Having been gutted by a fire in March of last year, over a million dollars has been spent to keep the historic brick façade at 659 Union Street, between Columbus and Powell in the heart of North Beach, standing.

But a structural analysis has since determined that it is infeasible to continue to preserve the façade and extant structure (which has lost its historic integrity). And as such, a request for demolition permits will soon be made.

While the rather prominent site is only zoned for development up to 40 feet in height, plans for a seven-story building rising up to 85 feet in height, with 63 residential units over 15,000-square feet of ground floor retail/restaurant space, are being drawn, leveraging California’s Density Bonus program for the additional height (and density).

And an alternative set of plans, which would require a Special Use District (SUD) for the site to be granted and yield a 98-unit building, with a boutique 14-room hotel and ground floor restaurant/retail space, are being drafted as well, plans which would incorporate the adjacent parking garage parcel at 1636 Powell Street.

We’ll keep you posted and plugged-in.

UPDATE (12/10): Detailed Plans for Burned-Out North Beach Site Revealed

32 thoughts on “Big Plans for Burned-Out North Beach Building (Site)”
    1. It’s called appreciation for history and the character of a city, especially in a neighborhood known for it’s charm.

        1. If you don’t like history or the way a place is when you move somewhere… then why not move to a newly developing city and take some pressure off SF?

          1. Absolutely! Every time I move somewhere I expect that place to then be preserved in amber, never to change. The moment when I moved there was clearly it’s best time (otherwise, why would I move there?).

    1. Also wonder if it’s possible to integrate a station entrance into the new building for an eventual North Beach Muni Metro station.

  1. Good. Continue the Central Subway, add a station here and upzone the whole area around it. It’s a perfect spot for more housing.

  2. They worked to save the facade – so they know the importance of keeping the history and character of that parcel and the neighborhood. I hope they don’t replace it with a glass box modern building. North beach has a wonderful architectural character that keeps tourists and locals coming back for more.

  3. Anyone can hire an analyst to say anything they want. It’s just about monetizing the lot to the max is all. Add on top of that the Planning Dudpartment’s notions of “contextual” infill and we will probably end up with a stucco’d bay windowed vinyl-awninged yawn-fest.

  4. It always seems suspect when an older facade requires demo but is def necessary now and again. If anything, the Pagoda Theater site turned out pretty well, in terms of feeling contextual and not cheap. Assuming their will be some interest in using quality materials and similar patterns i think it might actually have the chance to be a nice moment in this lil zone.

  5. Preservation is to be encouraged but not overdone as sometimes happens in SF. I love brick facades and wood exteriors and such but, over time, these historic buildings will slowly disappear from fires, age and earthquakes. That begs the question of what buildings going up today and in recent decades will be worthy of historic status in 100 years? What architectural legacy is today’s SF leaving? Virtually none. So while encouraging and supporting historic retention and renovation of buildings is fine, there should as much concern about the design/architecture/character of buildings being constructed today.

  6. The question as to whether the building continues to retain historic integrity will be determined by the Planning Department, rather than the developer seeking permits. Without going into the weeds too much, a basic test of integrity is whether or not the building still retains sufficient fabric that it can readily convey its architectural and historic qualities. This building, even with the damage, readily passes that test.

    1. I would think the basic test would be whether/not it’s about to fall onto the sidewalk (i.e. structural integrity trumps “historic” integrity). There’s little in the article to support your position, so perhaps you can venture just a wee bit off the beaten path (and ‘into the weeds”) to tell us the basis for your claim.

      1. My comment about getting “into the weeds” refers to the fact that the assessment of historic integrity is based on seven different aspects, originally defined by the National Park Service as part of the evaluative criteria for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. These seven aspects were later adopted for the California Register of Historical Resources, which in turn serves as the basis for the evaluative criteria used by the San Francisco Planning Department. These aspects are location, setting, design, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association. In order for a property to retain historic integrity, most of these aspects should be present. However, various technical bulletins issued by the National Park service, as well as interpretations by the California Office of Historic Preservation, have made it pretty clear that location, design, materials and feeling are “first among equals.”

