San Francisco

City Officials Ordered San Francisco Man To Rebuild Exact Replica of Demolished Home. Now He's Fighting Back.

City officials determined years ago that the home was of no historic value.

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Back in December, the San Francisco Planning Commission ordered property owner Ross Johnston to rebuild an exact replica of a mid-1930s home he had torn down, lambasting him for destroying a historic home without obtaining the necessary permits.

Johnston is now hitting back, calling the city's decision both absurd and lawless, and demanding that he be allowed to continue with the redevelopment of his property.

"The Planning Commission decision is invalid, bizarre, and illegal," said Andrew Zacks, an attorney for Johnston, in a statement. Zacks argues that the order is baseless and runs against both the city's designation that Johnston's house—also known as the Largent House, after its original owner—was not of historical significance, and permits it had already issued that allowed for substantial renovations to his property.

The controversy around Johnston's home—located in San Francisco's Twin Peak's neighborhood—got rolling back in late 2017, when neighbors began to complain that the renovation work on the Largent House had resulted in demolition of the entire structure, save for the original garage. The home had originally been designed by famed modern architect Richard Neutra.

This sparked outrage, and eventually, the intervention of the city's Planning Commission, which last month ordered Johnston to rebuild the home exactly as it was, save for a small plaque explaining that it is a replica home, a decision the San Francisco Chronicle referred to as "unprecedented."

Johnston also got a tongue-lashing from San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who told the Chronicle: "The fact that it was a unanimous vote should send a message to everyone that is playing fast and loose that the game is over. We want to preserve iconic, historic structures, but even more important, we want to protect our reservoir of more affordable housing stock."

Missing from the outrage over the demolition of Johnston's home were some crucial details.

The first is that the home, at least as a matter of law, was not actually a historic resource of any kind.

Since its original construction, the Largent House has undergone extensive alterations, including the construction of a 20-foot retaining wall back in the 1950s, major fire damage repair in the 1960s, the addition a swimming pool in the 1980s, and the enclosure of said pool in the 1990s. A second floor was also added above the garage at some unknown date.

All these changes—plus the fact that no historically significant events are known to have occurred at the house—saw the city's Planning Department declare in early 2015 that the home was not a historic resource.

"The subject property has also been altered so that it is impossible to know the original design intention of Neutra," reads a January 2015 report from the Planning Department, noting that no photos of the initial design of the house exist.

Because of this lack of historical significance, the city issued permits in 2014 to allow for substantial renovations to the home that would have seen the one-bedroom, roughly 1,300-square-foot home converted into a 3-story, 3,600-square-foot home sporting four bedrooms.

Johnston's attorneys are arguing both the lack of historical significance, and the prior approval of substantial alterations makes, the order to rebuild the Largent House patently absurd.

Johnston's lawyers do concede that some of the demolition work done on the home exceeded what was allowed by those 2014 permits, but they argue that this was done for safety reasons when remodeling work in 2017 revealed several walls were not solid concrete, and thus would not support the alteration work approved by that 2014 permit.

The walls were thus removed, and an after-the-fact demolition permit was requested.

This horrifying decision, while unique, is in keeping with San Francisco's nonsensical housing policies.

Reason has covered the case of Robert Tillman, who was forced to spend $23,000 producing a 135-page report proving that a laundromat he owns in the city's Mission District—and which he has been trying to convert into an apartment building—is not, in fact, historically significant.

In a similar case, another San Francisco man looking to build a home on a vacant lot he owns in the city's Glen Park neighborhood had to fend off the claims of neighbors who argued that a dirt path running through said vacant lot was actually a historic trail used by early Spanish Missionaries. Preservation of said dirt path took precedence over the construction of a home in the housing-starved city, they argued (ultimately without success).

San Francisco's clunky bureaucracy will ensure that Johnston's appeal stretches out for a while. It likely won't be cheap for him, either.

In the meantime, the Planning Commission's standing order that an expensive replica of an imagined past be rebuilt in lieu of new housing can serve as a good illustration of the attitude many in the city take toward new development.

