Writing SoMa history

As developers have their eye on the South of Market neighborhood, the Planning Department is trying to preserve its industrial history and character.

City planners are preparing for a redevelopment tsunami in the South of Market neighborhood, evaluating where and how to preserve The City’s post-quake industrial history while still allowing room for growth.

The area — full of warehouses, single-room occupancy hotels (SROs) and midrise apartment complexes that sit in the shadow of downtown high-rises, freeways and an emerging “Grand Central” of the West, the Transbay Terminal — is a gold mine for future developers, according to the San Francisco Planning Department. The department has proposed a handful of potential new historic districts in the neighborhood to try to preserve some of its character.

“It’s underdeveloped, there’s a lot of available land and transportation, and it’s adjacent to downtown,” Planning Director John Rahaim said. “It’s one of maybe three areas that is going to see much of The City’s development.”

The other two areas ripe for building, Rahaim said, are Hunters Point — already on the verge of a revolutionary change — and parts of the Mission district for reasons similar to SoMa’s.

Since much of the raw, unornamented SoMa neighborhood is evocative of its rich history — one that housed an industrial army that largely rebuilt The City after the 1906 earthquake and fire — setting up local historic districts would make building in the area more complicated and arduous.

It’s a double-edged sword, according to developers who point out that the process can clarify how and where it will be possible to build. But they also worry The City might place too much land off-limits and derail thoughtful growth.

City planners have for three years analyzed about 2,100 properties in SoMa — almost every one in the neighborhood — to create the SoMa Historic Survey. The survey reveals that almost half the properties are old enough to be historically significant under state guidelines, adding another potential layer of bureaucracy to future changes.

“Whenever somebody proposes a project, we’ll look at the building to see if it’s more than 50 years old,” Rahaim said. “What the survey does is give us this information up front.”

The survey, which will be presented for adoption to the Historic Preservation Commission on Dec. 1, proposes a series of city historic districts south of Market Street.

For example, the map proposes a Sixth Street Lodging District — 33 low-budget SROs and 10 other properties — south of Market Street at Sixth Street that also has potential for a National Register.

If The City opts to preserve the district — once the domain of longshoremen, merchant mariners, immigrant farm workers and other manual laborers in the early years of the 20th century — the look and feel of the area could be protected from drastic alterations.

The Residential Builders Association said that establishing such districts are a trade-off.

“There’s a higher level of certainty to the process. Right now, nobody really knows where the boundaries are,” RBA President Sean Keighran said. “But then, you’re either in or you’re out. … If you’re in a district, you may feel that you have the right to build or add on to your property.”

The City’s development watchdogs — the nonprofit San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association — caution that preservationists should be wary of freezing too much of the area’s history.

“It’s good that we are looking at protecting our most important historic buildings, but we don’t want to overreach in the creation of districts because we want to make sure that we are able to grow and change and evolve as a city,” SPUR Deputy Director Sarah Karlinsky said.

If the districts are established, the 2-year-old Historic Preservation Commission — which makes the initial proposals to preserve and landmark land — might have more area to regulate rather than discussing development plans on a case-by-case basis.

“This is not an effort to freeze everything in time,” Historic Preservation Commissioner James Buckley said. “SoMa is such an incredible district with a history of business and immigrants, and there has been some great work done by people in the community. … We’re anxious to see what people think and want to remember about it.”


Surveys aim to prevent loss of The City’s culture

The Planning Department has conducted surveys that propose several local historic districts for two of the three neighborhoods that department Director John Rahaim identified as the coming areas for future development and growth: the Mission and South of Market districts.

The department does not have a historical survey for the shuttered Hunters Point Shipyard and surrounding area — slated to add 10,500 new residential units, a marina and shopping districts in coming years on land where ships were repaired, manufactured and loaded decades ago.

Another survey that was never undertaken was one for what used to be “the jazz Harlem of the West” along Fillmore Street, an area that was redeveloped 40 years ago and is still struggling to retain its culture. It was not preserved as one of about a dozen historic districts in The City.

“When urban renewal came in and demolished the Fillmore district, it happened under the argument that this will ultimately lead to historic preservation,” said Josh Arce, executive director of nonprofit Brightline Defense, which works with underserved communities on a variety of issues such as local hiring.

Arce said proponents argue that if rules were on the table, they may have prevented such gentrification, but in his eyes the idea of historically preserving the community turned into “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” opening the door for drastic changes.

City planners have prepared historic resource surveys for the Transbay, Market/Octavia and Central Waterfront areas, as well as one for Showplace Square, representing a northeast portion of the Mission and Lower Portero Hill neighborhoods, and for Japantown.

Preservation Commission President Charles Edwin Chase  said the long-term goal is to eventually map  historical features throughout the entire city.

“There are certain areas of The City that are underrepresented in terms of historic preservation,” Chase said.

— Kamala Kelkar

South Park Historic District

34 industrial, residential and commercial buildings and a park

Bound by: Taber and Varney places and Second and Third streets

Era: Primarily between 1854 and 1935

Justification: The boundaries represent the historic context of the original park and rowhouse development dating from 1854 to 1906, the retention of the park and street plan after the 1906 earthquake and fire, and mixed-use reconstruction between 1906 and 1935. The alleys run behind the buildings, and were part of the original 1854 urban design to allow for rear deliveries.

Sixth Street Lodginghouse District*

33 low-budget residential hotels and a few low-rise commercial buildings

Bound by: Sixth Street near Market Street for two blocks south, including parcels south of Howard Street and north of Mission Street

Era: Primarily from 1906 through 1913

Justification: It includes all the surviving Sixth Street lodginghouses named in the 1914 city directory — some of the last surviving residential hotels built south of Market Street after the 1906 earthquake and fire to serve single male seasonal workers.

* Possibly eligible for a National Register

Western SoMa Industrial and Residential Historic District

721 industrial and residential properties

Bound by: Mission Street to the north, Fifth Street to the East, Harrison and Bryant streets to the south and 13th Street to the west

Era: Primarily between 1906 and 1936

Justification: It includes the densest areas of significant and intact resources representing the height of development of the neighborhood during two major building booms with two- to five-story reinforced concrete loft structures with multilight steel industrial windows and minimal applied ornament.

Bluxome and Townsend Historic District

Nine industrial buildings

Bound by: Fifth, Bluxome, Townsend and Sixth streets

Era: Primarily between 1912 and 1936

Justification: It includes the densest area of significant and intact large-scale warehouse buildings that were constructed in brick masonry or reinforced concrete located outside the locally listed industrial district, the South End Historic District.

Source: Planning Department

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