Noe Valley Voice
By Matthew S. Bajko
The small cottage at 369 Valley St. appears of little consequence at first glance. Yet the unassuming structure belies its ties to San Francisco history.
It is one of the last remaining earthquake shacks built to house refugees made homeless by the disastrous 1906 Earthquake and Fire. More than a century later, only about two dozen of the 5,610 temporary cottages remain standing.
The original cottages were built in three sizes and featured cedar-shingled roofs, fir floors, and redwood walls, according to the Western Neighborhoods Project, a group working for their preservation. They were painted green to better blend into the parks and public squares in which they were situated. Dolores Park, Potrero Hill, and Precita Park were among their first homes.
The building on Valley Street is considered one of the Type B earthquake shacks, measuring 14 by 18 feet. It was deemed as such by Jane Cryan and the Society for the Preservation and Appreciation of San Francisco Earthquake Shacks in February of 1984. In 2002, based on that determination, the city listed it as a historical resource for purposes of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which triggers stricter review of any projects proposed for such sites.
"The property at 369 Valley Street is a cottage comprised of two earthquake shacks that were moved to their present location in 1907," Justin Greving, a preservation planner with the city's Planning Department, told the Noe Valley Voice. "Earthquake shacks have been identified as significant as they relate to the reconstruction effort in the immediate aftermath of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire."
A 'Neighborhood Gem'
Due to its rarity, the Valley Street shack has rallied a number of nearby residents and community groups who, after they learned of plans to demolish and replace it with a new three-story, single-family home, are arguing for the preservation of "this neighborhood gem."
They are pressing the city's Planning Department to maintain the building's classification as a known historical resource, thus requiring CEQA review of any proposed development.
"The Earthquake Shack at 369 Valley Street is one of only two left in Noe Valley. There are some additions to this historic home, but the Earthquake Shack remains very much intact. We are very concerned that the developer who recently acquired this property is proposing to demolish it," wrote five nearby residents of the property in a letter to Planning Department staff earlier this year.
Calling themselves Neighbors of 369 Valley Street, they have created a website - http://www.SaveTheShack.net - to build public awareness about their campaign to save the structure. Letters of support have come in from San Francisco Tomorrow, the Victorian Alliance of San Francisco, and Protect Noe's Charm.
Owner Suggests Relocation
The owner of the building, while arguing the structure should not be considered a historical resource, nonetheless agrees with the neighbors' demands that it not be demolished. In an April interview with the Noe Valley Voice, developer John Schrader, of Nova Designs + Builds, said he would like to relocate the cottage to the back of the property and rehab it for use as a home office or artist's studio. He also suggested moving it to an entirely new location, where it could be preserved.
[Note from Save the Shack: The owner's application to the Planning Department to allow demolition of the home on Valley Street has not been withdrawn. Moving the Earthquake Shacks to the rear yard would violate building codes that require back yards to be preserved as open space.]
"We want to save it, too. We just don't want to save it in its present condition," said Schrader. "It is not recognizable as an earthquake shack [sic] and its location is not a historical resource."
Schrader bought the "shake shack" last year. His initial plans, submitted to the Planning Department, indicated that it would be demolished to make way for a new 5,000-square-foot single-family home.
As part of the permit approval process, he hired historical resource consultant Tim Kelley to review the history of the cottage. In his 42-page report, Kelley wrote that his firm "agrees it is a shake shack," but also concluded that "no evaluation of historic integrity was undertaken at the time of the 1984 Cryan survey."
Kelley's review determined that "new information indicates neither the former Type B shack portion nor the building in its entirety is eligible for individual listing in the California Register, nor is the property located in an existing or potential historic district." Kelley concluded, "The property therefore should not be considered a historical resource for CEQA purposes."
Schrader told the Voice that only about 500 square feet of the existing 2,000 "is legal and permitted" and that "this illegal build-out is tied into the shack with large wall openings and roofline connections."
He argued that if the city determines he must preserve it as is in its current location, then "you have a property with literally no use except to gaze at from 40 feet, hidden behind non-historical additional elements. It can't be rented due to the conditions, it can't be added onto in the front if the resource is to remain visible, so you end up with a 500-foot structure with no kitchen, bath or bedroom.
[Note from Save the Shack: The Valley Street home is currently inhabited, and has been for decades. It is easily visible from the street.]
The initial historic resource report submitted to the city is in the process of being revised, said Schrader, adding that he had yet to inform the Planning Department of his intention to maintain the building and relocate it.
"We can't formally propose anything until the reports get done and the city completes its analysis," said Schrader, adding that his firm is "actually pretty excited about the opportunity to restore it."
Under CEQA, findings of a historical resource can be overturned if new information is presented that would challenge the previous findings, explained Greving, who expects to make a determination by early May. "I am currently reviewing new information provided so as to determine whether or not it presents a valid argument for why the cottage is not a historic resource," he said in mid-April.
Call It a Survivor
Roy Peterkofsky, a cofounder of Protect Noe's Charm, said he "sincerely hopes" the Planning Department upholds the full protections called for in the city's planning code for the Valley Street shack.
"The fact is it already was declared a historical resource and the developer knew that when he bought it. He had it in his mind he was going to eliminate this thing regardless of its historic status," said Peterkofsky. "He had the assumption he could just squash the historic status to achieve that goal."
Would Peterkofsky be satisfied if Schrader relocated the shack? Not necessarily.
"Having it moved to the back is better than having it squashed to the ground, but that also hides it from the neighborhood," he said. "Right now, that historic resource is there for anybody to walk by and see."
While the future of the "shake shack" on Valley Street remains in doubt, experience tells us that others like it - though meant to be temporary - are quite resilient remnants of the city's past. Cryan, in a 1988 interview with the Voice about the remaining earthquake cottages, marveled that the structures "were designed to last five years and are still standing," despite the Board of Supervisors condemning them in the 1950s.
[Note from an email to the Noe Valley Voice by Jane Cryan: "I did not say that the shacks were designed to last only five years. It is untrue... Many thanks for all the press you've given the shacks."]
Yet "they weren't torn down," noted Cryan. "Maybe the owners put on more gingerboard to hide them. They have just refused to die."