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A 'Landmark' Backlash

San Francisco's historic preservation rules go too far, owners of historic homes say

Susan Beckstead and Victorian Home

Susan Beckstead stepped out of her sky-blue, three-story classical revival Victorian on Pierce Street — the one with bay windows, dentil and egg-and-dart molding, a modillion cornice and balustrade-lined flat roof — to show a visitor around her 120-year-old neighborhood bordering Duboce Park in central San Francisco.

Across the street her neighbor was finishing a $1 million remodeling of his 1898 taupe-colored, three-and-a-half-story Queen Anne Victorian, a process that so far has taken a year because of delays in getting permits. At the opposite end of Beckstead’s block, workers toiled on the roof of a pink, 1905 Queen Anne triplex, where restoration is still under way a year after the initial permit application, owing in part to a dispute with neighbors over the appropriateness of a proposed street-facing dormer window.

Beckstead said she has her own plans to replace her windows and fix up her garage, but she is loath to start, in part because of the difficulty her neighbors have had getting permits. Her biggest fear, she said, is that the city will make it even harder to obtain permits by declaring her neighborhood a historical landmark district, which would empower Planning Department officials to reject any changes that they decide might violate a building’s historical integrity.

Garage add-ons that extend beyond the front of a house are a potential no-no. Windows that are inconsistent with a building’s original materials and architecture are another.

Beckstead said there are enough rules in place already. “Every house on this street has been redone,” she said, “and we’ve seen the difficulty each homeowner experienced.”

After more than a decade in which San Francisco politics was partly defined by antidevelopment and historic preservation forces, a backlash has begun. Many are surprised, however, that Beckstead’s neighborhood of 90 Victorian homes, whose owners share a passion for preserving old houses, has become the rebel stronghold against the city’s ambitious plans to preserve large swathes of San Francisco in a patchwork of historic preservation zones.

San Francisco’s planning and permitting process has long been notoriously laborious. Then, in 2008, voters passed a ballot initiative that transformed the city’s Historical Preservation Commission from an advisory body to one with enforcement powers over land use decisions. The measure, backed by Aaron Peskin, the outgoing Board of Supervisors president, was seen as a coup de grâce by the antidevelopment members of the board who had risen in power during the 2000s.

Meanwhile, the Planning Department was evaluating more areas to see if they should be added to the 11 existing districts. As more buildings were included in potential landmark districts, and thus subject to additional review by planning officials, more architects and homeowners worried that city staff members were overextending their reach.

Victorian Home Architectural Details

In 2009 the Board of Supervisors considered legislation, also backed by Peskin, who by then was Democratic County Central Committee president, that opponents feared would have allowed any citizens’ group with the term “historical preservation” in its bylaws to block construction projects for 180 days. The city’s building trades unions were so concerned about the proposal that they picketed a Central Committee meeting.

That legislation was delayed, but the issue of how historical preservation will be put into effect here has been creeping back into San Francisco politics.

Historical preservationists have identified potential new targets in far-less obvious places than Duboce Park. Proposed landmark areas, some already under Planning Department consideration, include car dealerships along Van Ness Avenue, described by preservationists as “automobile support structures.” They include industrial neighborhoods in the South of Market and Mission districts, and in Showplace Square.

For some historic building buffs, however, the Duboce Park backlash raises the question: If city preservationists cannot obtain support for preserving a pristine cluster of Victorian houses, will they be able to proceed with seemingly more controversial plans to keep development out of dormant industrial zones?

“It’s disappointing we’re running into the kind of opposition that we are in a neighborhood that should be just a slam dunk,” said David Troup, treasurer of the Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association, which contains the four blocks surrounding Beckstead’s house and has for years been pushing for the landmark designation.

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