Handouts & FAQs
Last Updated: 07/27/2021

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 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.

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 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. Department staff may also consult with community-based historians or culture-bearers. Survey results are typically also reviewed by the Historic Preservation Commission.

What happens after the field portion of the survey is done?
The Planning Department presents the entire survey to the Historic Preservation Commission for endorsement at a public hearing. This will happen in phases over the multi-year survey effort. 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 cultures or 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.

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 based on phase. However, numerous qualified preservation consultant firms are available to assist your efforts.

Historic Preservation Design Guidelines Map

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