Mission Neighborhood: A National Historic Place?

Image courtesy of Eric Fischer.

Image courtesy of Eric Fischer.

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The western side of the Mission Dolores neighborhood is $40,000 short of being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district. That title would make it harder to tear down certain buildings in this sub-area of the Mission District.

Peter Lewis, former president of the Mission Dolores Neighborhood Association (MDNA), is spearheading the effort because he wants to protect the neighborhood’s resources. Also, he thinks it will educate the public.

“It’s the oldest neighborhood in the city,” said Lewis. “Once people understand that, they might think, ‘I better respect it.’” That’s one reason the group chose to include the entire neighborhood, rather than just individual buildings, in the national nomination.

So far the effort has received grants from the San Francisco Historic Preservation Fund Committee and donations from MDNA’s members, board members and local businesses like Bi-Rite Market, said Lewis. The funding is needed to complete historic surveys of the area as part of the nomination process. Lewis hopes the nomination will be completed within the next 18 months.

There has been no opposition from the community, Lewis said, other than from District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener.

Wiener “wants to change things too much,” Lewis said. “He doesn’t think any park should be historic; he wants to change the median to restrict traffic.”

The Dolores Street median is already a state landmark, but the historic neighborhood designation would strengthen its protection, said Lewis.

“We don’t need his support anyway,” Lewis said. Wiener’s opposition is part of the reason that MDNA decided to apply for national rather than local historic status.

“This would be whopper of a historic district, a very large district,” Wiener said, one that is “too big and too over-broad,” explaining why he opposes the national nomination. “And local historic districts have significant land-use restrictions; many changes to peoples’ homes would have to go through the Historic Preservation Commission.

“In addition, it contains all of Dolores Park, and I am opposed to including parks in historical districts because parks are about people and they need to change with the community.”

A listing on the National Register of Historic Places carries much less weight than a local landmark or district designation when it comes to the historic preservation process, Wiener said.

According to the register’s website, a listing on the National Register of Historic Places provides recognition of a property’s significance in history, architecture, engineering or archaeology, as well as other benefits, including providing some protection from adverse effects from federally funded or licensed projects. It does not place any obligations on private property owners.

As for park renovations, MDNA supports them “as long as it doesn’t take away from the park as a historic resource,“ Lewis said.

The proposed district’s boundaries would run from Market to 20th streets and from both sides of Dolores to Sanchez, Lewis said, and would include Mission Dolores, Dolores Park and all the buildings around the park. Why include only the western part of the neighborhood?

“We’d like to go all the way to Valencia, but the city never properly surveyed that area and we don’t have the money to survey it ourselves,” Lewis said.

In 2010, MDNA finished its own historic survey of the area, which was unanimously adopted by the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission. The group hired consultants Carey and Company to conduct the survey, which requires researching each building and noting when it was built and by whom, as well as its architectural or other historic significance — if someone famous lived there, for instance.

One result of the survey, called the Mission Dolores Neighborhood Historic Survey and Final Historic Context Statement, was that Mission Dolores and Dolores Park were reclaimed from Eureka Valley, at least as far as city planning districts are concerned.

In the last six years, the organization has raised $80,000 and needs about $40,000 more in order to complete the nomination. That price tag, said Lewis, will pay to finish surveying the eastern side of Dolores Street — about 70 percent of the buildings there were never properly reviewed as part of the Planning Department’s Inner Mission North Survey. The National Register requires that every building in a proposed district be surveyed.

Achieving recognition for the neighborhood as a historic place has been MDNA’s goal since its founding in 2005, said Lewis. The district’s important historic features include Dolores Park, Mission Dolores church and the settlement around the church.

In 2010, Lewis told Mission Local about the significance of one building in the area: “There was a very beautiful Swedish Lutheran church at 15th and Dolores. In 1906, after the earthquake, the whole community got together, climbed the steeple of the church and poured milk from the nearby dairies onto blankets they had spread out on the roof, to keep the building from catching fire. In 1994, a homeless person burned most of it down, and it was demolished. Then a developer bought it, and the parsonage next to it, which hadn’t burned. In August of 2005 they applied for a demolition permit for the parsonage.

At first glance, it wasn’t big, or beautiful. But it was important. That was our first major battle.”

Today Lewis is still worried about losing historic buildings and resources to demolition or new construction.

“We need to take better care of [the neighborhood] and appreciate it,” he said. “We have the protections that CEQA [the California Environmental Quality Act] gives, but we want to go one step further and get on the National Register so that the neighborhood is recognized once and for all, not only as the birthplace of San Francisco but as namesake for the Mission District.

“It makes a big difference.”

If you’d like to donate, visit MDNA’s contact page.

7 Comments

  1. Miles

    This is a very bad idea. Imagine having to get approval from a preservation condition in order to upgrade the trash cans at Dolores Park. If your house is listed as a landmark, you’ll need approval to change a toilet or repair a doorway or window. The costs to those covered by the district are not worth the benefits to the community as a whole.

  2. marcos

    I’ll take getting approval for minor cosmetic modifications if that puts the neighborhood off limits for the get rich quick schemes of fly by night developers and their enablers on the Board of Supervisors.

    A lot less Wiener and many more controls on development is what we need around here.

  3. whinton

    marco that’s why there’s so little new housing that goes in, and why rents become so high.

  4. Miles

    Marcos,

    This issue is not just minor cosmetic modifications. Basic maintenance will become prohibitively expensive. Time to deal with the approval process is not cheap, especially if you need to hire a lawyer to navigate it. This creates a higher risk of blight and dangerous buildings, fires, etc. if the owners aren’t able to pour their savings into a building. Imagine having to replace wiring or plumbing in a building covered by this district!

    If you want to prevent developers from creating projects that disturb the character of the neighborhood, that’s fine – it can be done by designating a few properties in strategic locations around the neighborhood, but please, have it done to owners who want it. Leave the rest of us out of it.

  5. Grace

    To be clear — the proposed designation would NEVER require additional review related to ANY interior feature and/or maintenance and repair. National Register designation WOULD NOT have any impact whatsoever on a property owner’s ability to repair a door, window, toilet, wiring, install new plumbing, re-roof etc… Don’t believe me? Look it up!

  6. bob

    Horrible idea…. this is a living city neighborhood, not a Disney theme park.

  7. Bartola Mejia

    Why is having a historic district so important for society? A historic district is the physical VOICE that helps us to connect & identity in some way with our past. The preservation of such a district encourages everyone to learn, understand, celebrate & protect all that was shaped & built by those who came before us. For those who still have doubts:
    1. A Nat. Register Historic District won’t add any protections that CEQA already gives. Yet it will give property owners tax benefits for storing or maintaining their historic resources through The Mills Act.
    2. NO historic district within SF protects the interior of historic resources, NO matter if it is a local or Nat. Register Historic District. It also doesn’t add restrictions to plumbing, electrical, or whether you can move a garbage can in the Mission Dolores Park.
    3. MDNA has helped protect or save from demolition many important historic resources within the neighborhood. They include the former Golden Gate Lutheran Church @ 601 Dolores & the former 2nd Church of Christ Scientist @ 651 Dolores.
    4. The nomination that made Mission High School City Landmark #255 was written by MDNA Board member Dr. Ted Scourkes & endorsed by MDNA.
    5. MDNA very much supports quality new construction as long as NO historic resources are demolished. Yet so does CEQA. MDNA’s role is simply to help the system work & protect the neighborhood like most other neighborhood organizations while helping to shape its future.

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