As strong as the preservationist sentiment is in San Francisco, it doesn’t always prevail. The city’s Historical Preservation Commission (HPC) had flexed its muscle last October by recommending landmark status for Appleton & Wolfard’s midcentury North Beach library, which had been scheduled for demolition. But this week, the city’s Board of Supervisors voted against landmarking the cramped library, which will now likely be replaced by a new building by local firm Leddy Maytum Stacy (LMS). The showdown was notable for several reasons, not the least of which was a demonstration of the checks and balances on the new preservation commission, which was established by voters two years ago.
At the November 9 supervisors meeting, president David Chiu framed the issue as a disparagement of the HPC’s judgment: “There’s a legitimate question whether the North Beach branch library deserves landmarking…. Including buildings that lack architectural merit cheapens the historical landmark designation for other buildings,” he said. The board upheld, by a 10-to-1 vote, an earlier, unanimous decision to block the landmarking by its Land Use and Economic Development Committee.
“I think it is clearly up to the elected officials to make a decision based on other conditions and issues that they feel are important,” said Charles Chase, the president of the HPC, of the decision. The commission has not called for other buildings to be landmarked since it took up this and other local midcentury libraries, but is intent on making itself heard. “We’ve taken the mantle of dealing with what is of historical value to the city, and that voice is needed for decision-makers to understand an area of value that might not be as clearly articulated,” said Chase.
Meanwhile, plans for the new North Beach library are now out from the landmarking shadow. LMS’s new library would provide 60 percent more space and emphasize natural lighting through clerestory windows and skylights. The firm also created a masterplan for the whole block, relocating the library to a parking lot across the street and reclaiming its former site as open space, creating a larger park for the city’s densest neighborhood. The draft environmental impact report for the project is in the comment period, and certification of the final EIR is anticipated for the spring. It would be the last project completed in an ambitious, citywide library improvement effort initiated in 2000.