Review of Market Street development to include LGBT ties
by Matthew S. Bajko
After LGBT historians raised objections with an analysis of a Market Street redevelopment project that omitted the site's historical ties to the LGBT community, city planners intend to review the information in a new evaluation of the project.
It is the first time that a citywide LGBT historic context statement adopted last fall has been used to question whether a development project in San Francisco should be allowed to demolish buildings that are cited in the nearly 400-page report.
The properties in question are 950-974 Market Street where Group I, a San Francisco-based real estate development company, wants to replace the existing buildings with a 230-room hotel, 250 housing units, ground floor retail, and a nonprofit space. The triangular block sits where Market, Turk and Mason streets intersect and straddles both the Mid-Market and Tenderloin neighborhoods.
According to the Citywide Historic Context Statement for LGBTQ History in San Francisco, the buildings on that block once housed the Tenderloin's first gay bars and helped facilitate gay and transgender prostitution and hustling. The Old Crow Bar opened at 962 Market Street around 1935, according to the report, while the Silver Rail opened at 974 Market Street about 1942.
Additionally, the Flagg Brothers shoe store that had occupied 950 Market Street was documented in the report as a well-known gay cruising spot.
"The corner of Mason, Turk, and Market streets, which connected to the Market Street hustling district, was known as the 'Meat Market' or 'Meat Rack' for the amount of gay hustling and prostitution that took place there," noted the report.
Both properties at 962 and 974 Market Street are included in a list of sites the historic statement identified as potentially eligible to be listed as city landmarks or placed on the California Register or National Register for historic sites.
Yet the firm Page and Turnbull determined in a historic resource evaluation of the properties in question, which was released last July, that 950-974 Market Street is not a historic resource under the California Environmental Quality Act.
That report was then referred to by the city's planning department in its Preliminary Mitigated Negative Declaration (PMND) on the project published in January that concluded the proposal by Group I would not have a significant adverse effect on the environment.
The department's determination led Shayne Watson, an architectural historian based in San Francisco who is lesbian and co-wrote the citywide LGBT historic context statement, to file an appeal. In it she criticized the planning department for not taking into account the various findings in the city document she co-authored with Donna Graves, a public historian based in Berkeley who is straight.
"I paid $560 out of my own pocket, which feels a little bit crazy, but I hope it is a sign of how important I feel this is," Watson told the Bay Area Reporter in a recent interview.
In her 12-page appeal letter, Watson wrote, "In its current form, Page & Turnbull's HRE evaluates 950-964 Market Street in a vacuum, failing to place the property in the larger context of San Francisco's LGBTQ history."
Gerard Koskovich, a gay man and local historian who served on the advisory committee for the LGBTQ historic context statement, also wrote to the planning department in support of Watson's contention that the PMND is flawed and inaccurate.
"Ms. Watson makes it clear that the cultural resources section of the PMND fails the statutory due diligence standards set by CEQA with regard to the sites of two historic bars," wrote Koskovich.
This week the planning department informed Watson and attorney Sue Hestor, who also filed an appeal of the PMND, that Group I had submitted revised entitlement applications and project plans requiring a new review to be undertaken "due to the substantial nature of the changes."
The new PMND will take into account the findings of the citywide LGBT historic context statement, according to Sarah Bernstein Jones, an environmental review officer and director of environmental planning at the planning department.
"The preservation team is intending to broaden the scope of the HRER to address the issues that Ms. Watson raised," Jones wrote in an email to the B.A.R., referring to a Historical Resources Evaluation Report.
Group I did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday regarding the city agency's determination to re-examine if the development will impact structures of LGBT historical significance.
Watson stopped short of calling for the existing buildings to be preserved when discussing their historical significance with the B.A.R.
"I think, in this case, what I am really interested in seeing is better research and better analysis before they can make a determination of the structures' historical importance," she said. "What bothered me the most was Donna and I identified two buildings on that block in a list of recommendations for potential landmarks, the Silver Rail and the Old Crow. So a determination was made about these buildings without any consideration of our findings in that document. I really believe it was an oversight and not intentional."
If the city is going to allow the buildings on the block to be demolished, then Watson argued the decision to do so "needs to be based on sound analysis and accurate history. That is really not the case with this report."
Yet Watson did voice concerns that should the new development be allowed to proceed, it could negatively impact creating an LGBT historical district covering the city's Tenderloin neighborhood. The establishment of such a designation for the Tenderloin is among the recommendations in the LGBT historic context statement.
"If the buildings are demolished, that would take out a pretty big piece of the LGBTQ Historic District in the Tenderloin possibly," she said.
Turk Street, and the various properties fronting it, would be "one of the most important streets," said Watson, in forming a Tenderloin LGBTQ historic district.
"When you look at a place like the Tenderloin, you look around there to get an idea of the history. The character gets to be dismantled with the demolition of these buildings," she said, adding that the intersection of Turk, Market and Mason "was ground zero for the cruising, escort scene and directly adjacent to this project. If you put up a new hotel, you lose the cultural landscape of what that intersection must have felt like in 1950s, '60s and '70s for men to cruise, meet other men, and do what they do."