Historic Preservation FAQs
Below are brief answers to questions frequently asked at the Planning Department. We hope these answers will broaden your understanding of historic resources in San Francisco and help guide your specific project. We strongly encourage project applicants to review relevant Preservation Bulletins and to meet with a Historic Preservation Technical Specialist at the Public Information Counter.
According to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), all buildings constructed over 50 years ago and possess architectural or historical significance may be considered potential historic resources and proposed changes to these buildings may require some level of environmental review. CEQA review is a state-mandated process that, in part, determines whether a building is or is not considered a historic resource, and whether the proposed changes will have a negative impact on the resource. The majority of projects reviewed by the Planning Department are subject to this state-mandated CEQA review process. Please consult Preservation Bulletin #16 for help in determining whether your building is considered a historic resource under CEQA. Click here for additional information on the CEQA review process for historic resources.
Historical Preservation Technical Specialists (aka Technical Specialists) can help determine whether your building is a potential historic resource. Technical Specialists are Planning Department planners well-versed in historic preservation, historic architecture, CEQA, and the Secretary of the Interior's Standards and Guidelines for the Treatment of Historic Properties. Technical Specialists are available at the Public Information Counter (PIC) during specific hours.
To date, there are 261 designated Article 10 Landmarks and over 1,110 lots within the eleven designated Article 10 Historic Districts. For a list of designated San Francisco Landmarks, see Preservation Bulletin #9 or download a map of Article 10 Landmarks and Article 10 Historic Districts. In addition, there are 117 buildings individually listed in the National Register as well as 24 National Register Historic Districts. The California Register listing includes all National Register properties and all Article 10 and 11 properties, as well as buildings, structures, or objects deemed important to California History. In San Francisco, over 3,300 parcels are listed in or determined eligible for listing in the California Register. However, relatively few buildings in San Francisco have been officially listed in local, state, or national registers because many historic buildings have never been surveyed or evaluated.
There are three separate levels of designation of historic resources: Local (Article 10 & 11), State (California Register), and Federal (National Register of Historic Places). All three designations qualify buildings to use the California Historical Building Code and apply for property tax savings provided by the Mills Act.
The six Article 11 Conservation Districts are located exclusively in San Francisco's downtown core area. Buildings within the Conservation Districts are designated as significant or contributory and categorized as I, II, III, IV, V buildings based on architectural significance. Proposed alterations to these buildings are subject to a separate application and review process. Click to download a map (PDF) and see Preservation Bulletin #10 for more information on Article 11 Conservation Districts.
The Planning Department will soon unveil a new publicly accessible online database of San Francisco's known historic resources. The California Historical Resources Inventory Database (CHRID) includes all Article 10 and 11 properties and all properties listed in the California or National Registers. It also includes information on all surveyed buildings – from the 1968 Junior League Here Today survey, to the 1992 Unreinforced Masonry Building survey, to all buildings surveyed as part of the Planning Department's recent Area Plans and Better Neighborhood Plans. This new CHRID database will be available in Spring 2009. Until then, please visit or call the Public Information Counter where a planner can determine whether or not your property is listed in a register or is a known historic resource.
There are numerous local, state and federal preservation incentive programs in place to encourage property owners to repair, restore, or rehabilitate historic properties.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has analyzed numerous studies of property values in Landmark Districts throughout the country. These studies have shown no indication that property values in landmark districts go down simply because of their landmark status. Rather, the studies seem to indicate that the value of homes in landmark districts tends to appreciate at a slightly higher rate than similar building stock outside the district. There is no data that proves why that is, but it is commonly thought that there is more predictability and physical stability in a landmark district. Properties tend to be improved rather than neglected and the neighborhood is less vulnerable to unregulated real estate speculation. Numerous studies have assessed the link between historic preservation and property value in small and large cities. Click here for a 2003 financial study of the correlations between historic district status and property value in New York City.
Historic designation of any kind does not impact property taxes unless you have an active Mills Act contract with the City. The Mills Act is used to lower property taxes of qualified historic resources.
Does the Planning Department nominate buildings for historic designation?
FAQs related to repair and alteration of historic buildings
No. The vast majority of buildings in San Francisco have not been surveyed, documented, or listed as historic resources. However, according to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), all buildings constructed over 50 years ago may be historical resources and proposed alterations require some level of environmental review. Please consult Preservation Bulletin #16 for help in determining what category your building falls under, and whether your building is considered a historical resource under CEQA. Owners of Category B buildings, for example, might need to submit additional historical documentation such as a Supplemental Information Form as part of the environmental review process. Preservation Bulletin #16 includes detailed information about CEQA and guidance on preparation of supplemental documentation. Historic Preservation Technical Specialist planners at the Public Information Counter (PIC) are available to help guide you through the CEQA review process. For technical specialist planners' contact information, click here.
The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) provides the legal framework by which historical resources are identified and given consideration during the planning process. Two main steps are involved in the process: first, determination of whether or not the property is a "historical resource," and secondly, whether the proposed changes to the property would cause a "substantial adverse change in the significance of a historical resource."
