Proposition J - Historic Preservation Commission

Voter Guide
This measure appeared on the November 2010 San Francisco ballot.


What it does

Proposition J is a proposed amendment to the San Francisco City Charter with four main goals:

  • Replace the current Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board with a newly established Historic Preservation Commission.
  • Modify the powers of the Planning Commission regarding historic buildings.
  • Transfer those powers to the new Historic Preservation Commission.
  • Provide additional advisory authority over planning for historic preservation.

How it works today

San Francisco's formal landmarks preservation process began in 1967, when the City adopted Article 10 of the Planning Code. Article 10 sets out the rules and procedures for the designation of historically important buildings, called landmarks. It also controls the alteration or demolition of landmarks and the designation of areas containing a number of buildings of historic significance, called historic districts. A Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board was created to advise the Planning Commission in implementing the ordinance. Since 1967, 260 buildings have been designated as landmarks and 11 areas of the city have been designated historic districts.

In 1985, as part of the comprehensive revision of the land use controls in the downtown districts zoned C-3 for high-density commercial use, the City adopted Article 11 of the Planning Code. It designated 426 buildings as "significant" or "contributory" and designated six areas (including almost all of the Union Square retail district) as "conservation districts."

Although different with respect to their incentives and prohibitions regarding the demolition or alteration of buildings, Articles 10 and 11 are similar in their rules and procedures for designating new buildings and new districts — and for reviewing proposed changes in designated buildings, and buildings in designated districts. The Planning Commission is given the powers and duties in respect to historic preservation, but a Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board is responsible for advising the Planning Commission and Planning Department on the performance of those powers and duties.

How this measure changes the landmarks and historic preservation process

1. It eliminates the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board and establishes an independent Historic Preservation Commission.

Under this proposed Charter amendment, the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board would become an independent body called the Historic Preservation Commission, and would no longer be an advisory body to the Planning Commission. The Landmarks Board currently consists of nine members appointed by the mayor. The members serve four-year terms at the pleasure of the mayor, which means that the mayor may remove them without cause at any time, even if their terms have not run out. To qualify for service on the Landmarks Board, members should be specially prepared by training or experience and interested in the historic preservation of San Francisco, but they do not need any special professional skill set.

Under Prop. J, the new Historic Preservation Commission would be composed of seven members, six of whom would be specialists in various aspects of historic preservation. They would be nominated by the mayor for four-year terms, subject to approval by the Board of Supervisors. They could be removed from the board only for "cause," a term for reasons that usually involve misconduct in the performance of official duties. Six of the seven commissioners would have to be professional specialists in historic preservation.

The Historic Preservation Commission would be staffed by the Planning Department, just as the Planning Commission and Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board are today.

2. It modifies Planning Commission powers regarding the designation of landmarks and districts.

Under current rules, there are several ways to designate a new landmark or historic district, or a new significant or contributory building or conservation district. A proposal to make any of these designations must be considered first by the Landmarks Board, whose recommendation is then forwarded to the Planning Commission, which makes a final determination. If the Planning Commission gives its approval, the proposal is then sent to the Board of Supervisors, which makes the final decision.

Under Prop. J, the Historic Preservation Commission would make its recommendation regarding individual building designations directly to the Board of Supervisors. With respect to historic districts, the Planning Commission would have 45 days to comment, and this comment would be provided to the Board of Supervisors, along with the Historic Preservation Commission recommendation.

3. It shifts some Planning Commission powers to the Historic Preservation Commission.

Under current rules, the Landmarks Board makes the initial advisory determination as to the appropriateness of proposals to demolish or alter the external appearance of a landmark. a significant or contributory building, or a building in a historic district or conservation district. The Planning Commission then makes the final determination about the status of the building in question, although its determination may be appealed to the Board of Appeals, which may overturn the Planning Commission decision by a vote of four out of five members. Determinations regarding minor alterations often are delegated to Planning Department staff without any review by the Landmarks Board.

Under Prop. J, the Historic Preservation Commission would make the final determination for all external changes to historic buildings or buildings in historic districts. The Planning Commission would have no role with respect to individually designated landmarks, significant buildings and contributory buildings outside conservation districts. It would have no role in approving permits regarding buildings in historic or conservation districts that are not individually designated landmarks or significant buildings.

The only exceptions to this independent authority of the Historic Preservation Commission would be when the project requires a conditional use permit from the Planning Commission, involves a vacant lot, or requires a permit review of various physical aspects of the project under Planning Code Section 309. In these circumstances, the Historic Preservation Commission's decision could be modified by a two-thirds vote of the Planning Commission — subject to appeal to the Board of Appeals or, if a conditional use is involved, to the Board of Supervisors.

