Image courtesy of Eric Fischer.

As we’ve all been going about our daily lives, it seems the Mission has been acquiring a new identity, as a neighborhood whose historic character is greater than just “I like that, and I think it’s old.” The Eastern Neighborhoods Historic Survey has just reached the public comment phase of its development, and the Planning Commission will hold a meeting on it at 10 a.m. this Saturday morning at Cesar Chavez Elementary.

As for the Mission west of Valencia, the Mission District Neighborhood Association (MDNA) just finished its own survey, approved by the Planning Commission in March. Among its victories: Mission Dolores and Dolores Park have both been reclaimed from Eureka Valley, at least as far as city planning districts are concerned.

MDNA’s director, Peter Lewis, was kind enough to talk with us recently about why he thinks surveying the Mission is important.

Mission Local: Why did you begin surveying the Mission Dolores neighborhood? Wasn’t the city going to do it anyway?

Peter Lewis: We had no idea how long that was going to take. The Mission Dolores area is a very important place. Not just for architecture, but also for archaeology. People don’t know that we’re the oldest neighborhood in the city. Andrew Galvan, he’s the curator of Mission Dolores and chairman of the Ohlone Tribal Council. His family background is Ohlone Indian.

We were getting tired of losing, and almost losing, buildings. 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. They’re going to restore the parsonage to preservation standards, and then put 10 additional units next to it on the vacant lot.

And then there’s the Second Church of Christ, Scientist. They applied for a demolition permit. They said, “We can tear it down because we’re a church.” We went ballistic, and they changed their decision. Instead, they’re going to put two different congregations inside and retrofit the building.

There was a huge portion of our neighborhood that was unsurveyed. And once we figured out how the system works, we realized that once things are surveyed, it’s easier to stop people from tearing them down.

And also, the way that the Planning Department was surveying the Mission, everything from Valencia to Sanchez was considered Eureka Valley. And that meant that the Mission Dolores was, as far as the Planning Department was concerned, in the Castro.

ML: Why was that?

PL: The first time I called the Planning Department to complain about this, the planner — and this planner was a nice guy — told me, “The official stance of the Planning Department is that the Mission Dolores is named after Mission Street.”

ML: Even though Mission Dolores obviously came first?

PL: Right. So the MDNA got nonprofit status. We got $25,000 from a $2.5 million lawsuit that was filed against a developer who took down part of the Emporium building. Then we got a $46,500 grant, again from the San Francisco Preservation Fund Committee, to have Carey & Company complete the Mission Dolores survey.

Then we took the survey to the landmarks board, and they unanimously endorsed it. On March 17, 2010, the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission unanimously adopted Carey & Company’s Mission Dolores Neighborhood Historic Survey and Final Historic Context Statement.

We have a new, wonderful Historic Preservation Commission. Now that Prop. J is passed, we have more power to make decisions, since the landmarks board is advisory only.

ML: What buildings in the Mission do you love?

PL: The Mission Dolores, restored by Willis Polk. Mission High, which is also a historic landmark. The Dolores Street medians. I love 601 Dolores. That was renovated by Simon Akhavan. He’s a wonderful man. It’s good that the entire building is preserved, and not chopped into condos.

ML: But who can afford to live there?

PL: Carlos Santana could. He went to Mission High, you know.

ML: What would you like to see become a landmark?

PL: Everett Middle School, which was designed by John Reed, the same architect who designed Mission High. Sanchez Elementary.

ML: What do you think about the Dolores Park renovation?

PL: Well, those bathrooms are a historic resource. They’re a part of our survey. They can expand them, but they need to respect the landscape of Dolores Park.

ML: What else is going on?

PL: There’s a proposed Whole Foods at Market and Dolores. That’s not so much historic. We just want it to be smaller so that it will fit into the neighborhood. And there are the historic garages at S&C Ford. We voted to take a neutral position on those. Not many people felt they were that important. But we’re working closely with the developers.

ML: And why did you move to the Mission? I mean, personally.

PL: Honestly? I moved here 21 years ago. It was the only place that I could afford. I bought a rat-infested contractor’s special. And then, like a lot of our members, I started doing research and realized, “Hey, this neighborhood is important.”

ML: If the Mission Dolores is such a historic site, why do you think it was zoned out of the Mission? Do you think it’s because houses are worth more if they’re in the Castro?

PL: I don’t think that’s it. I think that there might be political reasons. But we’re dealing with historical preservation, not politics. The archaeological survey of the Mission Dolores goes to Sanchez. We’re just trying to keep the Mission from being swallowed by other neighborhoods. And you know, the Mission Dolores parish once included all of Eureka and Hayes Valleys.

ML: Wait — should we try to get those back, then? Make the Mission even bigger?

PL: No. Not necessary.

The South Mission Survey (currently in the public review phase) can be found here.

All 700-plus pages of the Mission Dolores Neighborhood Survey are available in two PDFs:
Vol. 1
Vol. 2

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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  1. This type of thinking is part of the problem with these “historic preservation:” groups, as he says about the crappy bathrooms in Dolores park: “Well, those bathrooms are a historic resource.”