There are three possible outcomes for CEQA review of proposed changes to historic properties:
The CEQA process requires a close working relationship with the project applicant and a Historical Preservation Technical Specialist (aka Technical Specialist). Technical Specialists are available at the Public Information Counter (PIC) during specific hours to help guide you through the CEQA review process. If your project cannot be approved over-the-counter at the PIC, it will be assigned to a Technical Specialist who will contact you directly. To learn more about CEQA, consult Preservation Bulletin No.16.
There are varying levels of review required for the many different designations of historic resources, ranging from Article 10 San Francisco Landmarks to properties designated as eligible for listing in the California Register. Most historic buildings in San Francisco are not yet officially designated as landmarks or historic resources; nonetheless, even non-designated historic buildings must undergo state-mandated CEQA review before permits for alteration can be granted.
In order to ensure compatible alterations, demolitions, and new construction, owners of San Francisco Article 10 Landmark buildings and all buildings located within an Article 10 Historic District will need to submit a Certificate of Appropriateness (C of A). C of A's are only required for Article 10 historic resources and are not required for buildings listed in the California or National Registers. C of A's are reviewed by the Historic Preservation Commission to ensure that Article 10 resources are preserved and that alterations, demolitions and new construction are compatible with existing historic resources. Please note that C of A's are not required for ordinary maintenance and repairs – i.e., work done solely to correct deterioration, decay, or damage – if the replacement materials and details are in-kind. To learn more about C of A's, see Preservation Bulletin No. 4.
No. CEQA environmental review is only required when a property owner applies for a building permit. CEQA does not require owners to renovate or repair their properties.
No. The Planning Department does not regulate paint color; however, unpainted masonry buildings in Article 10 Historic Districts may need a permit in order to be painted or applied with stucco.
Yes. A building permit to replace windows is required for every building in San Francisco, even non-historic buildings. Building permits are required for windows located on the front, rear, and sides of the building. Additional review by the Planning Department is required for all replacement windows that are visible from the street or other public right-of-way. The 2003 revised Residential Design Guidelines require that some property owners use historically appropriate window replacements, such as wood-sash, rather than vinyl or aluminum. The Planning Department has recently developed a comprehensive guide to help building owners choose the appropriate window treatments and to efficiently apply for a permit. For detailed information, please consult the Window Replacement Standards.
A reminder: Please do not purchase replacement windows before confirming with the Planning Department that the windows can be approved. The Planning Department will not approve inappropriate replacement windows, even if they have already been purchased or installed. The Planning Department also strongly suggests repairing, rather than replacing windows.
Inserting a new garage opening can have a major impact on a historic resource and its surrounding neighborhood. Due to this potential impact, the Planning Department reviews proposals for new garages on a case-by-case basis. In some instances garages are not approved for historic resources, particularly if the addition would negatively impact the building's character-defining features such as front yard set-back, bay windows, front porches, or historic fences. More information on the procedures and criteria for adding garages are found in Guidelines for Adding Garages and Curb Cuts.
A vertical or horizontal addition to any building, regardless of historic status, must conform to the Residential Design Guidelines. Additions to known historic resources must also meet the Secretary of the Interior's Standards and Guidelines for the Treatment of Historic Properties and any applicable requirements outlined in Article 10 of the Planning Code. Generally, if an addition does not alter, change, obscure, damage, or destroy any character-defining features of a historic resource or building located within a historic district then it will be deemed in conformance. The Planning Department strongly urges project applicants to engage with a Historic Preservation Technical Specialist early in the design process, in order to identify potential limitations.
Enlarging buildings by raising them and adding a new first floor was common at one time. Many cottages throughout San Francisco were originally one to 1.5 stories in height. These modest cottages were set on wood pilings instead of solid foundations. Buildings that must be raised for seismic retrofitting or to install a foundation will be approved. However, despite historic precedents, raising buildings designated as historic resources may not be considered appropriate and all proposals will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
No. Article 10 does not specifically designate the historic interiors of residential homes in landmark districts, nor does the California or National Registers. However, the Planning Department strongly encourages the retention of historic interior features as they may contribute to the significance of a property. Moreover, there are substantial tax savings to be gained by remodeling interiors of National Register properties according the Secretary of the Interior Standards for Rehabilitation. For information on the 20% tax credit applied to certified rehabilitations, click here.
No. The Department of Buildings Inspection (DBI) issues permits, which the Planning Department planners review for compliance with the Planning Code. DBI is located next door to the Planning Department at 1660 Mission Street. DBI has numerous resources available on-line to help you get started.
The National Parks Services has produced over 40 technical Preservation Briefs related to the appropriate repair and maintenance of old buildings. Topics include the cleaning and waterproofing of masonry buildings, the preservation of glazed Terra-Cotta, the repair of historic wood windows, conserving energy in historic buildings, repair and maintenance of stained and leaded glass windows, removing graffiti from historic masonry, and the seismic retrofit of historic buildings.