How Do You Approach "Preservation" When It's Not Buildings That Are At Risk?


Andrew Keatts | June 2, 2016In San Francisco, officials are experimenting with ways to protect cultural institutions and businesses, as opposed to buildings and plazas.

San Francisco trolley train

In San Francisco, officials are experimenting with ways to protect cultural institutions and businesses, as opposed to buildings and plazas.

San Francisco's Japantown neighborhood. Image via flickr/David Yu. San Francisco's Japantown neighborhood. Image via flickr/David Yu.

Traditional preservation programs are good at protecting aesthetically impressive buildings and places where historic moments took place.

They’re not as good at protecting the cultural resources important to marginalized groups, like long-time community gathering areas.

That's what two researchers and preservationists determined after examining three recent cultural preservation efforts in San Francisco. James Michael Buckley, an MIT lecturer, and Donna Graves, a historian and urban planner, detailed the divide in the most recent issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association.

Minority groups, they argue, tend to value intangible elements of their communities, and existing preservation programs aren’t equipped to protect them.

For instance, racial minority groups or LGBT communities may value a building that’s physically unexceptional but may serve as an important community gathering place. To them, that space itself is a significant marker of their community. Or, they may hope to preserve a tradition or practice from a neighborhood that doesn’t have a physical component at all.

The land-use based preservation tools most cities rely on, Buckley and Graves argue, don’t offer an easy way to keep those intangible resources around as neighborhoods undergo change.

It’s a timely concern as rising real estate prices in the core of cities have pushed neighborhood change into overdrive nationwide. Neighborhoods are changing, and the people in them often don’t have the tools to maintain the memory of what they were.

Buckley and Graves focus on three specific recent San Francisco efforts that demonstrate the challenge. To varying degrees, the three programs attempted to address the difficulty of preserving intangible community resources, but they ultimately proved insufficient.

What's more, Buckley and Graves were involved in all three efforts.


In Japantown, San Francisco planners recognized the neighborhood was changing. So they started writing neighborhood-specific zoning regulations that would have given city planners limited authority to prevent certain changes to the neighborhood’s cultural fabric.

Neighborhood groups weren’t satisfied. The focus on bricks-and-mortar, they said, didn’t respect the things they cared about. The city restarted the process with a new plan that aimed to expand its list of important places and activities, like the Japantown YWCA and the San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival.

“As planners worked with community members to envision the area’s future, it became clear that when considering the importance of neighborhood history, residents and advocates prioritized places and activities that often did not qualify for landmark designation; in some cases in fact, the participants actively resisted designation,” Buckley and Graves wrote.

When the city tried to create a process to assess which things on that list qualified for protection, it relied heavily on the state’s existing preservation program.

“While the strategy laid out Japantown’s unique cultural legacy and promoted its preservation, it remained a generic economic development plan,” Buckley and Graves wrote.

The plan ended up relying on existing development and preservation tools, like a land trust, and nonprofit groups, like a community development corporation and a business improvement district.

The document itself, Buckley and Graves argue, made a modest attempt to blend planning with a culture-oriented preservation program. But ultimately, they concluded, it was just an initial step in the right direction.

SoMa District

Meanwhile, in the SoMa District, the Filipino and LGBTQ communities attempted to write two “social heritage districts” into new long-term plans for the neighborhood.

The groups outlined both physical and intangible resources they wanted to preserve – including broadly commemorating the alleys where gay men had historically gathered.

The city intended to take these cultural priorities and protect them through the city’s zoning guidelines.

However, they would do so with non-binding measures. For instance, developers would get a chance to build a larger, more profitable building in exchange for reserving a space in the building for a business that qualifies as part of the affected community.

The new plans haven’t been put in place yet. The city is hesitant to use its regulatory authority to the benefit of specific businesses. As one planner told the authors, “from a planning perspective, we don’t regulate use or tenants; we regulate land use and architecture.” The city -- specifically city planners -- aren’t convinced it’s their job to use development regulations to subsidize culturally significant businesses.

Legacy businesses

San Francisco also built a program that explicitly attempted to subsidize businesses associated with a particular culture in danger of getting priced out of their neighborhoods. It’s called the “Legacy Business Fund.”

It started as preservationists attempted to save Marcus Books, a bookstore in the Fillmore District which was a long-time African-American neighborhood. The city had already designated the building as a landmark, due to the bookstore’s history, which didn’t stop the landlord from upping the store’s rent and subsequently evicting the tenant.

The idea took hold that in many neighborhoods, the centers of culture are, in fact, local businesses, not plazas, buildings or public places. Preservationists created a list of 100 businesses with histories that contribute to their neighborhood. It was based on similar programs in Barcelona and Paris.

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors officially adopted the Legacy Business Registry, including bars, restaurants, stores, arts venues and even manufacturing facilities.

On a November 2015 ballot measure, city voters approved making financial assistance available to businesses on the registry. The plan will give public money to businesses or their landlords to help both parties reach agreeable lease terms to keep the businesses in place.

Up to 30 businesses pear year can receive up to $50,000 each in grants, and property owners can receive up to $4.50 per square foot in rental assistance, as long as each property doesn’t receive more than $22,500 per year.

The operating details of the plan haven’t been solidified. But Buckley and Graves note opponents have seized on the potential for political favoritism, since it is politicians who nominate eligible businesses.

The three San Francisco programs are bringing new and underrepresented groups into the planning process; likewise, they show how difficult it is to define the criteria for preservation at sites that aren't typical of the usual historic preservation framework.

Buckley and Graves call for a process that is less formal and informs decision makers rather than creating strict regulations. Likewise, they say planners should change from a focus on tangible measures to one emphasizing soft traits like “community bonding.”

“The San Francisco experience suggests that practitioners must be able to move beyond the typical objective criteria in which they are trained to evaluate success and consider more subjective measures of determining effective policies,” they conclude.

Andrew Keatts
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