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100 responses to “City Officials Ordered San Francisco Man To Rebuild Exact Replica of Demolished Home. Now He's Fighting Back.

  1. So, given that the house *was already designated* as ‘unhistorical’ – are those commenters who were saying the city government was perfectly justified in issuing this order as punishment for defying them going to retract?

    1. Or the ones who claim that this is just the price you pay for buying historically designated properties?

      1. Sadly, you constantly use words that you don’t know the meaning of so your opinions have to be weighed with that in mind

      2. By the way, in another thread you declared you were leaving. Yet here you are. What gives?

        1. Sadly, you don’t seem to be able to read.

          1. Sadly, the poor oppressed homeowners haven’t banded together with torches and pitch porks and lynched the assholes who run the city, and their henchmen.

            1. Ooh, ooh are they selling tickets to this event? Who’s bring the popcorn?

  2. However Johnston’s case and the Tillman case work themselves out, it should be clear to anyone interested in purchasing property in San Francisco that one does so with the understanding the city will interfere with any plan to renovate or redevelop. For folks currently complaining about skyrocketing property values this should do the trick of dampening those values. The risk of property ownership just went up and that will be priced into every property as a reduction in value.

    1. Actually, no, I do not believe that there are many examples of cities with highly restrictive building restrictions seeing lower property prices.

      What usually happens is that the very well-healed keep buying property while those less able are increasingly shut out. Then the self-righteous busybodies chime in about inequality and “affordable housing”.

      The self-righteous busybodies’ definition of “affordable housing” seems to be expensive housing that the poor cannot afford but should have furnished for them with huge subsidies paid for by everyone other than the local residents who voted for the whole mess to begin with. And in buildings which the local authorities are unwilling to issue building permits for. 🙂

      1. The everyone other that I refer to above is, of course, the federal government which, unlike the state or local government is not constrained by anything as picayune as a “balanced budget”.

    2. Trul woke people would buy property and then “donate” it to the city for free homeless housing, while continuing to pay upkeep and taxes.

  3. Why would you want to live someplace where everybody hates you? Move the hell out of San Francisco if not California.

    1. If he didn’t need the money from the sale of the property, he should just erect a giant middle finger then move out of the state and abandon the place.

      1. He should be sure to call it art first so that when he leaves it is protected and can never be taken down.

      2. Or leave it demolished and allow a tent camp to set up shop.

  4. The city’s Planning Commission…last month ordered Johnston to rebuild the home exactly as it was, save for a small plaque explaining that it is a replica home.

    Then, when you have the plaque, you must place it here beside this house, only slightly higher so you get the two-level effect with a little path running down the middle. Then, when you have laid the plaque, you must cut down the mightiest house in the neighborhood… with… a herring!

  5. Its great that this guy is fighting government. If government wants to preserve structures, let them buy the buildings at market value and preserve them. Government mostly does not want to do that, so here we are.

    I am also gonna go out on a limb and say that this owner is probably down with much of what San Francisco normally does to violate people’s rights and the Constitution. Now that it has affected him personally, he is outraged that Socialists in Commifornia would do such a thing.

    It is kind of funny that Socialists have gone so far that even some Lefties can’t believe that the Socialists have gone that far.

    1. This is a good observation. These restrictions are not the work of some nefarious other.

      As Pogo said “We have met the enemy and he is us”.

      1. Indeed. Walt Kelly was always wise in his way.

  6. The fact that it was a unanimous vote should send a message to everyone that is playing fast and loose that the game is over.

    The bureaucrats all agreed, huh? Hopefully the courts send an equally concise message.

    1. If i were I were the judge I’d order a drug test and psych eval before Supervisor Aaron Peskin can return to work.

      1. Peskin is the result of ‘district elections’; he would never win in city-wide voting.
        I don’t know if he’s ever held a job. He was termed-out of Supervisor once before and during that stint, had a rep of calling reporters at night after what seemed to be a serious visit with the bottle.

