Opinion: Don’t destroy historic Bay Area neighborhoods to solve housing crisis
Without preservation we would have no Palace of Fine Arts, Alamo Square, Tonga Room, Alcatraz or Paramount Theater
PUBLISHED: December 21, 2023 at 5:00 a.m. | UPDATED: December 21, 2023 at 9:23 a.m.
In recent years, historic preservation has come under intense fire from state Sen. Scott Wiener and his YIMBY allies for allegedly interfering with housing production. However, the regional housing crisis can be solved without destroying historic neighborhoods.
I am a San Francisco-based architectural historian and historic preservation consultant who has been active in the Bay Area for 26 years. I am a committed urbanist and a lover of open space. As a Bay Area native, I remember as a child watching the last stone fruit orchards of South San Jose being bulldozed to construct endless tracts of one-story ranch houses sequestered behind beige sound walls.
Today I see the same thing happening in the outer reaches of the Bay Area and the Central Valley. I despise low-density, auto-dependent sprawl. I believe that our cities should become more “urban,” not only to preserve our farmland but also to encourage a pedestrian-oriented way of life that is common in much of the world, including a few parts of the United States. Yes, you could call me a YIMBY.
On the other hand, I love many of our region’s historic pre-war neighborhoods and commercial districts. Although they only comprise about 9% of the urbanized Bay Area, neighborhoods such as Dogpatch and Liberty Hill in San Francisco, Downtown Petaluma, Alameda’s East End, Old Oakland and Palo Alto’s Professorville — to only name a few — are characterized by a combination of features, including walkable streets, picturesque old buildings, mature landscaping and legacy businesses that evolved organically over a long period of time rather than springing forth, fully formed, from a developer’s master plan. Older neighborhoods also often provide a wider range of housing that supports residents of varying incomes. Contrast this to most new housing developments that focus exclusively on the affluent.
Much of what the YIMBYs accuse historic preservationists of doing — including in this newspaper’s recent article “Is historic preservation just another NIMBY tactic to avoid California housing laws?” — is either exaggerated or out of date. It is true that after coming of age in the late 1960s preservation focused on properties associated with the nation’s elite. However, this has changed as the scope of what society thinks deserves protection has broadened. For example, did you know that San Francisco’s Tenderloin is the city’s largest historic district?
As a newly minted preservationist in early 2000s, I nominated San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood to be the first historic district to focus on blue collar heritage. I have also listed properties associated with the region’s Indigenous, African American, Latino and Asian-Pacific Islander communities.
Preservationists are not the bad guys; we protect the diverse places that all of us love and that give our region its identity. Without historic preservation, we would have no Palace of Fine Arts, no Alamo Square, no Tonga Room, no Alcatraz and no Paramount Theater. The list goes on and on.
There are many places in the Bay Area where new housing could be built. Low-density, commercial corridors such as Geary Boulevard or El Camino Real are good places to start. Surface parking lots and non-historic buildings in downtowns across the region should be replaced with new buildings, as well as converting existing office buildings into apartments or condominiums. I also fully support building accessory dwelling units and replacing non-historic single-family homes with smaller multi-unit buildings.
If preservation laws had existed before the 1960s, we could have saved many of the country’s historic urban neighborhoods, such as San Francisco’s Fillmore District, from being destroyed. Instead, we were able to save only a few scraps of that incredibly rich heritage. Let’s not go back to those times.
Christopher VerPlanck is an independent, San Francisco-based historic preservation consultant.