Housing advocates say neighborhood groups across the Bay Area are using conservation rules to block new, more dense development
By Kate Talerico
When residents of the leafy Baywood neighborhood in San Mateo got word that a 1933 Spanish Revival home would be demolished to make way for a much larger house with an attached in-law unit, they pleaded with the city to put a stop to it. But the Peninsula town’s hands were tied. A California law passed in 2021 gave the owner the right to build two units where only a single-family home previously had been allowed.
For years, neighborhoods like Baywood — where the average home sells for more than $2 million — took their lower-density character for granted. That has changed in recent years as state lawmakers passed measures like Senate Bill 9 intended to create more housing everywhere — especially in areas previously zoned for single-family homes.
These state housing laws, though, carve out one notable exception: historic properties. Last month, the San Mateo Heritage Alliance applied to the State Historic Preservation Office to designate Baywood as a historic district, raising the eyebrows of housing advocates.
“I don’t have a problem with historic districts — I do have a problem with gaming historic preservation to try to evade state housing laws,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener, a leader on legislation to spur housing development.
Wiener co-authored both SB 9 and another law, SB 423, which streamlines the approval process for projects in cities that are behind on meeting state-mandated housing goals.
Baywood is just one of many neighborhoods in California exploring historic status in a bid to resist higher density amid new housing reform.
In Los Angeles, the Miracle Mile Residential Association — which put up a fight against SB 9 — recently had its neighborhood designated as historic. A little farther west down Wilshire Boulevard, the Carthay neighborhood also won the designation.
Over the protests of housing activists last year, San Francisco’s St. Francis Wood neighborhood also applied for and won status as a historic district.
The preservationists leading these movements say their neighborhoods have long been eligible for historic status — but it takes either a city or a group of residents to complete an application.
The Legislature, they argue, exempted historic resources from these bills for a reason — to preserve communities’ unique character.
Preservationists can apply for historic status at one of three levels.
Localities can create their own specific historic preservation ordinance, which set design standards for new construction, usually so that it matches the existing building style. Alternatively, neighbors can nominate a site or district to the state or national register.
Historic status at any level exempts a property from the streamlining bills. In other words, historic designation doesn’t prevent new development — it just means that a developer can’t develop by-right, as the new state laws allow, and must instead go through city’s approval process.
“SB 9 included the historic exception,” said Mike Nash, an advocate for the Baywood historic district who is married to San Mateo Deputy Mayor Lisa Diaz Nash. “That was a decision that the state government made. It’s not like they didn’t understand that, and it certainly hasn’t had any impact on San Mateo’s ability to meet and exceed its housing targets going forward.”
But in practice, preservation adds more hurdles for developers to clear.
The new streamlining bills were put in place to get around exactly the sorts of lengthy reviews that cities can use to hold up housing projects and that have discouraged developers from pursuing projects around the Bay Area in the first place.
“This is a bad faith attempt to weaponize historic preservation in service against densifying and diversifying neighborhoods,” said Jordan Grimes, a San Mateo resident who leads the pro-housing group Peninsula for Everyone.
It’s not the first time communities have turned to historic preservation to block change.
In 2000, Berkeley designated a parking lot as a historic landmark because of the possible existence of a Native American shellmound below its surface, stalling development of an apartment building. (An archeological study financed by the developer later found no trace of such a shellmound.)
In San Francisco, a developer had to spend thousands of dollars for a study on his laundromat after some neighbors deemed it historic.
But as California strives to build the 2.5 million homes that housing officials have said the state needs by 2031 to address the state’s housing shortage, communities face the question: How much from the past should be protected as the state builds for its future?
“It’s a question of balancing those historic designations against other priorities and also, really importantly, not abusing them,” said Matthew Lewis, communications director for California YIMBY, which helped lobby for SB 9.
Criteria for earning historic designation is broad and sometimes nebulous — sites with connection to a significant person, a historic event, or a specific architectural style are all eligible.
Applications must defend a site’s eligibility in a lengthy study, which is reviewed by the State Historical Resources Commission, and then — if national designation is sought — the application must get a national office approval.
“We review them with a fine-toothed comb,” said Jay Correia, cultural resources program manager for California’s Office of Historic Preservation. Months of back-and-forth between staff and applicants may pass before an application reaches the commission.
In the case of Baywood, the San Mateo Heritage Alliance’s ongoing application for historic designation has become a point of contention in the neighborhood. Although Laurie Hietter, the group’s president, said it has conducted “extensive outreach,” some critics view the effort as led by a small group whose actions will impact what homeowners across the entire neighborhood can do with their properties.
“Most of the 350 homeowners have no idea this is happening,” said San Mateo Mayor Amourence Lee, who opposes the idea. “They didn’t ask for this.”
George Aviet knows what it’s like to get blindsided with a historic designation.
In 2017, the owner of the Michelin-starred Chez TJ in downtown Mountain View submitted an application to build a five-story building on the site of his restaurant. Aviet intended to move his historic 1894 building across the street, and reopen the restaurant in the new building.
Neighbors, concerned that tall buildings had already undermined much of the city’s downtown historic charm, petitioned to add Aviet’s building to the California Register of Historic Resources. They produced a study showing the house had once been owned by Julius Weilheimer, the city’s former mayor. They also argued for adding the neighboring building, formerly home to a laundromat, to the historic register. Against Aviet’s protests, the state commission approved both, preventing Aviet from pursuing his plans.
“I’ve been here for 42 years, and I want this downtown to thrive,” Aviet said. “I want to see the city improve, but it’s not by restricting development like this.”
It’s not just groups of concerned neighbors — many cities are also restricting the implementation of new housing reforms through historic preservation. Just weeks after the Legislature passed SB 9, Pasadena’s City Council adopted an emergency ordinance creating several “landmark districts” — or homes where 60% of the properties have “historical, cultural, development, and/or architectural context.” The city also intended to examine the creation of a citywide historic overlay district.
That set off alarm bells in the office of Attorney General Rob Bonta, who has begun to ramp up enforcement of California’s housing laws. In a letter, his office said Pasadena had undermined state law “under the guise of protecting ‘landmark districts,’” — an accusation Pasadena’s Mayor Victor Gordo denied. (The city later amended its ordinance, earning Bonta’s stamp of approval.)
Some cities are taking more incremental approaches. In the Bay Area, Palo Alto began working in 2022 to update its historic resources inventory, looking to add specific buildings to a list of historic resources, rather than designate an entire district. The 130 properties under consideration represent less than 1% of the single-family homes in the city.
Fewer than 150 homes in Palo Alto, or 330 in Baywood, won’t make the difference in whether California meets its housing goals. But housing advocates do worry that preservation could be construed to prevent housing reforms from going into effect at a larger scale. Consider all the pre-war homes that could be deemed worth protecting across the state: 9% of all housing units in California were built before 1939, and one in five single-family homes in the San Francisco metro area.
There’s also a concern that historic districts won’t be applied equitably throughout the state.
“This becomes a fair housing issue where these wealthier, whiter communities are able to marshal the resources to put together a historic district and exempt themselves from state housing laws,” Wiener said.
The state, he said, will need to reform the law to prevent historic preservation from providing a “blanket exemption” from state laws.
“Old buildings and new buildings can exist together,” Wiener said.