by Bruce Mirken

The board of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center Project and preservationists opposed to the CCP's plan to tear down the 100-year-old Fallon Building may be close to a deal to save the structure. A new report suggesting ways to preserve the somewhat rundown but unique Victorian, located at 1800 Market Street, and incorporate it into the planned community center to be built on the site "was enthusiastically received by all parties," according to a document signed by representatives of both sides February 17. Though the full CCP board must still approve the plan, all involved are expressing cautious optimism that the final outcome will make everyone happy.

The change in atmosphere was dramatically in evidence February 23, when CCP board member Barbara French and president Brenda Barnette spoke to a general meeting of Friends of 1800 Market, the grassroots organization formed to try to save the building. While members of the group asked a number of skeptical questions, there was also plenty of loud applause and even hugs as the get-together concluded. Given that just a few months ago the two groups had been bitterly sniping at each other in the press, flinging terms like "elitism" and "homophobic" back and forth, the shift in mood was astonishing.

The CCP's initial evaluation had determined that preserving the building would be far more costly than the project's budget could bear. But at mediation sessions organized by Mayor Willie Brown, representatives of the CCP board, Friends of 1800 Market and the Foundation for San Francisco's Architectural Heritage agreed to a second feasibility study, with respected Jay Turnbull lending his expertise. For the new study, which cost $10,000, "essentially what we did is we went through every part of the Victorian and talked about some of the assumptions we had first made about saving the building in relationship to the programming of the Community Center Project," explained French, who participated in the discussions.

The reevaluation team suggested a number of changes to the original plans, including eliminating the proposed roof deck on the Fallon Building, placing the planned cafe in the new community center structure instead of in the Victorian, and retaining the staircase in its present location on the second and third floors. The changes, French said, reduced the estimated cost of the renovation from $1.8 million to $1.4 million -- still more than the CCP board had originally budgeted but closer to a figure that might be feasible.

The negotiators reviewed the recommendations at their February 17 meeting and the proposal "was received very enthusiastically by all parties, French said. With a potentially workable outline in place, the CCP representatives agreed to send the plan to their executive committee March 7 and have it reviewed by the full board no later than April 15 and possibly as early March 17. In exchange the preservationists agreed to postpone a planned Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board hearing on having the building declared a landmark until the landmarks board's second meeting in April.

At least as important as the details, French added, was that the mood had changed from confrontation to cooperation. "We agreed around the table that the negotiations were going well," she said.

But the deal is far from final yet. The full board must still evaluate the new renovation plan in relation to the center's programming needs," French noted, and "we still have a $500,000 gap" between the current CCP budget and the revised restoration costs. "We have to consider before we make a commitment on the Victorian where we're going to get that money." Other possibilities, including the present Market and Octavia site and moving the project elsewhere, remain on the table.

But despite the continuing uncertainties, French and Barnette got a warm reaction from the Friends meeting. "I think you should get a lot of credit that you're moving in this direction" one speaker said near the end of the presentation, triggering a spontaneous round of applause.

"I honestly think the effort is being made by the Community Center Project and the architects to try to save the building," commented Gary Goad, who represented Friends in the Negotiations. One way or another, he said, "I think the building will be saved."

The turnabout from last November and December, where CCP board members were saying to all who would hear that saving the Fallon Building would sink the entire Community Center Project, was remarkable. "There were a lot of misconceptions on both sides of who each other was and what we wanted," observed Goad. "A lot of that changed when we got together and sat down in a room together and realized we really weren't that far apart in what we wanted." He gave considerable credit to a groundswell of community opinion in favor of saving the building. With that sentiment in the air, Goad said, "The mayor essentially said to the community center board, "Work with these people."

French was a bit more restrained to her evaluation, commenting, "We saw an opportunity to revisit how we were approaching the renovation of the Victorian. We have to be very mindful of safety issues because this is going to be a very high-traffic building. We then realized that within these parameters we could still take a re-look at the Victorian and maybe do things a little differently."

The members of Friends and their allies remain ready to go back into battle mode if the full CCP board balks at the compromise, but Goad is reasonably confident. "There are some minor issues to be worked out, but I think they will be worked out," he said. "I think that everybody involved is optimistic."

copyright 1989, Bruce Mirken

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