S.F. Cottage's Demise Spurs Calls For New Rules
The demolition of an 1861 building on Russian Hill is an example of what San Francisco officials say is a serious problem: Hundreds of owners are letting residential properties deteriorate or remain vacant, posing safety hazards, harming historic resources and spurring a drive for new legal powers to force corrections.
As a small group of protesters looked on, a wrecking crew used a backhoe Monday to demolish a cottage that had been listed as a historic resource. The workers left behind a pile of debris and a clear view of Angel Island on the spot where the Victorian had stood on Lombard Street for 148 years.
Dilapidated residences mark the city like festering sores, even in well-off areas. Across the street from the Lombard lot sits another empty Victorian-era home in blatant disrepair. A front window is broken, and missing stairs have left a 20-foot drop from the front door. A few blocks away on Union Street, another empty house has been boarded up. There is no exact tally of the number of vacant or deteriorating homes, but "it is a severe problem," said Debra Walker, a member of the city's Building Inspection Commission and a declared candidate for supervisor in 2010. A building inspection official said there are hundreds of them.
City Has Little Recourse
Although the decay often occurs in plain sight, city officials have little power to intercede. Now Walker is pushing to amend the city's anti-blight ordinance to require owners of houses vacant more than 90 days and commercial properties vacant more than one year to register them with the city, pay an annual fee, and keep the properties clean and secure. Owners also would be required to prominently post contact information on the building.
Building inspectors would receive police training and have new powers to inspect properties and fine owners, said a Building Inspection Department official.
The legislation would require approval by the commission and the Board of Supervisors. Board President David Chiu plans to ask the city attorney's office today to draft the measure, his spokesman said.
The matter took on urgency last week when the imminent demise of the Russian Hill cottage mobilized preservationists.
One of the city's oldest buildings, the two-story residence at 1268 Lombard originally was a one-story Italianate Victorian cottage. A second floor was added, and the home was covered with brown shingles.
In 1945, John B. Molinari, a San Francisco judge who served on the state Supreme Court, bought the property. After his death in 2004, ownership passed to his heirs in a family trust managed by John L. Molinari, a former San Francisco supervisor.
For years the family rented out the house. But as they prepared to remodel it in the late 1990s, engineers told them the foundation was shaky, Molinari said. The family applied for a permit to demolish it, but the city denied it on the ground that house was a historic resource.
Faced with the prospect of costly repairs, the family chose to leave the property vacant, though they installed a new roof, Molinari said.
In November 2007, the family sold it for $1.3 million to a partnership of developer Michael Cassidy and James Nunemacher of Vanguard Properties.
Scaffolding and a tarp soon went up.
In March 2008, a neighbor complained to the building department that the cottage was abandoned. "Back of building is open, which is accessible for intruders, etc. Safety concern," the complaint said. In April, city officials ordered Cassidy and Nunemacher to board up the building, city records show, and they did.
Last week, neighbors were surprised when a large orange backhoe parked by the building. It belonged to Granite Excavation & Demolition Inc., whose president is Joe Cassidy, Michael Cassidy's brother.
F. Joseph Butler, an architect and member of the Little House Committee, which seeks to preserve the city's small houses, discovered the owners were seeking an emergency permit to demolish the building.
Butler believes the building could have been stabilized and restored. He and his allies were especially concerned because the emergency order would exempt the owners from routine requirements, such as first getting approval for a new construction plan.
But a city engineer agreed that the building was in danger of imminent collapse and last week approved the demolition. On Monday, the demolition crew removed the building's facade for possible future use, and then used the backhoe's steel jaws to crush the cottage like balsa wood.
Several preservationists at the scene said demolition should have been delayed pending an investigation by the city attorney's office into whether the home had been purposefully neglected, an allegation the owners have denied. One protester, Megan Smith, said, "It will be a lot harder to find evidence once this is a vacant lot."
In another dramatic case, a Victorian house at 1160 Page St. had become so dilapidated a few years ago that the ground floor gave way, and the elderly owner relied on painter's scaffolding to get to his kitchen. One day he fell and fatally injured himself, an official said.
Building inspectors learned about the condition of the house only after his death.
The proposed legislation wouldn't necessarily alert officials to any interior problems.
But it would give them more power to intercede to protect occupied or vacant houses that have become eyesores or subjects of complaints, like the Russian Hill cottage.
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle