Handouts & FAQs
Last Updated: 08/01/2019

Survey Program FAQs

Do surveys focus just on buildings?
Buildings are just one focus of surveys. Historic and cultural resources can be individual buildings and structures, or groups of properties that form districts or cultural landscapes, as well as objects, archeological resources, works of art, or flora such as trees.

How old does a building have to be in order to be surveyed?
Generally, the Planning Department surveys buildings that were constructed more than 45 years ago. However, certain buildings from the more recent past can also be included in a survey if they feature outstanding architecture, craftsmanship, or materials, or if they are closely associated with a recent significant event.

What types of surveys are there?
There are two types of historic resource surveys: Reconnaissance and Intensive. Reconnaissance surveys, aka windshield survey, document the physical qualities of the property, but make no formal evaluation as to a building's significance, integrity, or eligibility to local, state, or national registers. An Intensive survey requires more intensive research and documentation of a property, and most significantly, results in the evaluation of a property's eligibility for local, California, or National listing. Evaluation can apply either to individual properties or to properties within the context of a Historic District. In general, surveys usually begin at the Reconnaissance level. After additional research and identification of property types, a smaller number of properties are selected for time-and-research-heavy Intensive surveys.

What building documentation is produced during a survey?
In 2000, the Planning Department began using the California State Department of Parks and Recreation DPR 523-series forms to record historic resources. The DPR 523 forms are the accepted format in which to record a variety of resources, from buildings to archeological finds to bridges and roadways. They were designed to be the final product of a survey, organized in a standardized statewide format. The Planning Department primarily uses three of the DPR forms. Click below for an example of each survey form.

Most properties within the survey receive DPR 523A Primary Record form documentation. This Reconnaissance level survey form includes a description of the building and alterations, a photograph, and documentation of the building's age. A smaller number of properties also receive more intensive documentation and evaluation in the form of a DPR523B Building, Structure, & Object Record. These Intensive level survey forms include an assessment of the building's historic context, significance, construction history, integrity, and eligibility for listing in local, California, or National registries. A California Historical Resources Status Code is assigned to each DPR 523B form. These status codes were developed by the California Office of Historic Preservation to document a property's eligibility (or ineligibility) to local, California, or National registries.

Finally, DPR 523D District Record forms are used to document and evaluate significant groupings of buildings. Individual buildings within a proposed district are identified, evaluated, and assigned a California Historical Resources Status Code.

What does significance mean?
Significance also has a specific meaning in historic preservation. Buildings are evaluated for significance using the following defined criteria: association with significant events that contribute to broad patterns of history (for example the development of streetcar suburbs); association with significant people (for example Landmark 227, Harvey Milk's camera shop); association with significant architecture, construction, engineering, or craftsperson (for example Queen Anne row-houses of the Alamo Square Historic District); or association with pre-history (for example the archeological resources at Mission Dolores). The National Register criteria for evaluating significance is very similar to the California Register and is also used to evaluate local Article 10 Landmarks and Historic Districts. For a more in-depth discussion of significance, see the National Register's Bulletin How to Apply the National Register Criteria for Evaluation.

What does integrity mean?
Integrity has very specific connotations in regards to historic and cultural resources. Integrity is the authenticity of physical characteristics from which resources obtain their significance. Integrity is the composite of seven qualities: location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association. When a property retains its integrity, it is able to convey its significance, its association with events, people, and designs from the past.

Where can I get a line-by-line explanation of DPR 523 forms?
The California Office of Historic Preservation produced a manual explaining the recordation process for DPR 523 series forms. This manual – Instructions for Recording Historic Resources – is useful for property owners wishing to decipher the DPR-523 documentation of their surveyed building, and for organizations planning to conduct a neighborhood historic resource survey.

What is a Historic Context Statement?
Historic Context Statements are established evaluative tools for surveying historic and cultural resources. A Historic Context Statement is an organizing framework for interpreting history, by grouping information around a common theme, area, and time period. Recent Area Plan surveys have utilized Historic Context Statements to guide the surveying, identification, and evaluation of potential historic resources. Examples of recent SF-based context statements are available here.

