A recent David Binder poll shows only 36 percent of San Franciscans have confidence in the Planning Department. So no one had any reason to be surprised when the Planning Commission snubbed residents, architectural historians and members of the labor community recently by supporting the Commonwealth Club's plans to remove the historic facade on their future headquarters building at 110 The Embarcadero and replace it with a modern glass wall.
It seems like a perfect match — a distinguished 100-year-old institution in an historic 100-year-old building with a dignified and historic facade. Yet for some unexplained reason, the Planning Department has advised the club to rip off the highly visible facade and go modern. This is clearly in violation of city policy making the protection of neighborhood character and the preservation of historic buildings priorities. The building served as headquarters of the longshoremen's union and Harry Bridges' office during the historic 1934 waterfront strike.
Back then, before Bridges took office, the first step was getting corrupt labor leaders to support the workers. Some of today's labor leaders (dominated by their construction trades members) also ignore the rank-and-file and are willing to desecrate the site of one of labor's most momentous monuments. President Franklin Roosevelt got involved with the 1934 strike. Aside from being Bridges' office, the bodies of the two men killed during the strike (30 others were shot) lay in state in this building. Their solemn funeral procession down Market Street — including 15,000 people — began at this building. Unfortunately, some labor leaders strongly support any new construction during this building boom. Ironically, this building's new facade would probably not add any additional construction jobs. The existing facade has been neglected and needs restoration work.
None of the planning commissioners bothered to ask planning staff why it made such a recommendation. There are no modern glass-curtain walls like the one they propose anywhere on the waterfront in sight of the building. The block is one of the last that consists primarily of dignified early-20th-century buildings including the original YMCA facade. Most were built after 1906 and one predates the earthquake. Most world-class cities protect collections of waterfront buildings such as this.
We have met with officials at all levels of city government, and it is alarming that no one seems to care anymore what San Francisco looks like. Planning decisions are based on who you are and how popular you are. And probably how politically active you are. According to Commonwealth Club officials, Mayor Ed Lee's Planning Department initially tried to bypass the entire historical and environmental review process and issue a categorical exemption. The Commonwealth Club is getting special treatment that other building owners would not.
No wonder so much new construction is bland and uninspiring. The idea of a beauty contest to help ensure creative building designs has been totally forgotten. The policy that South of Market buildings should be dignified and in keeping with tradition has slipped away as well.
So why the special treatment? Keep in mind we are not talking about the headquarters for a struggling charity. The Commonwealth Club is not exactly Amnesty International or Doctors Without Borders. It is basically The City's big book discussion organization — the place Ralph Nader goes every time he writes a book. And it has enough money to buy a waterfront building.
The Commonwealth Club is trying very hard to claim that only one side of the building is historic, implying it is really two buildings. The record will show it bought one building, not two.
Bottom line, the modern glass wall is inexplicable and the Commonwealth Club appears to be getting special treatment, so the matter now goes on to the Board of Supervisors where, hopefully, the right thing will be done. This kind of activity is why citizens lose faith in their government.
Dave Osgood is president of the Rincon Point Neighbors Association, which reviews developments on the waterfront between the Ferry Building and Bay Bridge.