        1. “President of S.F. supes accused of harassing calls, threats”
          […]
          “But in her August letter, which was obtained by The Chronicle on Wednesday, Moyer said Peskin had engaged in “unconscionable behavior” when he called her staff members at work and her at home one night as she was putting her daughter to bed.
          Moyer said Peskin seemed to have been drinking when he called her at 8:45 p.m. “because his words were not clear.” Peskin yelled at her and admitted he had threatened to eliminate the job of the port’s special projects manager, who had been working on the Migden legislation, she said. Peskin then hung up on her, she said.”
          https://www.sfgate.com/news/article
          /President-of-S-F-supes-accused-
          of-harassing-3296246.php

  7. I have been forced, on more than one occasion, by squirly officials, to put up an exact replica of my comment, because my comment was deemed historically significant.

    1. I get that all of the time.

    2. And nothing of value was lost…

      1. Heh, again – you can’t read.

    3. Me too. But it’s especially troubling in my case because of the racism I face here everyday for being Canadian.

      /picks up handful of snow shoves it orphan’s face.

      1. Come on, “The Great White North?”

        1. have Geddy Lee and McKenzie Brothers on vinyl 45. our topic today, is music

        2. Make The White North Great Again!

          1. It’s a beauty way to go!

            1. Ten bucks is ten bucks.

      2. Indeed Rufus, it’s hard to restrain the inherent rage one feels towards our flapping headed, mall syrup blooded brethren to the north.

  8. I love the irony of the original architect not even filing plans with the city, and now the city demands that their legacy be maintained when in the modern era the architech would have been arrested for building that house. Bonus points if the original structure wouldn’t pass code enforcement, which I doubt it would.

    1. +100

    2. FYI : The architect wouldn’t be arrested if his plans were used for unpermitted construction. The builder or owner would face criminal penalty, not the architect. As for the residential building codes of the mid-30s, I’m guessing you’d have to make a perverse effort not to pass’em, but who knows?

      As for Neutra, he was a pretty good architect. He caught grief from Frank Lloyd Wright during the brief period he worked for Wright, but it’s impossible to say who was at fault. Wright had double-cause to resent Neutra years later. FLW’s most famous house was Fallingwater, built for Edgar J Kaufmann. But when Kaufmann built a second house in the California desert he went to Neutra – who produced a stunning design.

      1. It’s also worth noting that in the age when Neutra was practising it was not required that a full set of plans be submitted with a building permit (indeed, it’s possible that no permit was required at al).

        It’s also possible that the city lost the plans etc.

        The biggest point is that even if one accepts the concept of “preserving architectural history” or whatever, which version of this building is Johnston supposed to replicate? Virtually none of the “original” structure has even existed unaltered for many years.

        1. That is undeniable. And if the guy had contested the restrictions he probably could have won. Per the article, the city wasn’t sure how much historical value to ascribe to house. To the limited degree I can follow the specifics, all he was asked to preserve was a portion of the ground floor. Everything thing else was fair game.

          But apparently he just resubmitted plans already produced by the previous owner. And why not? The plans and building permit had no more value to him than toilet paper. If you’re submitting to the city as step-one of a scam, why bother changing the drawings to suit your supposed needs? Plans were necessary to get a permit. The permit was necessary to get a bulldozer on site. He needed the bulldozer to flatten the house into rubble, so he could build something three-times larger to flip for a tidy profit. Breaking the law made perfect financial sense, just like it does to a fourteen year-old selling crack on the street corner.

          1. Did I mention fuck off, scumbag slaver? Yes, I think I did.

          2. More grb bullshit.

      2. My point sailed way, way over your head.

    3. of course it would not, and the Supes at the city know it. That’s not the point.
      Their point, aggressively administered, is that I WANT MY WAY and I WON”T tolerate anything less, I WONT I WONT I WONT. And ‘sides that, if I DON”T get my way I’ll pick up my marbles and GO HOME. Guess that’ll show YOU you dirty rotten… OOOHHHHHHhhhh!!Cain’t ya jusst SEE this nitwit stamping his feet so petulantly?