The Planning Department is currently developing a Heritage Conservation Element that will provide the framework for consistent, informed evaluations of San Francisco's historic and cultural resources by linking specific property types to identified themes, geographic patterns, and time periods. It will include a discussion of character-defining features, integrity considerations and resource eligibility determinations. This detailed information specific to property types will provide surveyors with a consistent framework within which to contextually identify, interpret and evaluate individual properties.

How is survey information used?
Information gathered during a historic and cultural resource survey is used for a wide variety of purposes, including:

  • Environmental(CEQA) and permit review
  • To inform Area Plans and preservation policies
  • To inform appropriate historic design guidelines
  • To qualify for use of State Historical Building Code
  • To identify the most important individual and district resources, which may be protected through a separate listing process in local, state, or national registries

Who decides whether my building is historic?
Qualified planners and consultants make the determination as to a building's historic status. The Planning Department has a team of twelve preservation planners who meet the required Secretary of the Interior Professional Qualifications Standards for historic and cultural resource survey work. Planning Department preservation planners work with teams of architectural and preservation consultants, who, likewise, must meet the Secretary of the Interior qualifications. Survey results are typically also reviewed by the Historic Preservation Commission.

What happens after the field portion of the survey is done?
Once the field surveying is finished, DPR 523 forms are completed for each age-eligible property within the survey area. Property owners are sent the completed forms and are invited to submit corrections and additional factual information. The Planning Department presents the entire survey to the Historic Preservation Commission for endorsement at a public hearing. Survey findings are then shared with the State Office of Historic Preservation.

How will inclusion in a survey benefit property owners?
Inclusion within a survey can greatly benefit owners of a wide range of potentially historic properties. For example, buildings with high levels of architectural significance, or association with important events or people, can be documented as eligible for listing in the California or National Registries. Properties determined as eligible for listing may qualify to apply for tax benefits in the form of the Mills Act property tax reduction, or the Federal Tax Credit for rehabilitations that meet the Secretary of the Interior's Standards. Likewise, building owners of qualified historic properties can follow the more flexible State Historical Building Code (SHBC).

Moreover, properties evaluated in a survey can benefit from reduced California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review fees at the Planning Department, because survey evaluations determine whether or not a building is a considered a historic resource for the purpose of CEQA. This determination eliminates at least one step (and one fee) of the two-step state-mandated CEQA process.

My building is in a survey area, does that mean I need CEQA review?
No. CEQA environmental review is only required when a property owner applies for a building permit. CEQA applies to all private buildings in San Francisco, regardless of age, style, location, integrity, or inclusion in a survey. CEQA does not require owners to renovate or repair their properties.

Are property owners charged for this survey work?
No. There is no fee for inclusion within a designated survey. Survey work is funded by the City's General Fund and the Historic Preservation Fund Committee.

Can I opt out of a survey?
No. All age-eligible buildings within a survey area are included, and all survey activity is conducted from public rights-of-way.

Why is the Planning Department involved with surveys?
Surveys help inform the planning process. A building or neighborhood's historic status can impact area-wide planning, development proposals, and review of individual building permit applications. The City's General Plan directs the Planning Department to consider historic resources, as does Article 10 of the SF Planning Code. The Planning Department is also a Certified Local Government and is tasked by the California Office of Historic Preservation with promoting the integration of local preservation interests and concerns into local planning and decision-making processes. To learn more about past surveys and the Planning Departments ongoing, multi-year Citywide Survey Program, see Preservation Bulletin #11.

Does the Planning Department nominate buildings for formal designation?
No. The Planning Department conducts historic and cultural resource surveys to identify significant properties, but the Planning Code does not allow the Department to initiate official designation of resources. Official designations may only be initiated by the Historic Preservation Commission, the Planning Commission, the Board of Supervisors, or the Arts Commission. Property owners can also apply for official designation at their own discretion. Official designations bestow distinction upon individual buildings and districts and allow property owners to leverage benefits such as economic incentives.

I'd like to request a Planning Department survey of my property, is that possible?
The Planning Department can assist community groups in starting their own neighborhood historic resource survey by providing technical assistance, accepted survey formats, and access to our research files. The Planning Department can not conduct surveys of individual buildings outside of its current survey focus on Area Plans. However, numerous qualified preservation consultant firms are available to document your property with DPR 523A or B forms.

Historic Preservation Design Guidelines Map

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