The scene is a long line at the already cramped Planning counter at the Department of Building Inspections, with people sitting on edge for the sight of a lone historic preservationist to answer all preservation related issues. The one planner assigned to answer these questions appears for a limited time at around 10 am for a few hours only to face the longest line at the planning counter (impatiently waiting for him/her). If some poor soul, sits in the wrong chair or accidentally takes the number before his turn (spitting out of a genuinely historic little machine) he/she gets verbally attacked for stepping off bounds.

Most of these preservation issues, that applicants wait hours to get answers to, aren’t about architecturally significant or even culturally significant buildings. Rather these include anything from window replacement on an existing facade of a small single family home, an additional dwelling unit or any construction improvement no matter how big or small the scope. Nobody knows what measure is being used to declare these buildings historic other than age.

The fact that planners are trained to have a big picture vision that is best suited for a broader vision for the community isn’t being used to drive social change and economic development. City of San Francisco needs to consciously utilize the City Planners’ education and skill set to focus on land use issues to create feasible commercial and residential projects by up-zoning underutilized areas and buildings instead of having the planners waste their energy on matching copper trims; choosing aluminium versus vinyl windows or worse yet, follow some “line of continuity of a gutter” on the roof. The windows on these old buildings can’t be matched in kind without committing an energy efficiency atrocity.

There’s a great potential to convert underutilized, existing building stock to mixed use, self sufficient “vertical neighborhoods”. Some of these existing buildings are a code compliance nightmare, are structurally weak and score very low on any measure of livability. Most of these structures can’t house any functional use without severe measures for seismic and energy efficiency upgrade, accessibility and egress to name a few. Further, we get into indoor air quality problems and livability based on healthy building issues such as ventilation, day light, water damage, indoor emissions from the use of hazardous materials or ingredients etc.

Reusing grey fields and outclassed building helps protect and preserve landscape; simplifying public processes and changing focus in City Planning to a macro perspective can further direct underutilized skills to projects and improvements focused on economic development driving social change and reducing environmental impact of sprawl.

So hey, San Francisco let’s get more specific about what constitutes historical significance and not just base it on sentimentality or age. If better use of land can be explored, let’s have the planners focus on that.