The process has been initiated to designate Galería de la Raza’s former building at 24th and Bryant as a city landmark, despite objections from the building’s owner.
The Historic Preservation Commission on Wednesday voted unanimously to set this process in motion following testimony from a long procession of speakers in support of making the building a landmark and honoring the gallery’s nearly five-decade history there.
It would be the first building in the Mission to be landmarked in association with 20th Century Latino history.
It’s “a moment for us to stop the bleeding,” said Ani Rivera, the gallery’s executive director, during public comment. “It’s been difficult moving a home of 47 years.”
In October, the gallery was forced out of its longtime space after negotiations crumbled between the gallery’s leaders and representatives of 93-year-old property owner Lily Ng. The gallery last month moved into a temporary space on Valencia Street while its leadership waits for two potential spaces to be built in the next two years — one at 16th and Folsom streets and another at 24th and Folsom streets. Both are earmarked as a potential home for the gallery.
Although the Galería has vacated its longtime 24th Street home, it applied for the landmark designation two years before the drama began. The hope, many argued, is to preserve the gallery’s long history at the space in the public consciousness.
“This is a place that’s been in my life since I’ve had life,” said 18-year-old Maya Paredes-Hernandez. “I couldn’t imagine a Mission without it.”
Carolina Morales, an aide to Supervisor Hillary Ronen, said on behalf of the supervisor that “it’s been a space for gathering, for fighting for civil rights, and a true beacon for 24th street Mission-Latino community.”
But the building’s owners are fiercely against the designation, arguing that it would constrain their ability to freely manage the property. “There’s no disputing the significance of the Galería,” said Steven McDonald, an attorney for Ng, during public comment. “The Galería is now gone, though.”
Family members claimed that the designation would decrease the building’s value. “She doesn’t want any restrictions on her private property,” said Rose Chen, one of Ng’s relatives.
McDonald and several of Ng’s relatives argued the commission should push its vote back to a later meeting. Yet, as several commissioners pointed out, the vote only kicked off a multistep process that puts the matter in front of the commission again and, later, requires final approval by the Board of Supervisors.
“The clock has started,” said Tim Frye, a historic preservation officer with the Planning Department. “What this means is over the next month or two, we will work the property owner and community to come up with a designating ordinance that everyone can agree on.”
If designated, the property owners would technically be constrained by the designation, but those restrictions are not necessarily major and may not lower the value of the building.
“Generally, the landowners express those concerns,” said Stephen Williams, a land-use attorney who has handled numerous landmark designation cases. “As it happens, oftentimes they are wrong — often times, the buildings are worth more.”
Williams said if the building owner wanted to make changes to the building’s exterior — or if the designation includes the interior — the owner would have to go before the preservation commission for approval.
Both Williams and Frye said that the designation would not restrict the building owners from future commercial endeavors. “We’re not saying it always has to be a gallery,” Frye confirmed. But “features associated with the gallery have to remain.”
That includes characteristics of the building’s facade — of which there are many — like “horizontal wood channel siding,” as well as the interior, like “raised window display areas.” Not many interior character-defining characteristics are listed.
The terms of the designation are to be negotiated over the next few months. Supporters of the preservation are likely to push for the inclusion of a mural billboard on the side of the building, as well as the preservation of interior features of the gallery.
And the historic designation would not be solely based on the gallery’s history in the building.
The structure, erected in 1895, “appears significant for its association with suburban expansion and commercial development in San Francisco’s Mission District during the second half of the nineteenth century, and as a rare example of a neighborhood mixed-use storefront building of the period, featuring Italianate, Stick/Eastlake, and Edwardian design elements,” notes a Planning Department analysis.
The Galería’s current bid for landmark status reminded many of the historic preservation commissioners of Marcus Books on Fillmore, which was designated a landmark in 2013 shortly before it was evicted from the space. Although the book store doesn’t currently occupy the space, it remains a landmark.
“We did make it a landmark,” said Commissioner Andrew Wolfram. “It’s important to recall that.”