Berkeley parks

The wealthy SF neighborhood seeks historic status. YIMBYs say it’s an effort to block housing

Despite overwhelming opposition from housing advocates, a state commission voted unanimously on Friday to recommend San Francisco’s St. Francis Wood neighborhood for historic designation — a move that could allow the wealthy neighborhood to escape state law intended to encourage denser development.

A landmark designation would protect St. Francis Wood from SB9, the state’s housing law that allows two-unit housing and the subdivision of lots in areas zoned for single-family homes.

To win the historic designation, the Custodian of the National Register of Historic Places, Joy Beasley, must approve St. Francis Wood’s offer within 45 days and will accept public comments until that deadline.

Many commentators at the State Historic Resources Commission meeting said the wealthy neighborhood was using the historic designation bid to avoid SB9, likening it to Woodside’s attempt to avoid the law by claiming that any the city was a habitat of cougars. Ultimately, state officials rejected Woodside’s attempt. In Palo Alto, officials are looking to add dozens of homes to the historical register to avoid SB9.

The heated audience was just the latest arena where the debate over state housing laws, exclusionary neighborhoods and privileges has raged. SB9 in particular has sparked an intense backlash in urban and suburban communities, which have turned to creative ways to try to avoid opening up more neighborhoods to density. In San Francisco, housing advocates have criticized pending quadruple legislation that could undermine parts of SB9.

The St. Francis Homes Association — which said it has worked on the historic designation project for years — came forward in favor of the nomination, citing the neighborhood’s unique community planning, architecture and landscaping. The association said a collection of architectural drawings from the area has been preserved and cataloged. The San Francisco Planning Commission also considers the neighborhood eligible for historic designation, the presenters said.

But the callers, almost all opposed to the nomination, also pointed to the neighborhood’s racist roots. When it was established in 1912, St. Francis Wood included a clause expressly prohibiting people of “African, Japanese, Chinese or Mongolian descent” to own property in the neighborhood.

“St. Francis Wood neighborhood and other SF residence parks west of the Twin Peaks area have a long and vile history of racism and exclusion, and to grant this neighborhood protected status would be to celebrate this story and to protect it by law,” Robert Fruchtman, a housing attorney and San Francisco resident, said during a public comment. Many callers echoed that argument.

Some said that while the current owners did not intend to be racist and exclude racial minorities, the exclusive single-family zoning had that effect.

Others noted that Duncan McDuffie, a partner in the company that developed St. Francis Wood, championed single-family zoning as a way to keep people of color out of neighborhoods.

“In Berkeley, our planning and city council have been quite outspoken about its racist history and have spoken out against the district’s zoning and segregated history. So I’m a little surprised to hear in an ostensibly progressive city like San Francisco that you’re doing the opposite,” said one caller, a Berkeley resident. “But honestly, judging by San Francisco’s intense segregation and unaffordability, maybe it’s not that surprising.”

Presenters in favor of the nomination also pointed to racial pacts, calling them “clearly false and discriminatory,” but said San Francisco’s planned communities are more diverse than they once were. According to the 2020 census, the two census tracts that St. Francis Wood is a part of have at least 80% of their population who are white or Asian.

But the commissioners, many of whom have spoken out to acknowledge this racist history, still said they believe the neighborhood deserves historic designation because of its “special” architecture and planning. St. Francis Wood, designed by the famous Olmsted brothers, brought together many different architects to create a cohesive, walkable, transit-oriented neighborhood, the commissioners said.

“I’m sorry for its history of exclusion, but St. Francis Wood isn’t the only place that’s had this,” said Commissioner Lee Adams III, who noted that he himself will likely never return to his hometown of San Francisco “because of finances.”

“I am very uncomfortable with speakers who have reduced the history of St Francis Woods to racism,” said Commissioner Alan Hess, noting that race pacts are part of history and something “we need to know and that we need to communicate”.

But he added that “the history of planned communities is much broader than that” and that St. Francis Wood is an important part of preserving history “both good and bad”.

Danielle Echeverria is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @DanielleEchev