Historic Preservation FAQs
- How do I find out if my building is considered a historic resource?
- How many historic buildings are there in San Francisco?
- What is the difference between local, state, and federal level historic designations?
- How do Article 11 districts differ from Article 10?
- How do I find out if my building is an Article 10 resource or is listed in the California or National Registers?
- What are the benefits of individual designation or inclusion within a historic district?
- What impact does historic designation have on property value?
- What happens to my property taxes?
- Does the Planning Dept. nominate buildings for historic preservation?
FAQs related to repair and alteration of historic buildings
- My property is not listed in Article 10, nor is it listed in or determined eligible for the California or National Registers. Does that mean my building is not historic?
- What is CEQA review of Historical Resources?
- How will historic landmark designation impact my ability to maintain, repair or alter my property?
- What is a Certificate of Appropriateness and when do I need one?
- I just bought a building, does it need CEQA review?
- Do I need a permit to paint the house a new color?
- Do I need a permit to replace the windows of my building?
- Can I add a garage to my building?
- Can I add an addition to my house?
- Can I raise my house to add an extra story?
- Are there any restrictions on remodeling the interior of my house?
- Does the Planning Department issue permits?
- Where can I find information on preservation techniques to repair my historic building?
According to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), all buildings constructed over 50 years ago and possess architectural or historical significance may be considered potential historic resources and proposed changes to these buildings may require some level of environmental review. CEQA review is a state-mandated process that, in part, determines whether a building is or is not considered a historic resource, and whether the proposed changes will have a negative impact on the resource. The majority of projects reviewed by the Planning Department are subject to this state-mandated CEQA review process. Consult the SF Property Information Map (PIM) to learn the historic status of your building, and related information on status codes. Click here for additional information on the CEQA review process for historic resources.
Historical Preservation Technical Specialists (aka Technical Specialists) can discuss your proposed project based on its current historic status. Technical Specialists are planners well-versed in historic preservation, historic architecture, CEQA, and the Secretary of the Interior's Standards and Guidelines for the Treatment of Historic Properties. Technical Specialists are available at the Public Information Counter (PIC). Note that the Citywide Cultural Resources Survey (SF Survey) surveys the entire City denoting each property as historic or not historic.
To date, there are over 300 designated Article 10 Landmarks and over 1,110 lots within the designated Article 10 Historic Districts in San Francisco. In addition, there are over 120 buildings individually listed in the National Register as well as 24 National Register Historic Districts. The California Office of Historic Preservation Resources listing includes all National Register properties and all Article 10 and 11 properties, as well as buildings, structures, or objects deemed important to California History. In San Francisco, over 3,300 parcels are listed in or determined eligible for listing in the California Register. However, relatively few buildings in San Francisco have been officially listed in local, state, or national registers because many historic buildings have never been surveyed or evaluated.
There are three separate levels of designation of historic resources: Local (Article 10 & 11), State (California Register), and Federal (National Register of Historic Places). All three designations qualify buildings to use the California Historical Building Code and apply for property tax savings provided by the Mills Act.
- Local Article 10 San Francisco Landmarks are governed under Article 10 of the San Francisco Planning Code. The designation of buildings as individual Article 10 Landmarks or as contributory buildings to an Article 10 Historic District affords two additional layers of protection. Most importantly, a moratorium of up to one-year can be placed on demolition permits in order to explore feasible alternatives to demolition. Also, an additional layer of review is required for exterior alterations (and, occasionally, some interior alterations) to Article 10-governed buildings. For more information, consult Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) or Administrative Certificate of Appropriateness (ACOA) applications for procedures.
- The California Register is the authoritative guide to the State's historical and archeological resources. It also includes all locally designated Article 10 and 11 properties and all properties listed in the National Register. For more information, visit the California Register.
- The National Register is a list of buildings and sites of local, state, or national importance. This program is administered by the National Park Service through the California Office of Historic Preservation. The National Register has no connection to the San Francisco Planning Dept., although many of San Francisco's individual Landmarks and Historic Districts are also listed on the National Register. Buildings listed in the National Register can gain significant tax savings by following the Secretary of Interior Standards for Rehabilitation. For more information, visit the website or National Register's online database to search for listed San Francisco properties or Historic Districts.
The Article 11 Conservation Districts are located exclusively in San Francisco's downtown core area. Buildings within the Conservation Districts are designated as significant or contributory and categorized as I, II, III, IV, V buildings based on architectural significance. Proposed alterations to these buildings are subject to a separate application and review process.
The SF Property Information Map (PIM) includes a Historic Preservation subsection with details on a specific address. Another resource is the California Historical Resources Inventory Database (CHRID) which includes all Article 10 and 11 properties and all properties listed in the California or National Registers.
