we do is we hold easement on historic properties. The properties that we hold easements on we have the right to review and approve alterations to those properties. That is the one instance where we do have kind of a regulatory role. In the case of the Southside, we have an easement on Bayview Opera House. We are responsible for reviewing alterations to that property and approving them. We have an on-site role to review contracts at Bayview Opera House and in addition to that, for the last few years, we have co-sponsored a concert series with the Bayview Opera House in conjunction with the Black History Month in February. Also, I mentioned our Legacy Bar and Restaurant project, which is an advocacy and education initiative. We have several establishments that are legacy establishments in the Southside neighborhood: Anchor Brewing, Dogpatch Saloon, Sam Jordan’s Bar, The Old Clam House. Future additions would be The Ramp, which is adjacent to Pier 70.
Buhler: Pier 70 is the oldest continuously operating shipyard on the West Coast and it is extraordinarily significant. We applaud the Port for its effort to maintain this historic use at Pier 70 while rehabilitating the historic buildings there.
Buhler: With respect to Pier 70, we are in the midst of our review of the three separate projects that comprise the overall development plan for Pier 70. Crane Cove Park is a project that we have issued a formal comment letter on. The two development parcels on the site are the historic buildings on 20th Street, with Orton Development as the developer. The remainder of the site has Foster City as the developer, and includes a few historic buildings as well and a large open parcel for infill development. In the fall of 2012, we issued a formal comment letter supporting the Crane Cove Park project. At the time we were presented with a few different options for how the site would be laid out and interpreted and how construction would be phased in. We provided early support and input on the interpretive approach of the site. Of course, that project has evolved over the last several months and some changes have been made. As a member of the CWAG, the Central Waterfront Advisory Group, we saw the latest iteration of the project a few weeks ago. We are still strongly supportive of that and its treatment of historic resources.
Buhler: Orton has a very strong track record for this type of historic building. They completed the rehabilitation of the Ford assembly building in Richmond, which is a spectacular award-winning project. It was initially a car factory in World War II, in which they used to build tanks. It’s a massive brick structure on the Richmond waterfront that was derelict for I think decades before Orton came in. The challenge will be, of course, structurally reinforcing the buildings. They are in very fragile condition, and the most significant alterations that will occur for the 20th Street buildings generally relate to seismically strengthening the buildings. A part of our review is to ensure that the seismic intervention complies with the historic integrity of the building.
Buhler: With respect to Foster City, we toured that portion of the site as well. We’ve had one presentation with Foster City to review their plans for the site. We have submitted a number of questions to Foster City and I expect they will come back to us with a more formal presentation. Basically, our focus is ensuring that in the case of the Foster City development that the proposed infill construction’s height, density, materials, and design are compatible with the historic character of the surrounding site. The Port has submitted a National Register historic district nomination. Being listed as a National Register historic district will enable the building to qualify for federal tax credit, which is a financial incentive for projects that restore and rehabilitate historic properties. That is an important incentive to the overall financial viability of the entire development project.
Buhler: We are not even in the process of reviewing it. Of course we are following the course of development proposals at this site. We have been contacted by residents in the neighborhood concerned about the previous proposal on the site and the potential impact on historic resources. Kaiser has backed out. I believe there is interest from other developers in this site. We have not reviewed those plans, but the focus of our review will be essentially the same as Pier 70 and all projects that San Francisco Heritage reviews: whether there are historic resources on the site and which buildings would qualify as historic. In looking at the proposed development, we will recommend measures for minimizing any adverse impacts on historic resources and hopefully enhancing them going forward. Like I said, we have not seen any proposed development plan for that site although we hope to have an opportunity to review that when the developer is ready.
Buhler: In general buildings are either eligible based on the architectural significance, which would be, as an example, buildings that are designed by a well-known architect, or buildings that exemplify high-quality craftsmanship or design qualities. Or buildings can be completely modest in appearance and can be significant for their association with significant events in history. In addition to the architecturally significant buildings at Pier 70, for example, that complex is associated with ship building on the West Coast, mobilization during two world wars and has a tremendous significance based on its association with those important historical events. Or it could be other forms of association that would enable a building or a site to be eligible. It might include an association with a significant person or a significant event. Like there could have been a labor protest at a building or on a block that might have brought it above the threshold of eligibility for designation.
Buhler: The developers do not have to abide by what we say. We are a nonprofit organization. We are an advocacy organization, but we are a private organization. We have no regulatory authority over any developer or property owner that comes and seeks our view. However, the Planning Department will often encourage or require project applicants to seek our input before the project continues further in the process. The City has a very robust process under the California Environmental Quality Act that provides many opportunities for public participation. Beyond our review of projects early in the process through our Issues Committee, we will often participate actively in the CEQA review process. That means issuing comments on the environmental impact report.
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