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How Does Landmarking Bars Affect the Business?

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Earlier this week we told you about two historic bars that were up for landmark designations, prompting this reader comment:

Just curious. Does the owner of a landmark designated building sign a contract of some kind to agree not to ever redesign their building or change their business to something entirely different? Does the business owner have the right to not accept landmark designation if they choose?It's a complicated scenario when a building is locally landmarked because the business in it was the historic part. Technically businesses or uses themselves can't be locally landmarked (think back to the Eagles Tavern effort) so there's no legislative requirement that the businesses stay the same. But for these two bars, the buildings were found to be historic in their own right for the events and people associated with them. Since a business itself can't be locally landmarked, the business owners are free to change, whether its ownership or the actual business. The Twin Peaks Tavern, for example, was significant in part as a bar established by two openly lesbian owners. However those owners sold the business back in 2003, so the business doesn't retain that connection. Nonetheless, the building is the site of the first openly visible gay bar, so that's why it qualified as a landmark. It's a subtle difference, but an important one, since the landmark designation is drafted to only cover the physical characteristics of the building - not what operates inside it. That being said, the characteristics that must be preserved at the Twin Peaks Tavern include the architectural features, metal Twin Peaks and arrow box signs, plate glass storefront system, Dutch entry door, general interior layout, brass balcony, built-in benches, and beamed ceiling. That would make it cumbersome to change the business dramatically, but not necessarily impossible (think of that hat store with the cigar sign). For Sam Jordan's Bar, the building is significant for a person, as the "physical location and geographic focus of the life's work of Sam Jordan," so while exterior elements have to be preserved, none of the interior does.

In regards to owner approval for landmark designation, San Francisco's planning code does not require owner's consent for their building to be locally landmarked. But it's not like anyone on the street can go landmark their neighbor's house - the process can only be started by a Supervisor or resolution of intention by the Planning Commission, Historic Preservation Commission, or the Art Commission. That being said, if an owner reeeeally doesn't want their building landmarked and causes a huge kerfuffle, the Planning Department typically won't pursue the designations. There have been a few cases (900 Innes, for example) where the HPC or the BOS finds there is a greater public benefit to designation regardless of the owners position, but this is pretty rare. Unfortunately if the business only leases the space and doesn't own the building, then they really don't have a say (the Gold Dust Lounge is a good example). Luckily for Sam Jordan's Bar and the Twin Peaks Tavern, the building and business owners were all super supportive of landmarking.
· Landmark and Historic District Designation Procedures [SF Planning]
· Previous Coverage of Sam Jordan's Bar and Twin Peaks Tavern [Curbed SF Archives]