      Fairy dust, That’s what runs that idiot town.

  9. Johnston’s attorneys are arguing both the lack of historical significance, and the prior approval of substantial alterations makes, the order to rebuild the Largent House patently absurd.

    Because if his attorneys argued that he owns the home and should be able to do what he wants with it, he’d be doomed.

    1. Well, it’s certainly an argument doomed to failure in SF, CA in general, or honestly, most of the US, in descending order of lunacy.

      I say this because I’m pretty sure there isn’t anywhere in the country that one can be truly considered to own their own property and will be allowed to do what they wish with it, even if doing so wouldn’t hurt anyone else.

      If nothing else, you’ll be required to get a “permit”.

      1. As of a year ago, most of Missouri especially in rural areas outside of city limits have no zoning, require no buiding permits or inspections. I was seriously looking into moving there a few years back. The thinking, the real estate agent told me, reminded me a whole lot of Nicaragua in the 1980’s…..
        if you have the money to buy the materials, your’e also smart enough to not build anything stupid or dangerous.. So why should WE care what you put where? Isn’t it YOUR property?

        I liked that thinking a lot.

        Hah, one town I looked into, had found an interesting property there, charged ten bucks for a business license (unless it was a wrecking yard, that was $250….. guess who didn’t like the owner of the only junkyard inside city limits?) and the annual dog license was fifty cents. Of course, locaing ten feet outside City Limits provided all the advantages of being close but none of the burdens associated with being IN the city.

  10. Johnston also got a tongue-lashing from San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who told the Chronicle: “The fact that it was a unanimous vote should send a message to everyone that is playing fast and loose that the game is over. We want to preserve iconic, historic structures, but even more important, we want to protect our reservoir of more affordable housing stock.”

    1. Preserving every historic structure and protecting a reservoir of more affordable housing stock are mutually exclusive goals.

    2. San Francisco has a reservoir of more affordable housing stock? Since when?

    1. That was my reaction. too.

  11. “Johnston also got a tongue-lashing from San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who told the Chronicle: “The fact that it was a unanimous vote should send a message to everyone that is playing fast and loose that the game is over. We want to preserve iconic, historic structures, but even more important, we want to protect our reservoir of more affordable housing stock.”

    Gag. Imagine this dickwad with a gun and a Gilette razor*.

    *Congrats Gillette you’re now a punchline.

    1. what reservoir of more affordable housing?

      1. plenty of warehouse and commercial space in the run down areas….. business leaving The City because of eedjits like these ruining things for everyone. Use the old pallet racking, add stairs, pile em high and stack em deep. Should fir most of the homeless in just a couple of them. Make them clean up their own piles of dung if they want a clean space.

    1. None of us are near Riyadh

    2. SEO – this is not how it works.

  12. More whinging over this two-bit crook? Why?

    (1) He knew there were renovations restrictions when he bought the house in 2017, but still decided to make the purchase. People take responsibility for their choices where I’m from. By the child-like squealing in these comments, that idea is foreign to many people here.

    (2) He submitted building plans to the city for extensive renovations, which were approved. What’s more, this was a re-submission of the previous owners plans – so the little weasel knew the EXACT scope of acceptable renovations before he bought the damn house. Yet he still won’t take responsibility for his actions.

    (3) Because he bought the house already knowing he would break the law – assuming there’d be no consequences. It’s the song of many a small-time crook, huh? Now he wails like a baby who just found out consequences exist. Welcome to the world of adults, loser.

    Yet here we are throwing a pity-party? Because this petty crook didn’t get away with it?

    That’s pitiful…..

    1. So you missed the part where there were no renovation restrictions because the house was already considered ‘non-historical’ by the city?

      Or the part where the scope of renovations had to be expanded because the approved renovations – the stuff the city said he could do – had to be supported by extra work to bring them up to compliance with city code and just general safety?

