April 2014

1200–1210 17th Street Eligible for California Register, Advocates Say

Keith Burbank

A new study has found that two steel-frame buildings at the Cor-o-Van site are eligible for listing on the California Register of Historic Resources. That finding, if upheld by the San Francisco Planning Department, may force the developer, Prado Group, to change its plans. Prado Group may have to redevelop the buildings within their current envelopes and mitigate the development’s effects on the structures’ historic character. A California Register listing would make demolition less, and adaptive reuse more, likely.

“Because the Pacific Rolling Mill Company site…retains sufficient integrity to convey its historic significance, it meets the criteria for listing on the California Register of Historic Resources,” according to Katherine Petrin, principal, Katherine Petrin Consulting. Petrin wrote the report at the request of Save the Hill, a land use advocacy group. 

The Planning Department had previously found that the buildings weren’t historically worthy. That decision was based on a report commissioned by the law firm of the property owner, Josh Smith. Last year, Smith planned to build a six-story, medical and residential complex with Kaiser Permanente at the site, a proposal which drew opposition from nearly 2,000 residents. Kaiser changed its plans and shifted to a location two blocks away. “This is the team that brought us Kaiser,” said Rod Minott, referring to Smith and Prado Group. “And they have not apologized.” 

“We are aware of the report,” said Smith. “It is under review at the Planning Department. As you may know, San Francisco’s Historic Preservation Commission has previously determined that only the brick building at 1200 17th Street appears eligible for the California Register. We have had numerous meetings with the community and are working to design a mixed-use project that will compliment Potrero Hill’s unique and innovative character while being respectful of and celebrating Potrero Hill’s industrial past.”

Smith’s meetings with the community have focused on gathering input from residents. Dan Safier, Prado Group president, told Save the Hill that every development option is on the table. But some, like Save the Hill members Minott and Kepa Askenasy, are skeptical of Smith’s intentions to build a project the community wants. At a Save the Hill meeting held earlier this year, many members were supportive of adaptive reuse of the site, similar to plans for parts of Pier 70. Adaptive reuse takes existing buildings and converts or rehabilitates them for new purposes. 

“It’s an elegant solution that simultaneously preserves the history of urban neighborhoods while inspiring innovative new architecture and accounting for the demands of development and growth,” Minott wrote in an August 2013 opinion piece that was published in the View. “An adaptive reuse project would rehabilitate this historically significant site while enhancing the neighborhood’s character and economy. The site at 16th and Mississippi streets is a ‘gateway’ location to the community that has the potential to become an iconic signature for Potrero Hill.” 

According to Minott, what happens at the Cor-o-Van site will set a precedent for future Hill development, such as the proposal at 1601 Mariposa Street. A historic designation of the two steel-frame buildings would keep a potential Mission Bay-like development off of Potrero Hill, a Save the Hill objective. At meetings to establish the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, Askenasy said, no one wanted high-density housing, which Smith and Prado Group previously proposed for the site. The goal was to protect existing businesses. 

“The Planning Department has reviewed the Katherine Petrin Consulting study and is currently evaluating the substance of the report,” said Gina Simi, communications manager, San Francisco Planning Department. “Once the evaluation is complete, the department will determine the necessary next steps. It is unknown when this evaluation will be complete.”

An October 2013 letter and report by Minott asked the City to schedule a hearing to reconsider the historic value of the two metal buildings at 1200—1210 17th Street. The City’s Gretchen Hilyard replied that the information and letter supplied by Minott didn’t demonstrate that the structures have sufficient historic integrity to warrant further evaluation. In response, Save the Hill sought Petrin. “If there’s bad news, we will call it a day,” Minott recalled telling Petrin. But, “she decided we were right.” 

“Integrity is a key component of an overall building evaluation” when considering whether a building is a historic resource,” states Petrin’s report. “Integrity involves seven aspects, including location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association.” According to Petrin, the 17th Street property retains its integrity with respect to all seven aspects. “Weighing all seven aspects together, the Pacific Rolling Mill Company site retains sufficient integrity to convey its historic significance and a chapter of San Francisco’s industrial heritage.”

Some consider that heritage monumental. From 1906 to 1916, the Pacific Rolling Mill Company “fabricated and erected the frames for a great number of structures in San Francisco and Northern California,” states A Romance of Steel in California, a history of four West Coast steel companies. “For example, the City and County Hospital, the original Standard Oil Building, the Balfour Building, the California Commercial Building, the San Francisco Public Library in the Civic Center, the Y.M.C.A, the Financial Center Building in Oakland, the 1915 Exposition buildings, the California-Hawaiian Sugar Refinery at Crockett, and others.” 

In 1928, the Pacific Rolling Mill Company merged with Judson Manufacturing Company of Emeryville, centering their operations on 17th Street. Steel from the new enterprise, Judson-Pacific Company, was used to construct “approach structures and substantial portions of the main spans of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, the gigantic hoists in the intake towers of Boulder Dam, the towering Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Building, many buildings of the Civic Center, the campus of the University of California and also of Stanford University; exhibit buildings of the 1939 Exposition on Treasure Island...”

“Great cities honor their past,” Minott said. “By gaining historic preservation status for the steel buildings the developer will be able to honor our neighborhood’s past with much more than a building plaque or gratuitous installation of historic photos. The structures will come to life with new uses. Regardless of adaptive reuse we simply believe these are authentic and significant historic buildings that deserve protection as a means of honoring both Potrero Hill’s blue collar/industrial heritage and neighborhood character; heritage and character that are rapidly disappearing in the face of new development.”

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