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San Francisco Has Hundreds of ‘Historic Places’ and Landmarks. How Does That Work?

Written by Sarah WrightPublished May 03, 2022 • 1:46pm
Photo courtesy of the St. Francis Wood Homeowners Association.

Last week, the California State Historical Resources Commission voted unanimously to add St. Francis Wood to a national list of historic resources. Dozens of members of the public called in to oppose the designation, citing concerns that putting the district on the national register would enshrine a neighborhood known for its wealth and segregationist history—and that it could even be a tactic for avoiding new development under a state zoning law. 

What does it mean to make a local, state or national historic list, and how do they affect San Francisco? We looked into the details.

What is the National Register of Historic Places?

A few members of the St. Francis Wood homeowners’ association applied to add the neighborhood to the National Register of Historic Places, a federal list of buildings, sites and districts worthy of preservation because of their history. Those who apply have to undergo a few steps in order to get approved. 

The state body that looks at these applications forwarded the application to the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, an oversight body within the San Francisco Planning Department. That commission considered the application on April 6 and unanimously recommended it to the state for approval.

Subsequently, the state's Historic Resources Commission—made up of nine members appointed by the governor—voted unanimously to recommend St. Francis Wood for the National Register of Historic Places.

But before it can get on the list, St. Francis Wood needs one final approval: That’s from Joy Beasly, the current Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places at the National Parks Service. Beasly needs to approve the designation within 45 days. 

If approved, that would put the neighborhood on the national and state lists. The city also maintains its own list of historical districts and landmarks, which isn't directly connected to the state or national lists.

What is St. Francis Wood’s History?

Established in 1912, the neighborhood was designed to be a “residential park” inspired by the designs of architect Daniel Burnham. 

But like many developments in San Francisco and the Bay Area at the time, written into the design was a clause in its covenant that barred anyone of African, Japanese, Chinese or Mongolian descent from purchasing or renting land in the neighborhood—allowing them to live there only as servants. It wasn’t until the Fair Housing Act of 1968 that such race-based covenants were outlawed. 

St. Francis Wood is among the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city, with a median home sale price of $3.6 million according to Compass Real Estate

A tract map from the Mason-McDuffie Company shows St. Francis Wood around 1918. | Photo courtesy of UC Berkeley, Environmental Design Archives via the Western Neighborhoods Project.

Where Are the Historic Districts in San Francisco, and How Many of Them Are There?

The purpose of historical designation is to protect the city’s cultural resources. 

The federal government, the state and the city each maintain their own lists of historic resources. The federal and state list are tied to one another, with federally-approved historic sites added automatically to the state’s list. The local list, which St. Francis Wood isn’t on, is maintained separately.

California’s Office of Historic Preservation lists roughly 150 sites in San Francisco that have been approved for the national historic register. In addition to the national historic register, another roughly 50 sites have been recognized as historic resources under the state’s register. San Francisco recognizes about 300 local landmarks and 14 local historic districts, which include the Alamo Square and Duboce Park historic districts. 

What Changes When a Historic Site Is Approved?

One criticism of putting St. Francis Wood on the national list is that it would automatically add it to the state list. That comes with privileges related to development. 

All districts and landmarks that make the state list are exempt from Senate Bill 9, a state law that makes single-family zoning illegal and could pave the way for development in more of San Francisco’s residential neighborhoods. So the decision would mean that St. Francis Wood is excluded from the new law and could not be upzoned using SB 9.

Frances McMillen, a senior planner at the San Francisco Planning Department, said much of St. Francis Wood has already been considered a historic resource under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, which evaluates the environmental impact when new development is proposed. Historic resources can be considered part of the environment under CEQA. 

SB 9 removes the requirement to conduct a CEQA analysis for eligible projects, but it doesn’t apply to any buildings within a historic resource district as designated by the state or city. In this case, placement on the national registry would automatically put St. Francis Wood on the state list—therefore exempting it from SB 9.

City historic landmark designation works differently than the national list.

If approved as a local landmark, a site is also exempt from SB 9. Additionally, under the city’s planning code, the site is subject to two additional layers of protection. Firstly, a “certificate of appropriateness” has to be approved during the planning phase before development or changes can begin. Secondly, any property deemed historic is subject to a moratorium of up to one year while feasible alternatives are explored before being approved for demolition. 

If St. Francis Wood were to be approved on the national list, that wouldn’t change the city’s existing process for evaluating new buildings or changes to existing homes in the neighborhood, McMillen said. 

“Nothing has changed as far as our review goes,” McMillen said.

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