State Approves Uptown Tenderloin Historic District

by Randy Shaw on July 28, 2008

The State Historical Resources Commission voted unanimously on July 25 to create the Uptown Tenderloin Historic District. The nomination for federal historic district status now proceeds to the Keeper of the National Register in Washington, D.C., which could add the 18 whole and 15 partial city blocks in the neighborhood to the National Register of Historic Places within 45 days. The Commission’s action culminates a process that began in 1983, was halted for over two decades, and then restarted in 2006. The District’s 470 buildings include the world’s largest collection of historic single-room occupancy hotels (SRO’s), such historic structures as the Central YMCA, the Hibernia Bank, and the former Empire Hotel (now Hastings Tower), and the astonishing Alcazar Theater. After decades of being primarily described by the media as “seedy,” the Uptown Tenderloin Historic District finally gives the community defined boundaries and a positive identity. The District’s creation also means that the dream of maintaining the Tenderloin as a rare urban neighborhood combining affordable housing, primarily low-income residents and a high quality of life is a large step closer to reality.

I recently took an author of a book on the historic neighborhoods of Paris on a walk through the Tenderloin, and he was astonished by what he saw. Noting the many neon signs and incredible diversity of pre-1940’s structures, he said he felt like he had taken a trip to the past—and this is a person who lives in the Bay Area, frequently visits San Francisco, and simply had no idea of the Tenderloin’s historic treasures.

He will hopefully be the first of thousands upon thousands who begin looking at San Francisco’s Tenderloin district with fresh eyes once it becomes a National Historic District. And among those looking at the neighborhood differently will be many of its residents, who have often felt stigmatized living in the community and can now take pride in living among the nation’s largest residential historic districts.


The Uptown Tenderloin Historic District runs from McAllister on the south, to Mason on the East, Geary to the north (but only between Taylor and Polk), and just east of Polk as the western border. No Polk Street properties are included, as this corridor has its own rich, independent history.

Previous maps of the area seemed to show McAllister Street, which features two historic landmark buildings, the Empire Hotel and Hibernia Bank, as in the Civic Center Historic District. But research found neither included, allowing them to join the Uptown Tenderloin.

A 20 Year Delay

Although a historic building survey of the Tenderloin was conducted in 1983, the community rejected the proposed historic district due to fears it would produce gentrification and displacement. The neighborhood’s proposed residential rezoning was still pending, and the thought was that the historic district issue could be revisited once permanent controls were enacted.

But after the community’s rezoning became law in 1985, the idea of moving forward on creating an historic district was forgotten. It was not until the Tenderloin Housing Clinic (publisher of Beyond Chron) submitted a grant to the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development in 2006 for a historic survey of the Tenderloin that the idea of making the community an Historic District was revived.

In other words, a community long struggling with economic revitalization simply forgot for two decades that it could seize upon an economic development tool—the creation of an Historic District– that it knew it had in 1983. And this breakthrough still would not have occurred had the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development not had a committee staffed with leading preservationists like G.G. Platt who remembered the 1983 survey and could not understand why the Historic District should not go forward now.

One reason the Historic District was forgotten is that the Tenderloin lacked broad community leadership for much of late 1980’s through the 1990’s. We only renewed our seriously thinking about neighborhood economic development and positive identity strategies when the North of Market Community Benefits District (CBD) was formed in 2004.

Economic Revitalization

The Housing Clinic initially applied for a grant to create a Tenderloin Historic Tour, a proposal we then broadened to focus on the creation of an Historic District. The planned tours for the neighborhood, however, will still happen. The tours will be linked to a Tenderloin History Museum for which a thirty-year lease has already been signed for the corner of Eddy and Leavenworth, under the historic Cadillac Hotel. The San Francisco office of the international architectural firm of Perkins & Will has agreed to donate design services for the museum, meaning that the community will have a facility that will have a look and feel that is truly world-class.

During the 2007-08 academic year, I was fortunate to have access to two students in the economic justice clinic at Hastings Law School. These students did extensive research on how the Tenderloin can implement strategies for making the community the type of historic district that visitors will be interested in walking through.

Ultimately, the Uptown Tenderloin Historic District will finally give the tourists staying at the Hilton and nearby hotels a reason to investigate the community, and eat in its restaurants. The recently created Little Saigon will be a beneficiary of this increased tourist traffic, as will the Indian restaurants around Eddy and Mason Streets (the just released issue of San Francisco Magazine touts the Indian and Pakistani cuisine on Jones between O’Farrell and Geary).

More foot traffic means safer streets and more successful businesses. It means getting the Tenderloin a greater share of the city’s billion-dollar tourist trade, which was always part of the neighborhood’s plan but has not been fulfilled.

Of course, the tax benefits accruing to property owners in historic districts are simply enormous. The Mills Act, applicable to such owners, gives a 40% tax credit for renovations to historic properties, which should encourage owners of long neglected properties to finally begin upgrades.

Even owners of beautiful, well-kept buildings like the historic Hamilton condominiums at 631 O’Farrell Street will reap the economic benefits of the Historic District. The Hamilton recently spent $2.5 million waterproofing one side of the building; when it performs this improvement to the other side under the Mills Act, the owners will get a 40% tax credit. The tax credits begin after federal approval of the Historic District.

The enthusiasm for the Uptown Tenderloin Historic District has crossed all class and ethnic groups, with virtually everyone excited about the new status it creates for the long troubled community.

Michael Corbett is the noted architectural historian who authored the building-by-building description of the Uptown Tenderloin and the entire nomination application. At every level of review, preservations were deeply impressed with Corbett’s work, and it was Corbett’s research that determined that the community’s historically accurate name was “Uptown Tenderloin.”

Photographs from CBD Board member and longtime Central City resident Mark Ellinger bolstered Corbett’s application. And neither could have performed their services without the financial and enthusiastic support of Rich Hillis of the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development.

It could take a few months for the feds to act, but by this time next year, people walking through the Tenderloin will know that they are witnessing history—with the community’s best years yet to come.

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