by Woody LaBounty
SF Heritage President & CEO
In 2021, San Francisco Heritage’s board and staff committed to prioritizing equity in our work.
It was a significant resolution appropriate for our 50th-anniversary year and we took it very seriously. Every internal meeting had “equity” as the first agenda item. This wasn’t merely some string-on-the-finger reminder about its importance. I knew how easily well-intentioned priorities could get whittled down by the crisis of the day or the unexpected new opportunity. If you don’t start with the most important thing, it soon becomes not the most important thing.
Putting racial and social equity up front ensures SF Heritage reaches every corner of San Francisco in 2024. To prioritize equity, we need to talk about what preservation is, why it’s important, and the way SF Heritage needs to practice it.
SF Heritage and Preservation
San Francisco Heritage preserves and enhances San Francisco’s unique architectural and cultural identity. That is our mission as a 501(c)3 California nonprofit corporation. We exist to educate and to advocate for what makes this city special. We do a public good.
Work in the public realm can be subjective, even divisive. I recently read an article in which the writer described the most common way debates go astray as “one side strives to articulate complexity, while the other promotes simplicity.”
Housing production is one such off-the-rails debate. It is simple to say that building more housing of any type will solve homelessness, joblessness, unaffordability, and economic stagnation. Then, the argument continues, anything that theoretically could hinder the building of housing, including designation of a landmark or historic district, is regressive, obstructionist, and unjust.
You have heard the stereotypical arguments. We preservationists want to “freeze the city in amber” (if given a magic wand, eliminating this inaccurate analogy would be my first act). We care more about the past than the future. We are unintentionally or deliberately racist, because low housing inventory keeps costs high and walls off the city to families, newcomers, and marginalized communities.
To start, I respectfully assert that housing production is not a simple issue, but a complex one. And we can bring our own counter-arguments, which you have also heard. Housing construction doesn’t solve every urban ill, and even if it did, it creates other problems we need to account for, such as exacerbating the climate crisis. Dropping every local review and blocking community voices—”streamlining”— won’t suddenly make interest rates lower or building materials available. Market-rate towers can’t cure mental illness or offer people living in tents a real place to live. Neither can they keep someone with the salary of a teacher or an artist in the city.
Development and housing production are not stymied by preservation or San Francisco Heritage’s mission. Over the past 20 years in this city, nine out of every 10 proposed projects have been entitled. Just about every issue that comes to SF Heritage’s Projects & Policy Committee is successfully approved, albeit at times modified. We don’t stop projects; we make them better. We can save what’s special and unique and we can adaptively reuse, in-fill, and build new and affordable where appropriate.
And rather than being inherently elitist or racist, preservation work done right is a tool to make our society more equitable.
Preservation is Positive Change
I acknowledge that, like housing production, preservation can also be complex. Part of SF Heritage’s mission is to articulate that complexity and show how the practice can be a flexible, powerful, and effective tool for positive change and economic vitality.
SF Heritage supports and celebrates cultural districts because we value an LGBTQ+ Castro District, a Filipino South of Market, a Japanese Japantown, and a Latinx 24th Street. Cultural districts aren’t about “local color” as much as stopping displacement and welcoming new members of these diverse communities. They safeguard and support networks, traditions, practices, and languages, ensuring safe landing spots for new arrivals to the city, be they escaping intolerance or seeking opportunity. Cultural district are open doors, not walls.
SF Heritage saves special buildings. Sometimes they are special for their beauty or design. Sometimes they are special because of their historical associations. Either way, preserving Victorian cottages, Gothic skyscrapers, and the Mid-century home of civil-rights champions Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin means defending the city’s economic and cultural future. People move here and tourists spend their dollars here because San Francisco is both a beautiful and a storied city.
Older buildings are also “naturally” more affordable than new construction and many are covered by rent-control laws. Preservation is a surer case for affordability than any trickle-down theory that X number of new market-rate units will someday lead to cheaper rents because of supply and demand.