There are numerous local, state and federal preservation incentive programs in place to encourage property owners to repair, restore, or rehabilitate historic properties. Visit the Preservation Incentives page for more information.
Historic designation of any kind does not impact property taxes unless you have an active Mills Act contract with the City. The Mills Act is used to lower property taxes of qualified historic resources.
Does the Planning Department nominate buildings for historic designation?
Not typically. The Planning Department is undertaking the Citywide Cultural Resources Survey (SF Survey) to identify significant properties, but it does not pursue official designation of resources unless requested by the Board of Supervisors or the Historic Preservation Commission. The designation process may be initiated by the property owner, the Board of Supervisors, the Arts Commission, the Historic Preservation Commission, or the Planning Commission.
No. The vast majority of buildings in San Francisco have not been surveyed, documented, or listed as historic resources. The Citywide Cultural Resources Survey (SF Survey) is underway, with the goal to survey the entire City denoting each property as historic or not historic. However, according to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), all buildings constructed over 50 years ago may be historical resources and proposed alterations require some level of environmental review. Please consult Preservation Bulletin No. 16 for help in determining what category your building falls under, and whether your building is considered a historical resource under CEQA. Owners of Category B buildings, for example, might need to submit additional historical documentation as part of the environmental review process (see the Historic Resource Review application). Preservation Bulletin #16 includes detailed information about CEQA and guidance on preparation of supplemental documentation. Historic Preservation Technical Specialist planners at the Public Information Counter (PIC) are available to help guide you through the CEQA review process.
The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) provides the legal framework by which historical resources are identified and given consideration during the planning process. Two main steps are involved in the process and discussed in more detail in the updated Bulletin No. 16 and the Historic Resource Review (HRR) application (insert link when available):
- determination of whether or not the property is a "historical resource."
- whether the proposed changes to the property would cause a "substantial adverse change in the significance of a historical resource." Some examples of proposed changes may include demolition, complete alteration of a front façade or addition of a substantial vertical addition visible from public rights-of-way.
There are three possible outcomes for CEQA review of proposed changes to historic properties:
- Categorical Exemption (aka Cat Ex) is required when the change or alteration is minor and if the implementation meets the Secretary of the Interior's Standards and Guidelines for the Treatment of Historic Properties.
- Negative Declaration or Mitigated Negative Declaration (aka Neg Dec) is required when the proposed project is not minor and would not cause a substantial adverse change to the historical resource or if the adverse change can be mitigated by following the Secretary of the Interior's Standards and Guidelines for the Treatment of Historic Properties.
- Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is required when the proposed project would potentially cause a substantial adverse change to a historical resource.
The CEQA process requires a close working relationship with the project applicant and a Historical Preservation Technical Specialist (aka Technical Specialist). Technical Specialists are available at the Public Information Counter (PIC) to help guide you through the CEQA review process. If your project cannot be approved over-the-counter at the PIC, it will be assigned to a Technical Specialist who will contact you directly. To learn more about CEQA, consult Preservation Bulletin No.16.
There are varying levels of review required for the many different designations of historic resources, ranging from Article 10 San Francisco Landmarks to properties designated as eligible for listing in the California Register. Most historic buildings in San Francisco are not yet officially designated as landmarks or historic resources; nonetheless, even non-designated historic buildings must undergo state-mandated CEQA review before permits for alteration can be granted.
- Individual Article 10 Landmarks:
In addition to regular building permits, a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) or Administrative Certificate of Appropriateness (ACOA) is required for exterior alterations requiring a permit for all Article 10 Landmarks. Given that Article 10 Landmarks are already considered historical resources for the purpose of CEQA, building owners can skip the first step of the two-step CEQA process outlined in Preservation Bulletin No. 16.
- All buildings within an Article 10 Historic District:
A Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) or Administrative Certificate of Appropriateness (ACOA) is required for exterior alterations requiring a permit for all properties located within an Article 10 Historic District. This C of A must be approved prior to obtaining a building permit. Some Historic Districts require a C of A for exterior alterations visible from the street – even if those alterations do not require a permit. Please see appropriate Appendices to Article 10 of the Planning Code for the slight variations among Article 10 Historic Districts. There are three ratings assigned to buildings located within an Article 10 Historic District: Contributory, Contributory-Altered, and Non-Contributory. For the purpose of CEQA only the Contributory and Contributory-Altered rated buildings are automatically considered historical resources.
- New Construction in an Article 10 Historic District:
A Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) is also required for the construction of a new building, structure or site within an Article 10 Historic District. A COA for new construction within a district helps ensure compatibility with the existing historic fabric, setting, and scale. Likewise, CEQA review is also required to determine if the new construction will have a "substantial adverse change" on the overall significance of the Historic District.