      ‘Break the law’ – libertarians dude. Immoral laws should be broken as needed. Or are you saying Harriet Tubman should be vilified?

      1. Reread the story. You invented all of your “points” out of thin air. Item : Whether or not the city vacillated on the historical importance of the house in the years before this crook bought the property is irrelevant. There were restrictions in place when he made the purchase. Those restrictions were reflected in pre-existing plans shown to the buyer by the previous owner. There was nothing surprising about them.

        Oh, and your “…scope of renovations had to be expanded….” is total nonsense. The guy plowed the house flat into rubble. Did you even bother to look at the picture? In the end, this isn’t a very complicated story : He bought the house planning to break the law and destroy it. He assumed he’d face a tiny fine, but still come out ahead after flipping a house three times larger. He was a crook right from the beginning. He’s a sad crook now. Good.

        Lastly : This petty loser is Harriet Tubman? I’m going to gently suggest you do the cause of Libertarianism no good with such imbecility. I’m sure that goes over fine in the clubhouse, but you look like a fool out here in the real world.

        Friendly advice…..

        1. “Friendly advice…..
          Not so friendly advice:
          Fuck off and die, slaver.

          1. Sevo, maybe you see why I consider finding ways to put the screws to these slavers. So the rest of us can be free.

    2. grb|1.16.19 @ 6:42PM|#
      “More whinging over this two-bit crook? Why?”

      More scumbag support for bueracracy. Why?
      Fuck off, slaver.

      1. Didn’t I mention child-like squealing?

        1. “Didn’t I mention child-like squealing?”

          Well, I certainly mentioned fucking scumbag, slaver.

          1. Why do I think a large percent of so-called Libertarians are just over-grown little boys, still seething with resentment because mommy made them eat their spinach all those years ago?

            Oh, I remember : Because that’s the perfect description of people like you.

            1. Why frequent Libertarian forums if you so despise the ideology & ethics of Libertarianism and Classical Liberalism?

            2. grb|1.16.19 @ 8:40PM|#
              “Why do I think a large percent of so-called Libertarians are just over-grown little boys, still seething with resentment because mommy made them eat their spinach all those years ago?”

              Why do I think a large percentage of scumbag slavers are slimy thugs willing to let the government do their dirty work?
              Oh, yes. Because they are slimy scumbag slavers.
              Fuck off, slimy scumbag slaver.

        2. Grb, are you suggesting that Sevo anally penetrate you ,and what your reaction will be?

          I don’t think that Sevo wants to fuck you.

          Poor grb, always a bridesmaid, never a bride.

    3. It is NOT a pity party. It is an article on the overreach of a tyrannical city government.

    4. Well, you do have a small point. There are definitely people around here who have selective outrage – they are outraged when the person being oppressed is someone that they can identify with. But when the oppressed comes from a class of people that is, shall we say, “foreign”, then a common attitude around here is “screw them, they knew the rules, it’s their fault for breaking them”.

      It would be nice if there were more consistency around here for defending the oppressed against government overreach.

      That being said, oppression is oppression and I’ll stand with anyone who calls it out wherever it does exist.

      1. “oppression is oppression and I’ll stand with anyone who calls it out wherever it does exist.”

        Hence, repeal Obamacare!!

    5. Fuck off slaver. It’s his property, he has every right to knock it down if he chooses to.

      -jcr

  13. Hard to understand why there is a massive housing crunch out there. Just a total mystery.

  14. “?neighbors began to complain?”

    And we’ve got to accommodate every whiny busybody.

    1. Sounds like between the neighbors and the city council, the wood chippers are going to need to work overtime. I wonder if they are union wood chippers.

    2. Did Mrs. Kravitz see Samantha practicing witchcraft again?

  15. You know who else issued unrealistic orders?

    1. Harvey Weinstein?

    2. George Custer?

    3. The 1991 Kileen, Texas Building Inspection Dept before heading for lunch at Luby’s?

      1. so THAT”s why that guy popped them all…. the inspectors had been harrassing the shooter, so he decided to harrass them.. or more precisely ventilate them.

