San Francisco commission's power is not something to preserve

When San Francisco voters created a Historic Preservation Commission two years ago, they believed they were assembling a panel to save The City’s most precious buildings.

But they didn’t think they were setting up the equivalent of a Planning Department specialized patrol division, with designs on expansion, power and control.

Yet judging from the horror stories presented at a supervisors hearing this week, that’s pretty much what we have: a new bureaucracy with its eye on lording over city parks, public structures and private homes, with a growing list of unwitting victims.

To hear city planners and preservationists tell it, the process of renovating buildings and setting up historic “districts’’ is a straightforward and benign process aimed at protecting valuable resources.

Reality says otherwise, which is why you may see an attempt at reducing the commission’s power before it becomes an even bigger, unwieldy mess.

The self-acknowledged poster children for the consequences of preservation run amok is a couple named Richard and Cher Zellman, who have spent the past few decades restoring and upgrading residences around The City.

It proved to be a lucrative business, one that allowed them to buy their dream home, a landmark 1885 Victorian building on Divisadero Street 11 years ago. For Richard, it was a lifetime goal; he’s a charter member of the Victorian Alliance and a member of the California Preservation Foundation and San Francisco Architectural Heritage.

In short, he’s a devoted preservationist.

“But what’s happened since should set off alarm bells,’’ he said.

His home has a carriage house in the back of the property that can’t be seen from the street and he wanted to transform it from a dilapidated, old haystack barn into a charming rental unit. And as they say down at the Planning Department, good luck with that.

After submitting plans for the run-down building, he was told he would have to do an environmental impact report. The department would not approve it. After several more drafts, the department ruled that the renovation would have an adverse impact on the property.

The delays and altered plans and multiple lawyers and architects cost the Zellmans more than $200,000 — and that was before it finally got to the Historic Preservation Commission last year. The Zellmans had major support from the preservation community, the neighborhood association, even his district supervisor. But the commission decided it didn’t like the design of the project and rejected it by a 4-3 vote.

Zellman is not giving up, but neither are city planners. Seven years ago, John McInerney, a prominent real estate lawyer turned developer, purchased the rotting, uninhabitable former site of St. John’s United Methodist Church at 1601 Larkin St., planning to transform it into a 27-unit condo building. A respected preservation historian did a survey of the building and found that it had no historical value.

City planners disagreed, calling for an EIR. Then two years into the process, former Supervisor Aaron Peskin decided to push for landmark status for the church, even though state law exempts churches from local landmarking.

The City recklessly persisted anyway, losing in Superior Court and then pursued it at the state Court of Appeal, which smacked The City down in a harsh judgment. But The City’s actions have prompted McInerney to file his own lawsuit for reverse condemnation, and even though the neighbors want to get rid of the rotting building because it’s become a favorite homeless encampment, The City won’t give up.

These are but a few of the tales that emerged from the hearing on city preservation policies called by Supervisor Scott Wiener, who is concerned about the impacts imposed by overzealous regulators. Activists are trying to use preservation standards to block projects like new turf soccer fields in Golden Gate Park, which, along with Dolores Park, are both sites the Preservation Commission is pursuing as historic districts.

In the book of bad ideas, giving the Preservation Commission oversight over city parks would open chapter one.
Preservation guidelines are  so ridiculous that a shuttered Muni transit shelter at 21st and Chattanooga can’t be torn down while planners determine its historical significance.

It’s now a drug den. Bet you a dozen syringes voters didn’t plan on that.

Bay Area Newsken garciaLocalNews ColumnistsSan Francisco

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