SF’s Golden Gate Park a Local Landmark?

9 Jan

Herzog & de Meuron's de Young Museum is a new addition to Golden Gate Park's more traditional landscape (photo by author)

With the New Year comes news that San Francisco’s Historic Preservation Commission is making a major goal for 2011:  designating Golden Gate Park a local landmark.  The park was first laid out in the 1870s in an effort to attract settlement west of downtown.   140 years later, the city has developed all of the land surrounding it and Golden Gate Park itself has seen some recent developments, including Herzog & de Meuron’s new de Young Museum and Renzo Piano’s new Academy of Sciences.  These two major projects focused the eyes of the architecture world on Golden Gate Park, but many residents of the City by the Bay are wary of this attention on their collective back yard and want to take steps to protect what is left of the historic landscape.  Preservationists see local landmarking as the perfect tool to maintain Golden Gate Park for future generations to enjoy.

This news got me thinking about Chicago’s own historic park system, and specifically the efforts of the Chicago Park District and Park District Historian Julia Bachrach over the past decade to achieve National Register status for all of the major parks and boulevards.   San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is already on the National Register of Historic Places, so aren’t its historic landscapes now safe from insensitive development?  Why are San Francisco preservationists pushing so hard for local landmark designation?

Local landmarking is a much more powerful tool in the preservationist’s tool chest. Local jurisdictions control building permits, so giving a local historic preservation commission to power to review these permits and give a “yay” or “nay” on the work is much more effective when it comes to preserving what needs to be saved.   (Although as we saw with the potential landmarking of the 1960s North Beach Public Library in San Francisco, with this power to review permits comes great responsibility and city officials can sometimes abuse this power for their own ends).

Chicago's Humboldt Park (photo by the author)

Chicago hasn’t locally landmarked their park system, but they have put almost all of the system on the National Register. This is a good start – NR designation means that if any federal money is used to do work in the park, a Section 106 review must be performed (and in many cases in a big city like Chicago, public projects are at least partially funded by the federal government).

But Section 106 is not at all the fail-safe method of preservation that local landmarking is.  First, the federal government never sees the building permit in front of them and so sometimes the Feds don’t even know work is being done on a NR building until the work is complete. Projects affecting historic sites fall through the cracks all the time.

Second, Section 106 is a review and comment process, not a decision process. When a NR building is being worked on using federal money and a Section 106 review is enforced, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (the same national group that ultimately decides on NR status) gets a chance to determine:

a) if the work will affect significant portions of the NR site,
b) how the work will affect the NR site, and
c) if the work will negatively affect the significance of the site based on the criteria cited in the site’s NR nomination.

The Advisory Council also gets a portion of time to make comments on the work, how it might be done more sensitively where the historic site is concerned, or if the work should be done at all.

And that’s it. All they can do is comment. After Section 106 review is completed, the work can proceed as planned (and usually does). There is absolutely no requirement that the work follow the suggestions of the Advisory Council. And there lies the weakness inherent in NR status. There is really ultimately no protection for historic buildings. Work to alter or destroy them can only be delayed by a Section 106 process (granted sometimes this delay is enough to stall or even kill a project if the finances of the project can’t handle the delay).

So the moral of the story is National Register listing is powerful in spirit but at heart sadly too weak in its power to save buildings.

And to critics of landmarking who say that designation will stifle change and innovation?

Don’t worry too much.  All local landmark designation means is that the local preservation commission has a say in permit decision.  Opposing parties can go before the commission and argue their case, and the commission’s decisions  sometimes reflect an understanding of this opposition  It’s just an extra layer of protection against the historic landscapes of the park being tampered with.  Critics need to remember that preservation commissions are bestowed their power by their parent city councils, and that city councils can and do often overrule decisions made by preservation commissions.

So there’s always a way of getting a new Herzog and de Meuron building built in the park.  This new turn of events will just make the process, yes, a little harder and a little more thoughtful.

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