The frequency of these exceptions would depend on the location of the building. Most projects in downtown San Francisco's conservation districts could be structured to require a review under the provisions of Planning Code Section 309.1, the results of which could be appealed to the Planning Commission. On the other hand, none of the existing historic districts are currently subject to a 309 review. With respect to newly created historic districts, it would depend on whether they are made subject to new 309 requirements. For example, under the proposed Eastern Neighborhoods rezoning, only projects over 75 feet in height or containing more than 25,000 square feet of new space would be subject to a 309 review. This means that in many cases, the Planning Commission would not have any role in reviewing the decisions of the Historic Preservation Commission.

Whether a proposed change to a listed landmark or other historically noteworthy building would fall under these exceptions would depend on the location of the building. Broadly speaking, however, in many cases the Planning Commission would not have any role in reviewing the decisions of the Historic Preservation Commission.

4. It provides other responsibilities to the Historic Preservation Commission

Prop. J gives the Historic Preservation Commission other responsibilities relating to historic preservation. One such responsibility would be to make a recommendation to the Planning Commission for a segment of the City's General Plan — the document that articulates the overarching plans for the physical development of San Francisco — dealing with the preservation of historic buildings and other resources. The Historic Preservation Commission also would be responsible for making recommendations directly to the Board of Supervisors regarding historic property contracts under the Mills Act, which provides reductions in property taxes for qualified restoration projects; recommending properties for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places; and overseeing and directing a citywide survey and inventory of historic places.

Why it is on the ballot

Proposition J was prepared by Supervisor Aaron Peskin working with some advocates of historic preservation who believe that historic preservation should be given greater emphasis in development decisions.

Prop. J was perhaps precipitated, in part, by events regarding the former University of California Extension site at Laguna and Haight streets. To accommodate more housing on the site, the Planning Commission only partially followed the recommendation of the Landmarks Board regarding what proportion of the structures on the large site should be preserved. Prop. J was placed on the ballot by a unanimous vote of the Board of Supervisors.


Arguments in favor of Prop. J:

  • Establishing an independent commission elevates the importance of historic preservation.
  • A number of other cities have independent historic preservation commissions.
  • Having a commission composed of preservation professionals would result in fewer changes to existing historic districts, as the members of the commission might be stricter in their interpretation of preservation rules. This could result in new buildings being forced to more closely adhere to the character and scale of existing buildings.
  • The Planning Commission has many responsibilities and does not have enough time to adequately focus on preservation issues. By establishing a separate commission, the Planning Commission would be freed to focus on policy development and large-scale planning efforts.
  • Preservation decisions frequently involve technical and complex judgments. These often require the application of legal requirements and guidelines regarding the designation of individual buildings or districts and what is an appropriate alteration of a protected building. This process requires specialized expertise, the need for which is incorporated into this Charter amendment by mandating that six of the seven commissioners would be professionals in historic preservation.


Arguments against Prop. J:

  • This measure elevates historic preservation above other equally important concerns for San Francisco, such as affordable housing, the retention of families and economic development. For example, the Historic Preservation Commission could block the alteration of a historic building or significantly modify the construction of a new building in a historic district, simply based on concerns about fitting in with the surrounding "character" — with no requirement to balance that goal with its impact on the reduction of affordable housing units or any other concern.
  • This measure could, in effect, result in freezing much of San Francisco's physical form the way it is today. There are 11 historic districts in the city already, and it is likely that many more historic districts will be created in the near future, given that numerous parts of the City are undergoing historic surveys. This means that many buildings in large parts of the City would, for the most part, be under the exclusive jurisdiction of a specialized body with a single mission: historic preservation. This is a change from the current process, where the Planning Commission — which must weigh competing interests — reviews historic districts.
  • This charter amendment inappropriately gives the Historic Preservation Commission control over buildings that are not historically significant. For example, there are many buildings in historic and conservation districts that are unrated because they have no historic significance. Nevertheless, these buildings would fall under the exclusive jurisdiction of the new Historic Preservation Commission.
  • This is a solution in search of a problem. The current system of landmarks and historic preservation is not broken. It has worked well for 40 years. The advice of the Landmarks Board almost always has been followed by the Planning Commission. Some needed updating of the responsibilities of the Landmarks Board could be done simply by modifying the existing provisions of the Planning Code. A Charter amendment is not needed.

SPUR’s analysis

SPUR is very sympathetic to the desire to strengthen the role of historic preservation in decisions about how the city should develop and what it should look like. But we are concerned that too much of the City would be viewed only through a preservation lens if the role of the Planning Commission, a multi-purpose body, were too greatly curtailed and if many more historic districts were created in the future, as is likely.. Other values, such as reducing the environmental footprint of the city, increasing housing opportunities and promoting economic development, are of equal importance and are not likely to be given the same consideration by a single-purpose Historic Preservation Commission.

While we recognize that many people concerned about historic preservation think that Prop. J is necessary to provide more support for preservation, we believe that Prop. J would tilt the planning process too much toward preservation at the expense of other values.

SPUR recommends a "No" vote on Prop. J.