Friends of 1800 Market, the group formed to save the historic Victorian that the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center Project board wants to remove to make way for a new community center building, is ratcheting up its campaign to rescue the structure. The largely gay-organized group rented the billboard on the Octavia Street side of the building (directly facing southbound traffic on Market) and on Nov. 10 put up a messenger appealing to the community to save the building, the only one on Market to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire.
Meanwhile, a recent flap over an inflammatory answering machine message left by one opponent of the demolition appeared to be less of an issue than some recent media reports had suggested.
The billboard, which reads, "SAVE THIS BUILDING! Help Fight the Demolition" and lists the Friends of 1800 Market phone number, was given a public unveiling at a Nov. 11 press conference at which members of the group were joined by two former members of the city's Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board as well as Supervisor Leland Yee. Yee advocated cooperation, urging everyone involved to "take a step back and see how we're going to work together. We've got to make it happen as a total community." But he also made it clear his sympathies lie with the preservationists, saying, "It's important to do all we can to help save this building."
Denise LaPointe, who served on the Landmarks board until August, noted that $1.1 million in city funds have gone into acquisition of the site and declared, "That's our money, and our spending should be on preservation, not demolition. The gay community has been at the forefront of historic preservation in San Francisco. Stay there!"
About 45 supporters of preserving the building attended the press conference, as did Community Center Project board members Mark Leno and Scott Shafer, who attempted at times to argue with the preservationists. At one point Leno accused one of the speakers of "spreading disinformation."
Shafer handed out a press release reiterating the CCP's arguments against preserving the building as part of the center and offering to sell the structure for one dollar to anyone interested in relocating it. As evidence of community support for the board's position, he gave reporters copies of a petition of the project, which he said had been gathered in "just a short time."
But though the petition specifies support of "a new Community Center at 1800 Market Street," signers may not have understood that their signatures would be taken as support for removal of the historic structure now there. The Bay Times called several signatories and the only one we reached-who asked that her name not be published-seemed surprised to hear that there was a controversy. "Maybe the guy with the petition wasn't clear on what he wanted us to support," she said. "All he did was come in and say, "I'm with the new gay and lesbian community center. It's coming and we'd like to have your support.'"
The billboard is just one part of a multi-pronged campaign by the group, which drew at least 50 people to its second meeting on Oct. 29. Besides an ongoing signature and phone-calling drive, Friends members are preparing to take their case to the Landmarks board on Nov. 19, hoping to secure landmark status for the building. According to organizer Tom Mayer, the group has hired a historian document the structure's history in order to make the case for landmarking the building.
While landmark status would not necessarily prevent demolition, it would slow the process down. The board is expected to take some time to consider the issue, with both sides getting a chance to make their case. Community Center Project board spokesperson Scott Shafer said the CCP will present its arguments, "but we're not overreacting to it. There haven't been a lot of buildings landmarked in recent years. There are a lot of Victorians in better shape than the one at 1800 Market that haven't been landmarked."
Meanwhile, Shafer and the CCP board went on the counteroffensive over an angry message apparently left by demolition opponent Jim Siegel on the telephone answering machine of his former lover, Jeff Leiphart, who, Siegel says, is friends with many supporters of the project.
"I think [Siegel] appears to be one of the leaders of a group that's opposing the decision of the board," Shafer commented. "Obviously he is a little unbalanced and threatening, and I think we need to take that seriously."
The message in question was indeed hostile, with Siegel saying he was "at war" with the board and that he'd contacted American Express, a potential major donor to the project, to urge them to withhold funding if the board insists on demolishing the building. He declared that "People with AIDS will be chained to the building with T-shirts saying 'American Express sucks'" when the bulldozers arrive, and that other potential supporters such as Jim Hormel would also face pickets.
Shafer-who recently served as spokesperson for the No on Go campaign, which blitzed San Francisco voters right before the Nov. 4 election with mailings viciously attacking Prop. G sponsor Tom Ammiano-faxed a transcript of the message to the Bay Times and other media outlets. Shafer's fax referred to the recipient only as "an HIV prevention director in San Francisco," omitting any mention of his personal relationship with Siegel.
The story was picked up by both the Examiner and the Bay Area Reporter. The BAR story, headlined, "Quest to Save Victorian Gets Ugly" was particularly rough on Siegel, accusing him of "spewing anger and rage," and having an "obsession" that was giving the campaign "nasty, personal tones."
Siegel said he left the message after a meeting of the CCP board. "I was furious," he acknowledged. "I was mad because we had been do disrespected. I get passionate about these causes I believe in." Siegel admitted that he can be "a hothead," but the message, he insisted, was a personal one for his ex-lover and not intended to be made public. He said he explained this to BAR reporter Cynthia Laird, who didn't mention it in her story.
Asked about the message and why he made it public, Leiphart said flatly, "I am completely uninterested in talking about this"-and then, after the fact, tried to declare the whole conversation off the record.
Mayer also objected to the BAR's story, calling it "breathtakingly inaccurate" for asserting that public comments the night the board voted for demolition were "basically split for and against" saving the building, when in fact 25 people spoke for preservation and only 7 argued for demolition. He noted pointedly that the paper had surrounded the piece slamming Siegel with two stories plugging CCP fund-raisers, while the same issue carried a full-page CCP ad.
BAR editor Mike Salinas acknowledged there were notable omissions in Laird's piece, but said that "everyone made significant assertions that didn't get into the story." He argued that the answering machine message was indeed news and added, "I don't have an axe to grind one way or another. I don't know about advertising and I've never aimed a story one way or the other regarding advertising. I had no idea the community center was taking out an ad. It's well known in the community that the publisher of this paper is dead set against the Community Center Project."
Siegel said he has decided he may be "a little too militant" for Friends of 1800 Market, and that while he will continue to support that group's efforts, he plans to start his own organization called San Francisco First, which aims to defend the building as well as pursue a broader agenda in opposition to chain stores and high-rise development in San Francisco's neighborhoods. Siegel claimed to have gotten half a dozen calls of support after the BAR story ran, including an offer of assistance from members of Earth First!
The group's first action, he announced at the Nov. 11 press conference, would be to start a pledge drive seeking funds to preserve the 1800 Market structure. Siegel offered $50,000 of his own money to start the fund, and a second speaker, Dennis Richards, promptly pledged a $1,000 donation.
Siegel told the Bay Times he had a conversation with Shafer in which Shafer had hinted there may be some room for compromise in the board's position. But for public consumption Shafer would only say that "as part of the environmental impact report we must and we will look at all the options. We're not at the end of this process, we're really at the beginning."
But the only specific idea for which he voiced any enthusiasm was the idea of selling the building to someone who would move it elsewhere for preservation. Shafer listed strong objections to another compromise suggestion: That the CCP sell the Victorian and build a larger new structure on the remainder of the property. "We would be left with having to build a much taller building, which no doubt others in the neighborhood would object to," he argued, adding "a vertical building really changes the character" of a structure, leading to "a claustrophobic feeling, potentially." Also, "I think most architects would tell you that one of the most important things about that site is having the corner, and you give up a lot if you lose that."
copyright 1997, Bruce Mirken