        This building retains integrity of location as it has never been moved. It retains integrity of setting as most of the buildings that were historically its neighbors remain so, and Washington Square is still a park. It retains association, as it continued to be used for the purposes it was designed right up until the fire. It never changed use or was adopted for a new use. The design of the building is still readily apparent. It’s a Classical Revival style mixed use building featuring masonry stringcourses, punched window openings, and a modillion cornice. The retention of these key design features also allows the ability to convey integrity of workmanship. The combination of these elements also lends itself to integrity of feeling.

        The fact that the building has been gutted by fire could well be interpreted that the building has severely compromised integrity of materials. BUT, in San Francisco it has been established that the Planning Department has not say over the interiors of buildings which have not historically been accessible to the general public. Thus, it’s really the exterior that counts. And in this case, the building continues to retain a substantial portion of its original cladding. Thus it could be fairly argued that this building, though severely damaged, still retains historic integrity.

        This is a completely separate issue from structural integrity, which indeed trumps historic integrity when there are life safety issues. Thus, demolition proceeded on the historic building at 22nd and Mission after it burned in 2015. I cannot speak to the structural integrity of this building. I was merely observing that the Planning Department could still determine that it retained integrity, away from the issues involving structural deficiencies.

        I hope that was enough weed to keep everyone high for a month.

  7. San Francisco is not doing poorly on this front simply because it’s displacing historic buildings—it’s because it’s replacing historic buildings with mediocre buildings (or excessively value engineered buildings).

    The most jarring juxtaposition came to mind: the old Design Research building (48 Brattle St. Cambridge, MA). Glass curtain and almost brutalist concrete looming over the deeply historic colonial neighbors. Thing was, it was great, and gorgeous, and DR was the place to be, and everybody loved the hell out of it. And they loved the Brattle theater in it’s old building too.

    Context has to include now, right?

    1. I think most crucial would be to maintain the same number of storefronts, or at least maintain active commerce across as much of the ground floor as possible. The old building really anchored the top of that intersection.

      It might be nice if they did go for a design incorporating brick, and to try and retain the sense of horizontality that currently comes from the large cornice. Evocative of the old building without being a literal copy.

  8. What happens to the original tenants of the building? I still have a lease open- I’ve been displaced since 2013 when the building originally had its first fire.

    1. Unless it’s made a condition of the project’s approval, I think you’re out of luck. In general:

      “If one or more units covered by [rent control] is demolished, and one or more new units qualifying as rental units…are constructed on the same property, and offered for rent or lease WITHIN FIVE YEARS of the date the last of the original units became vacant, the newly constructed units shall be offered at rents not greater than those reasonably calculated to produce a fair and reasonable return on the newly constructed units…”

      That could be one of the reasons why they’re arguing for the demolition and new development; I believe a “rebuilding” would result in a window of up to 10 years for displaced tenants to re-rent.

  9. Of course the facade can be saved. For better or for worse, Facadism is done all the time here. I am not necessarily in favor of saving every decrepit old building, but as others have pointed out, this is North Beach, not SOMA. The facade of that building is actually pretty intact. I say put the entrance to the new North Beach subway station there with a new building behind it because some insipid Dwell Modern building won’t work here.

  10. It’s the most prominent building as you enter North Beach; essentially San Francisco’s oldest neighborhood and widely considered the soul of San Francisco. Extraordinary efforts should be made to either salvage the facade (could the facade be reinforced with a concrete slab behind it, then build a new building behind that?), reproduce it (why not salvage some of its elements and reuse them in a new facade?), or build the most amazing gateway into North Beach imaginable (think Sydney Opera House level of special). North Beach is in need of a big boost. Here’s a big chance to give it some of what it needs.

  11. Washington Square is currently an architectural nothing much. And this building, placed somewhere else wouldn’t be anything major, but here, dominated by dull, stuccoed-over/recycled Edwardians and the underwhelming Sts Peter & Paul – it manages to be the best building on the Square. Whatever the replacement, it will almost certainly be the current building’s inferior.

  12. Modern architecture and development is one of the biggest generators of crime in the country. It’s all vapid empty vision that feels totally anonymous. We destroy the older architecture, which has some heart in it, at our own peril.

  13. Respecting history is important to our culture. As is building new history. The loss of this structure is very questionable given what is going on in our city. Let’s press for reasonable size and a welcoming street presence that will include local businesses- and dare we demand truly affordable housing? Does not seem unreasonable if we care about our city, our culture and our future.

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