- Non-Contributory Buildings in an Article 10 Historic District:
Even buildings rated as Non-Contributory within an Article 10 Historic District require a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) or Administrative Certificate of Appropriateness (ACOA). Although such buildings might be less than 50 years old or altered to such a degree that they would no longer be considered a Historical Resource for the purpose of CEQA, these buildings still need a C of A. This extra level of review is required to ensure that alterations or repair work is compatible with the existing Historic District.
- California Register & National Register:
Properties listed in or determined eligible for listing in the California or National Register do not need a C of A unless they are also listed as an Article 10 Landmark or are located in an Article 10 Historic District. Owners of all properties listed in or determined eligible for the California or National Register can skip the first step of CEQA's two-step process because these buildings are already considered historical resources.
In order to ensure compatible alterations, demolitions, and new construction, owners of San Francisco Article 10 Landmark buildings and all buildings located within an Article 10 Historic District will need to submit a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) or Administrative Certificate of Appropriateness (ACOA). COA's are only required for Article 10 historic resources and are not required for buildings listed only in the California or National Registers. COA's are reviewed by the Historic Preservation Commission to ensure that Article 10 resources are preserved and that alterations, demolitions and new construction are compatible with existing historic resources. Administrative COA's are for those minor scopes of work delegated by the Historic Preservation Commission to Department staff. These still require an entitlement, but are reviewed administratively and do not require a hearing. See Qualifying Minor Scopes of Work for current scopes. Please note that COA's are not required for ordinary maintenance and repairs – i.e., work done solely to correct deterioration, decay, or damage – if the replacement materials and details are in-kind.
No. CEQA environmental review is only required when a property owner applies for a building permit. CEQA does not require owners to renovate or repair their properties.
No. The Planning Department does not regulate paint color; however, unpainted masonry buildings in Article 10 Historic Districts may need a permit in order to be painted or applied with stucco.
Yes. A building permit to replace windows is required for every building in San Francisco, even non-historic buildings. Building permits are required for windows located on the front, rear, and sides of the building. Additional review by the Planning Department is required for all replacement windows that are visible from the street or other public right-of-way. Residential Design Guidelines require that some property owners use historically appropriate window replacements, such as wood-sash, rather than vinyl or aluminum. The Planning Department has recently developed a comprehensive guide to help building owners choose the appropriate window treatments and to efficiently apply for a permit. For detailed information, please consult the Window Replacement Standards.
A reminder: Please do not purchase replacement windows before confirming with the Planning Department that the windows can be approved. The Planning Department will not approve inappropriate replacement windows, even if they have already been purchased or installed. The Planning Department also strongly suggests repairing, rather than replacing windows.
Inserting a new garage opening can have a major impact on a historic resource and its surrounding neighborhood. Due to this potential impact, the Planning Department reviews proposals for new garages on a case-by-case basis. In some instances garages are not approved for historic resources, particularly if the addition would negatively impact the building's character-defining features such as front yard set-back, bay windows, front porches, or historic fences. More information on the procedures and criteria for adding garages are found in Guidelines for Adding Garages and Curb Cuts.
A vertical or horizontal addition to any building, regardless of historic status, must conform to the Residential Design Guidelines. Additions to known historic resources must also meet the Secretary of the Interior's Standards and Guidelines for the Treatment of Historic Properties and any applicable requirements outlined in Article 10 of the Planning Code. Generally, if an addition does not alter, change, obscure, damage, or destroy any character-defining features of a historic resource or building located within a historic district then it will be deemed in conformance. The Planning Department strongly urges project applicants to engage with a Historic Preservation Technical Specialist early in the design process, in order to identify potential limitations.
Enlarging buildings by raising them and adding a new first floor was common at one time. Many cottages throughout San Francisco were originally one to 1.5 stories in height. These modest cottages were set on wood pilings instead of solid foundations. Buildings that must be raised for seismic retrofitting or to install a foundation will be approved. However, despite historic precedents, raising buildings designated as historic resources may not be considered appropriate and all proposals will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
No. Article 10 does not specifically designate the historic interiors of residential homes in landmark districts, nor does the California or National Registers. However, the Planning Department strongly encourages the retention of historic interior features as they may contribute to the significance of a property. Moreover, there are substantial tax savings to be gained by remodeling interiors of National Register properties according the Secretary of the Interior Standards for Rehabilitation.
No. The Department of Buildings Inspection (DBI) issues permits, which the Planning Department planners review for compliance with the Planning Code. DBI has numerous resources available online to help you get started.
The National Parks Service has produced over 40 technical Preservation Briefs related to the appropriate repair and maintenance of old buildings. Topics include the cleaning and waterproofing of masonry buildings, the preservation of glazed Terra-Cotta, the repair of historic wood windows, conserving energy in historic buildings, repair and maintenance of stained and leaded glass windows, removing graffiti from historic masonry, and the seismic retrofit of historic buildings.