On Wednesday, San Francisco’s Historic Preservation Commission voted not to preserve the historic but decayed greenhouses at 770 Woolsey Street in the Portola District in the face of new housing development, nipping neighbors’ ambitions in the bud.
A century ago, 770 Wolsey was a sprawling and successful flower nursery, but now the remaining buildings have fallen into disrepair and the onetime flowerbeds are overgrown. Developer L37 Partners bought the 2.2-acre plot in 2017 for $7.5 million and proposes a 63-unit townhome development on the site.
The neighborhood group Friends of 770 Woolsey Street instead wants to preserve the greenhouses and nursery elements and turn the spot into an urban farm. The friends asked the city to designate the onetime nursery a historic asset, laying out some of its past in the application:
The Garibaldi Nursery, established in 1921, was one of more than 20 similar cut-flower nurseries in the Portola District in the early 20th century. The Garibaldi family was one of several local Italian and Italian-American cut-flower farmers located in the Portola District and members of the San Francisco Flower Growers Association (SFFGA).
Established by the local Italian community, the SFFGA worked in partnership with similar Japanese and Chinese flower-cut organizations to establish San Francisco’s first wholesale Flower Market in 1924, followed by the current San Francisco Flower Terminal in 1956.
The flower industry was a big ticket in the Portola neighborhood for decades, but now the remnants of the Woolsey site are all that’s left. There are 18 redwood-framed greenhouses on the property, along with related structures, all in a state of disrepair.
In a report prepared for commission members ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, city staff determined that the greenhouses and surrounding property are a likely historic asset, noting that “the subject property is associated with the role the Italian and Italian-American community played in the local flower-growing industry” and that the Portola District has few other landmarks.
Ahead of the hearing, 96 people submitted correspondence supporting the landmark bid. Only five objected to it.
Speaking for Friends of 770 Woolsey at the hearing, neighbor Elisa Laird-Metke denied that “the application was in any way related to the condo development,” testifying that the community worked to preserve the site for years before the recent sale.
Laird-Metke said that the group met with the developers to discuss a potential compromise, but said that L37 offered “only a very tiny corner” of the lot for preservation. She also noted that “to have a sustainable farm you need at least two acres”—i.e., almost the entire property.
Jesse Herzog, speaking for L37 Partners, said that when the developer presented at community meetings, “We were asked to leave—there was no comment and no counterproposal.”
Commission Vice President Diane Matsuda appeared sympathetic to the landmarking campaign and encouraged the two parties to compromise, pointing out that the site is “the only thing remaining that talks about the cut-flower industry” in SF.
But other commission members dismissed the farm bid.
“Landmarking hijacks the process,” Commissioner Jonathan Pearlman said, noting that the greenhouses are in “horrendous condition” and that the preservation bid “sucks the life out of the property.”
A landmarking now would make development essentially impossible, Pearlman said. In the end, only Matsuda voted to explore the nomination further. “I think I’m outnumbered” she said as the vote passed.
Nobody at Friends of 770 Woolsey has yet returned requests for comment. Via Facebook, the group said they were “disappointed in the result” and “considering our next steps,” suggesting that the standoff over the site isn’t over yet.
[Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Jonathan Pearlman.]