The San Francisco Chronicle's architecture critic weighs in on his city's epic preservation battles

Here's an anecdote that might give you some sense of how strongly San Francisco values its architectural history.

An architect wanted to build on some land that his family owned. Once upon a time, a church sat on that property, but it had since burnt down. When the architect tried to get his plan approved, preservationists opposed the new building. The no-longer-existent church had been particularly welcoming to gay neighbors, they argued, and the land should be kept as is to preserve this sliver of history.

This is an extreme example, but it illustrates the line that often divides preservationists and planners with big new ideas. Earlier this week, The Atlantic Cities profiled a D.C. arts group that has been quietly drafting a plan to transform an underground space near the city center. This very dynamic is one reason for their silence.

Their plan includes "modern, conspicuous entrances by architect Julian Hunt that could become tourist destinations in their own right," which will likely be opposed by the neighborhood's preservationists. As Sommer Mathis writes:

Even beyond the unfortunate Dupont Down Under history, the Dupont Circle neighborhood, and really Washington, D.C., as a whole is saddled with some peculiar structural and cultural realities that make getting ambitious architectural projects off the ground particularly difficult ... Being the nation's capital, there is no shortage of historic preservation forces ready to pounce on anything that doesn't conform to the classical ideal of the federal city, even in residential neighborhoods like Dupont

San Francisco Chronicle urban design critic John King has seen more than his share of battles like this. San Francisco has 262 individual landmarks and 11 historic districts, according to San Francisco's Planning Board. He talked with Atlantic Cities about the city's preservationist culture, and how modernist architects manage to get their buildings built.

What is San Francisco's preservation scene like today? How strong are its preservation groups?

To some extent, San Francisco has loosened up in the past decade. This is a city that embraced preservation and contextual architecture with real vigor in the 1970s and 1980s. There were a number of efforts to declare historic districts with very strong review processes. There were also efforts to try to landmark areas increasingly for cultural reasons. It's a city that's been very aggressive in terms of trying to mark off the landscape.

But in the last 10 years*, there's been more of a loosening up. You have much more comfort with buildings that make no literal gesture back to the past. Within the commercial center, there are explicit historic districts that definitely have watchdogs. But there is a comfort with modern looks. There's also a certain comfort with the idea of 'hey we've got to grow and change.'

The new bus shelters are kind of hip, industrial abstractions with a real industrial structure. The top is orange or red fiberglass ripples. There are 1,500 or so of these things going in all over the city, including in historic districts. There was not much of an effort to say, 'oh they shouldn't look this way in this historic park.'

Where are preservationist groups the strongest?

When we get into the neighborhoods, there are very contextual design standards. There are pockets where neighborhood groups or government-employed neighborhood planners see their job as making everything new defer to what's in place.

Are there any architects or projects that have an especially easy time moving a modern design into a historic neighborhood?

Most of the city's well-regarded contemporary architects have been involved in pretty absurd battles. There was a very good architect who's very le Corbusier-ish. A lot of people don't like his work at all. He did a building in the downtown. The building that he was replacing was a very nondescript building from the '30s. It had been something like a sheet metal sales shop, and the facade was sheet metal. The planning director wanted him to keep the sheet metal, and he didn't want to, so he hired his own preservationists to argue that the sheet metal wasn't significant.

Is that how architects get modern designs approved? By hiring their own preservationists?

The way you get through the groups is to give them most of what they want.

A lot of designers hire a preservation consultant who says, 'the staff verdict, preservation verdict is wrong, this is not in fact historic.' A lot of times what you see is dueling preservation consultants. You sometimes see how cynically preservation can be used.

There was a condo tower proposed and the neighborhood in the adjoining Telegraph Hill area went to war over it. One of the cards they pulled out was the preservation card. An environmental consultant* said that one building on the block was the original home of a company that sold ink to the newspapers. and therefore it was a significant part of San Francisco's industrial history.

The developer hired a better-regarded preservation consultant who said that the ink company didn't store ink there. He said that this was their sales office, all these newspapers were already in business.

The architect's preservationist said 'it's inconceivable that you can make this argument.' Meanwhile, the opponents were saying 'this is ground zero.'

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Photo courtesy of Flickr user ganesha.isis.

*Corrections: Due to a transcribing error, an earlier version of this story mistakenly quoted King as citing a 30-year trend of the loosening up of preservation ideas in San Francisco. He actually said 10 years. Also, the consultant referred to in the Telegraph Hill example worked on the environmental impact report for the project, and was not employed as a preservation consultant on the project.  

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