Three housemates on Shotwell Street say they are fighting for light and air that would be lost if their neighbors are allowed to expand the rear of the duplex next door. For their part, the neighbors contend they need the space to fit their future families.
At another time, the outcome would be fairly straightforward — other residents of the block have had similar plans approved. But in September, city planners released the South Mission Historical Survey, which identified the 600 block of Shotwell Street as part of a six-block corridor prime for incorporation into state and national registers of historic places. That development has amplified the significance of the spat on Shotwell: Its resolution could begin to define how much renovation in a historical neighborhood is too much.
“I don’t recall there being a case like this in the three years I’ve been here,” said John Rahaim, planning department director, noting that residents often cry “preservation” to block building projects, but that it is rarely as unclear what the outcome will be. Rahaim brushed off the notion that the outcome would set a precedent for evaluating historic buildings, but added, “If we had five more in a row or something, it would perhaps affect how we deal with these [types of projects] administratively.”
City officials, planning staff, architects and homeowners are split on the subject, struggling to balance the interests of homeowners and the community against the historic value of San Francisco’s oldest neighborhood.
The home in question, 640 Shotwell Street, built circa 1880, belongs to brothers Mike and Tony Manzo, who live in the smaller of the house’s two units. They share one bedroom and one bathroom. The home is one on a block of 12 houses — built in the Eastlake, Italianate, Edwardian or revival architectural style — listed as historic resources by the Planning Department. For more than 100 years, the houses have retained their original facades, walls, heights and, to a lesser extent, their side yards.
The Manzos plan to stack two stories and a roof deck atop a preexisting single story at the back of their home.
Bonnie Feinberg and Beth Freedman live five feet away, across a side yard that separates the two homes. If the Manzos build higher, natural light into their dining room would diminish somewhat. If the Manzos expand their building’s width, Feinberg and Freedman say it would choke ventilation around their home and “create a boxed-in feeling” that would deprive them of privacy.
“I could open my window and pass them the salt — that kind of close,” Feinberg said of the Manzos’ plan to widen their home.
The emergence of the historic survey provided Feinberg, Freedman and other opponents of the project the fodder they needed to magnify the issue from a dispute about sunlight and airflow to a case that strikes at the heart of the “historic” classification.
“Once we learned the neighborhood was a historic district, we had our argument,” said Joe Butler, an architect Feinberg and Freedman hired to solidify their case.
“Exceptional and Extraordinary”
At the request of Feinberg, Freedman and their upstairs housemate, Galen Joseph, the proposal underwent discretionary review, in which the Planning Commission is tasked with vetting impacts that the neighbors allege will arise from the “exceptional and extraordinary circumstances” of the project. In this case, those circumstances are the character-defining features that make both homes historic.
“Now that the [historic] survey is out of the bag, are [planners] going to behave any differently, or is it just business as usual? That’s a lingering question for me,” Feinberg said. “If you’re not going to provide more scrutiny after this [survey], then what’s the point?”
But even the president of the planning commission, Ron Miguel, wondered about how much scrutiny was too much.
“We need to allow people, where possible, if it is consistent with not destroying the characteristics of a building … to be able to make these [homes] more livable for modern needs,” Miguel told commissioners at an October 7 meeting.
At that meeting, Mike Manzo defended the expansion plans.
“I am not a professional developer. I am not a house flipper,” Manzo told planning commissioners. He said he and his brother have reached out to nearby homeowners for feedback and adjusted their design to reduce impacts. But building a viable home for their families and satisfying neighbors’ demands seem to be mutually exclusive.
“We moved the light wells. We lowered the height of the project,” Manzo said. “We did a lot of things.”
“I do not want to be here,” he added. “I would have loved to have settled this before coming here.”
Roughly 20 neighbors in the area have written letters supporting the Manzos’ proposal. About 20 more signed a memo circulated by Feinberg and her housemates stating that the project is “out of scale and out of character with the neighborhood.” At least one neighbor signed his name in support of both sides.
History Versus Progress
Paramount in the debate over 640 Shotwell is defining how much alteration an architecturally historic home can endure before it is transformed.
“The question is, what level of scrutiny [is appropriate]? There’s a difference of opinion about that,” said Pilar Lavalley, the Planning Department’s preservation technical specialist assigned to the project.
Before Feinberg and her housemates used the survey to invoke discretionary review, city planners had signed off on the Manzos’ initial proposal to add two stories and about five feet of width — enough to touch the neighbors’ house — to the rear of their home. But at the October 7 meeting, commissioners nixed the widening, on the grounds that closing the gap between the homes negates a unique feature of the house: that it is freestanding.
That feature, however, hasn’t stopped other homeowners in the neighborhood, or the previous owners of Feinberg’s and Freedman’s home, from gaining approval for comparable build-outs.
“You are promoting a premise that is not real at all,” Arnie Lerner, of Lerner & Associates Architects, told planning commissioners on behalf of the Manzos.
The irony of a double standard wasn’t lost on Commissioner Hisashi Sugaya.
“At what point do we say, we have [allowed] 15 of these, but now [with this one] we have upset the whole character of the district?” Sugaya asked the commission.
Butler, the architect arguing against the project, presented to commissioners the Secretary of the Interior’s guidelines for preserving historic properties. One guideline is that new construction on a historic building can’t be visible to the public.
“Are they following the standards, or their version of the standards? That’s what every neighbor wants to know,” Butler said.
The commission voted 4-2 to accept discretionary review, and asked the Manzos to explore building deeper into their backyard without going wider. Already, neighbors at the meeting objected. They say building deeper would uproot two fruit trees in the Manzos’ backyard and erode the scenery — one of the main draws of owning a home on the block, they said. The Manzos disputed their claims, and commissioners appeared unmoved.
Both sides have their own definitions of “defining characteristics” of historic homes and what is “minimally visible,” locking the debate in a gray area for commissioners to sort out.
“I feel like this is a lose-lose situation,” said Commission Vice President Christina Olague.