When historic preservation goes way too far, citizens suffer 

The warning bells should have sounded when a group of preservationists tried to landmark a San Francisco building last year that was historically insignificant, architecturally challenged, yet admittedly quaint, like a 1960s television ad.

But we now know things do not go better with Coke, smoking is not cool and a lot of structures approved over time would have helped our landscape considerably if they were never built.

Lessons are not always easily learned, such as giving power to those who would wield it bluntly, guided by some fuzzy agenda. And that would be the growing consensus about the recent activity of members of The City’s Historic Preservation Commission, whose creation is one of the many electoral exercises engaged in by city voters that often result in unintended consequences.

Last year, the commission made itself known for attempting to landmark a building of highly questionable merit, the North Beach Branch Library, a fairly nondescript brick structure that was lauded primarily for its Eisenhower-era, boxy style — a structure modern librarians hoped to remove in the name of function and education. It took the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors to block this misguided landmark attempt, but as it turns out, the preservation board was just warming up.

Recently, the panel took it upon itself to declare that it wants to landmark almost every building and blade of grass in our 1,017-acre Golden Gate Park, which has withstood political assaults for more than 100 years. And now its members have turned their attention to Dolores Park — due for a major renovation — and even some roadway medians that deserve attention, but hardly landmark preservation status.

The commission has clearly begun to exceed its purpose and its reach, which is why this week Supervisor Scott Wiener called for a hearing on the panel’s activities, which he said are “impacting and possibly undermining” other key policy objectives such as affordable housing, libraries and even pedestrian safety.

“Too often we have seen discussions of historic preservation take place in a vacuum,” Wiener said at Tuesday’s board meeting.

More pointedly, if Golden Gate Park and others are deemed landmarks, it would create the unwieldy proposition of having parks overseen by one department and two commissions — a thought that must have John McLaren spinning in his grave.

I have been a champion of historic preservation from my beginnings as a columnist and know that bad policies and politics are mutually exclusive of sound preservation work, which is why I opposed the commission-creating Proposition J in 2008. The main concern was that the commission would be an unnecessary addition to careful planning and preservation panels already in place, and that The City was already brimming with historic preservationists and neighborhood groups that have long served as checks and balances against the bulldozer mentality that exists in other municipalities.

It did not help that the commission’s creation was the handiwork of outgoing Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who had a long history of meddling in development plans and using landmark designations and planning technicalities to kill projects big and small.

It is worth noting that if the commission had existed around the time the new de Young Museum and the new California Academy of Sciences were being contemplated, chances are the obstacles would have been great enough to stop them from being built in Golden Gate Park.

The same goes for plans to renovate major city parks with the addition of new synthetic-turf fields, which some preservationists have argued go against the historic nature of the grounds. The new fields have proven to be a magnificent boon to athletics throughout San Francisco, and blocking them would be a disaster for future generations.

How silly is the idea of the preservation commission taking parks and street meridians under its wing? The panel apparently was looking at landmark status for the Stow Lake boathouse, which is so rundown and deficient that the Recreation and Park Commission felt compelled to award the concession to a new operator as the only hope to save it.

San Francisco residents do not need a group of preservationists to tell us we need to protect Golden Gate Park — 120 years of history says we’re doing that just fine.

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Ken Garcia

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