Mobilizing to Sustain San Francisco’s Living History

By Special Contributor posted 12-09-2014 16:09

  
By Desiree Smith and Mike Buhler

 Although Marcus Books was declared a City Landmark in January 2014, the designation could not prevent the eviction of the business and its owners. The City is now working with the owners of Marcus Books to relocate the store to a new space a few blocks away. | Courtesy San Francisco Heritage
Although Marcus Books was declared a City Landmark in January 2014, the designation could not prevent the eviction of the business and its owners. The City is now working with the owners of Marcus Books to relocate the store to a new space a few blocks away. | Credit: Jeremy Blakeslee
Marcus Books, located in the historically black Fillmore neighborhood in San Francisco, is the country’s oldest continuously operating black-owned bookstore. Since it opened in 1960, the bookstore has contributed profoundly to the city’s black intellectualism, culture, and political life. Yet in May 2014, only four months after being designated a City Landmark, Marcus Books was evicted by the building’s new owners despite intervention by elected officials and a highly publicized, community-led fundraising campaign to purchase the building. Alas, the fate of Marcus Books, and similar local businesses and institutions is all too familiar in San Francisco’s tech-fueled economy, underscoring the need for new tools and protections to help sustain vulnerable cultural heritage assets.

Longstanding local businesses like Marcus Books as well as nonprofit organizations and cultural traditions and events reflect the diverse history and culture of our communities, enlivening and distinguishing the older buildings and neighborhoods around them. Traditional historic preservation protections, however, have proven ill-suited to address the unique challenges facing many intangible cultural heritage assets. In San Francisco, preservationists and others have been trying to figure out how to best conserve the city’s non-architectural heritage as skyrocketing rents and real estate speculation displace mainstays of the city’s cultural landscape.

 Closed in December 2014, the Empress of China was a pillar of the Chinatown community, serving as a venue for weddings, family parties, red egg and ginger parties, and family association meetings since opening in 1965. | Courtesy San Francisco Heritage
Closed in December 2014, the Empress of China was a pillar of the Chinatown community, serving as a venue for weddings, family parties, red egg and ginger parties, and family association meetings since opening in 1965. | Credit: Tom Spaulding
Historic designation is not always feasible or appropriate, nor—as in the case of Marcus Books—does it protect against rent increases, evictions, or challenges with leadership succession that sometimes plague longtime institutions. In response to this vexing problem, San Francisco Heritage worked with community and civic partners to organize a citywide community summit in June 2013 to share and explore strategies for protecting the city’s intangible cultural heritage. In September 2014, San Francisco Heritage released a 52-page policy paper on the topic, titled “Sustaining San Francisco’s Living History: Strategies for Conserving Cultural Heritage Assets.” In this report, San Francisco Heritage articulates the urgent need for City action, advocates a holistic approach to cultural heritage conservation, and makes a series of specific policy recommendations based on local and international successes.

The report’s 16 case studies demonstrate how many of the world’s great cities—London, Paris, Barcelona, Buenos Aires—have passed legislation and allocated significant resources to recognize and sustain their intangible cultural heritage. One of the most compelling examples is London’s “Assets of Community Value” Designation Program, created in 2011 in response to the rapid disappearance of local pubs. Any building or parcel can be listed based on its “social interest,” defined as sustained use for cultural, recreational, and sporting purposes. Over 100 pubs have been designated under the program in the last two years. The companion “Community Right to Bid” Acquisition Program places a six-month moratorium on any proposed sale of “Assets of Community Value” to enable community groups to develop takeover proposals and bids when the property goes to market.

  The Ivy House Pub in South East London became the first Community Right to Bid-acquired pub in April 2013 and now operates as a co-operative enterprise, enabling individuals to purchase shares in the business. | Courtesy San Francisco Heritage
The Ivy House Pub in South East London became the first Community Right to Bid-acquired pub in April 2013 and now operates as a co-operative enterprise, enabling individuals to purchase shares in the business. | Credit: Selcamra on Flickr
In Paris, a local planning agency known as SEMAEST launched the “Vital’ Quartier” program to preserve commercial diversity amid exceedingly high real estate and rental costs. Since 2008, SEMAEST has purchased hundreds of properties for lease to local businesses for specific uses such as bookstores, artisanal shops and bakeries. The agency then sells the property to the tenant or a real estate subsidiary with a covenant to maintain the use. SEMAEST also offers a variety of services, such as technical training, marketing assistance, and access to credit, to help priority uses succeed.

Although the SEMAEST program is unlikely to be replicated on a similar scale in this country, comparable efforts are underway in some cities. For example, San Francisco’s Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST) has leveraged philanthropic and public dollars to purchase two buildings in the city’s rapidly changing Mid-Market neighborhood for leaseback to nonprofit arts organizations.

There is no shortage of innovative solutions, but putting these ideas into action remains an especially daunting prospect. However, San Francisco Heritage is encouraged by recent signs of momentum in San Francisco, including the creation of a Cultural Heritage Asset Committee of the City’s Historic Preservation Commission and new policies for identifying and protecting cultural heritage assets in the proposed Preservation Element of the City’s General Plan.

 The Abbey Bookshop in Paris’ Latin Quarter. In defending the Vital’ Quartier program, Mayor Bertrand Delanoë insisted any attempt to resemble big “Angle-Saxon” cities would be disastrous: “It would be madness. It would be an insult to our soul, an insult to our identity but also to our economic interests.” | Credit: Craigfinlay via Flickr

The Abbey Bookshop in Paris’s Latin Quarter. In defending the Vital’ Quartier program, Mayor Bertrand Delanoë insisted any attempt to resemble big “Angle-Saxon” cities would be disastrous: “It would be madness. It would be an insult to our soul, an insult to our identity but also to our economic interests.” | Courtesy San Francisco Heritage
The Abbey Bookshop in Paris’ Latin Quarter. In defending the Vital’ Quartier program, Mayor Bertrand Delanoë insisted any attempt to resemble big “Angle-Saxon” cities would be disastrous: “It would be madness. It would be an insult to our soul, an insult to our identity but also to our economic interests.” | Credit: Craigfinlay via Flickr
The most promising development is new legislation introduced in October by Supervisor David Campos to create a City-sponsored “Legacy Business Registry,” the first of its kind in the country. Drafted in collaboration with San Francisco Heritage, the legislation is inspired by, and builds upon, the Legacy Bars & Restaurants program launched in 2013 by San Francisco Heritage. Bars, restaurants, retail establishments, manufacturers, arts spaces, performance venues, and service providers that have been in business for more than 30 years will be eligible to apply for the registry. Qualifying businesses will also need to demonstrate their importance to the surrounding community, neighborhood, or the city as a whole. The legislation also includes a rebate of the City’s transfer tax if a Legacy Business purchases its building or if a third-party buyer extends its lease by ten years or more.

While these are modest first steps, the legislation requires a follow-up report to the full Board of Supervisors in June 2015 with substantive recommendations for further City action, such as financial incentives, technical assistance, grant funding, commendation initiatives, and broader neighborhood stabilization strategies. The legislation has been enthusiastically received and is slated for final adoption in January 2015.

As preservationists grapple with how to respond to rapid change transforming their own communities, we hope that lessons learned in San Francisco will inform similar efforts in other cities and inspire a more holistic approach to cultural heritage conservation.


Mike Buhler is executive director of San Francisco Heritage. Desiree Smith is preservation project manager for San Francisco Heritage, where she carries out the organization’s advocacy initiatives and special projects.

 

#intangibleheritage #Diversity

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