SF Heritage fights and advocates for legacy businesses. If the built environment is the body of this amazing city, and cultural districts the heart, then longtime unique legacy businesses are its soul.
You all have your place, where the essence of San Francisco envelops you, be it the Hayes Street Grill or Caffe Trieste or Cinderella Bakery or even the laundry or tailor shop down the street. The corner groceries, family-run restaurants, and colorful old bars are what give this city of neighborhoods its vibrance and its cohesion. They are the often-overlooked secret glue that holds us together and they pass what is best about the city on to newcomers and new generations.
In a city that will always change, the power of preservation is its ability to strengthen communities in place. That’s why we need not only to put equity on the agenda, but we need to put it first. Preservation isn’t about old buildings and the past; it’s about people and the future.
Looking to 2024
With limited resources and a seemingly unlimited number of proposed projects and issues to review and address, how do we make sure we are working in every corner of the city and building meaningful partnerships to advance equity? We’re back to agenda-making.
As an advocacy organization we are pretty good at reacting. There’s often an emergency-of-the-week which needs a response, an immediate meeting, or testimony at a city commission hearing. While these quick-reaction issues get the adrenaline pumping, require a lot of mental energy, and represent the core of our nonprofit mission, they probably take up only about a third of our time from emergence to resolution. Another third of our resources is essential organizational work: management of our two historic properties, fundraising, accounting, internal meetings, nonprofit compliance, and, yes, just answering emails.
The remaining third is where we have the most agency and can have the most impact. In this bucket are educational programs, community outreach, partnership-building, and initiatives. In this “golden third” is where we can and need to make the right choices.
Here are some of the ways we’re proposing to use our golden third in 2024:
- Assist and advocate for completion and city adoption of cultural historic context statements. These important documents inform and identify significant sites for preservation. They are needed to guide the citywide survey now underway.
Two big ones—the Latino and African American context statements—have been languishing in a loop of rewrites and reviews for years. We might finally be in the home stretch. On September 25, 2023, the Planning Department hosted a long-delayed community meeting to get comment and additional information on the African American statement. SF Heritage needs to assist and keep the pressure on to get these done.
- Continue to selectively partner with one cultural district and one neighborhood a year. From 2020–2022 we gave focused time to the American Indian, Sunset Chinese, and Castro LGBTQ cultural districts on preservation-related projects and visibility. Over the same period, our “Heritage in the Neighborhoods” program helped us build new relationships in traditionally underserved areas of the city and successfully designate new legacy businesses and city landmarks. These initiatives work and we will keep them going.
Budgetary constraints have forced us to pause our popular house tours at the Haas-Lilienthal House and our exciting arts programs at the Doolan-Larson building on the corner of Haight and Ashbury. We not only have to get these restarted quickly, we have to ensure that they are designed to welcome new and diverse audiences. All San Franciscans should feel that SF Heritage’s historic properties are open for them to visit, enjoy, entertain friends, and learn something interesting.
We have plenty more we’re excited about and current issues where SF Heritage’s expertise, perspective, and advocacy are needed, and where consideration of equity is even more important: revitalization of the Financial District, the citywide historic survey, new plans for the San Francisco Art Institute campus, options for handling sea-rise at our historic waterfront, and the interpretation of local and state housing bills.
The California state historic rehabilitation tax-credit program may finally be here next year and we want to educate and facilitate access to this important preservation incentive. The national Advisory Council for Historic Preservation is crafting a new draft policy on housing and historic preservation. The application and interpretation of the Secretary of Interior Standards for Historic Preservation—in many ways our bible—is also under review.
We’re doing this with you in 2024. Locally, from the Embarcadero to the Ocean Beach seawall, downtown and in the neighborhoods, the optimistic, strong, and persistent voice of SF Heritage is heard because of your support. Thank you for helping it reach every corner of San Francisco.
– Woody LaBounty
A version of this appeared in Heritage News, Oct–Dec 2023.