  16. Business idea: real estate investing in San Francisco.

    1. “Business idea: real estate investing in San Francisco.”
      I know its counter-intuitive, but there are very few investments which have given a rate of return anywhere close to SF RE.
      The government keeps trying to screw it up, but by maintaining ‘rent control’ (inventory reduction) and the insane regulations limiting new construction, the supply is severely restricted.
      Add that to the government’s inability to ruin the visuals of one of the most beautiful locations in the world, and there is simply ‘way more demand than than supply could match in a decade or so.
      (which is what I thought a decade ago, believing the government could not get worse; make that “50 years or so.”)

    2. It could actually be profitable if one makes an investment in obtaining blackmail material about the bureaucrats who might try to gum up the works.

      -jcr

      1. “It could actually be profitable if one makes an investment in obtaining blackmail material about the bureaucrats who might try to gum up the works.”

        Most everyone who comments here regarding SF property values is full of shit. You included.

        1. Fuck you too, sparky.

          -jcr

  17. Meh, it was an ugly house. No loss.

  18. “San Francisco’s clunky bureaucracy will ensure that Johnston’s appeal stretches out for a while. It likely won’t be cheap for him, either.”

    Try; “San Francisco’s egomaniacal and arrogant bureaucracy”

    As with most Democrat controlled Cities, the bureaucracy has never struck an area of life, the Universe, and everything that they considered to be none of their business.

    1. See above. He will, in all likelihood, make a decent return.
      In all the time I’ve been here, I’m pretty sure there has been one guy who managed to lose money in SF property, and if he had hung on, he would have done fine.
      He bought in an ‘underserved’ neighborhood and couldn’t afford the mortgage on the rent he could get; had to bail in a year or so. Taxes and fees ate the income.

  19. What SF needs is another earthquake. Big one.

    1. The home had originally been designed by famed modern architect Richard Neutra

      and the land by Mother Nature.

      1. The solution? Inform the San Francisco Department of Collectivized Central Planning that Neutra was one of those selfish Austrian School architects arrayed against central planning, property taxes, bureaucracy and building codes.

    2. “What SF needs is another earthquake. Big one.”
      Won’t matter.
      After the ’89 quake, the property values rose in the Marina district (where the constantly repeating photos were taken), since it became easier to get remodel permits.
      You guys are all assuming that the north end of a peninsula with the most gorgeous views in the world is subject to the same RE economics as, oh, Reno, NV.
      Even *if* the idiotic SF gov’t disbanded tomorrow, there remains a total of 49 Sq. Mi. to satisfy what seems to be a demand for 490 Sq. Mi.
      Sorry, the market is always right.

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  21. Dominique Francon felt the pounding in her thighs and she twisted her body once in a long convulsion, to feel the earth with her legs, her breasts, the skin of her arms. It was like lying in Roark’s Ross Johnston’s bed.
    The sound was the crack of a fist on the back of her head. She felt the thrust of the earth against her, flinging her up, to her feet, to the edge of the trench. The upper part of the Planning Commission Building had tilted and hung still while a broken streak of sky grew slowly across it.
    = )

  22. Neutra was brilliant. My aunt and uncle commissioned him to design a house in Hollywood back in the 40s, and the government condemned it in order to build a freeway. The house was saved, however, and moved to Pacific Palisades, where it now lives. You can tour it, by appointment, if you’re interested in architecture. It’s a shame something like that didn’t happen in this case.

    No argument: the city of SF is a trainwreck. I live in the Bay Area, and SF has so many serious problems, you’d think the city would focus on those. But it’s still too bad that the Neutra house was lost. I suppose that’s one of the risks of being an architect.

    1. From all accounts, that particular Neutra house was lost years ago.

  23. Surely, the fact that it was a unanimous vote should send a message to everyone that is playing fast and loose that the game is over.

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