Neighbors fight to make dilapidated development site a landmark

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Building a better Bay Area sometimes literally takes building, especially when it comes to new housing. But to make homes in San Francisco, developers face a debate with the people who already live nearby.

The plan is to turn the site of an old plant nursery on Woolsey Street, in the city's Portola neighborhood, into housing. The old greenhouses haven't been used in more than 25 years, but neighbors aren't ready to see them torn down.

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Neighbors want to make the property a historic landmark. But the developer says there's a way to honor its history while meeting the need for housing.

The land, with its dilapidated buildings, may not look like much. But to Elisa Laird-Metke and her neighbors, it's irreplaceable.

"The neighborhood actually loves this sort of beautiful decay," Laird-Metke says. "We don't want it to stay in a state of decay we want to make something new and better but retain what's here-- the history."

The Garibaldi Nursery is the last left of more than 20 local Italian and Italian-American nurseries in the Portola District. In 2012, Laird-Metke and other neighbors started a campaign to buy the property and turn it into a community park, farm and flower garden.

They couldn't come up with the money and in 2017, a developer bought it for $7.5 million with plans for a 63 unit housing development. Now, neighbors have applied to make this a historic landmark.

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"It is historic," Laird-Metke says. "It's a piece of history and it's the last one standing in the whole city. And so for that reason, I feel important to have that recognized by the city."

Eric Tao is developing the site and says his company, L37 Partners, always tries to honor the history of a site it develops in San Francisco.

"What's great about the city is there so much history a rich history and diversity, Tao says. "So we try to maintain elements of that for a new generation, and they're always going to be new generations. We need housing. They can have something that ties into the past and it ties them deeper and I think it makes him more committed and feel a part of San Francisco."

He wants to dedicate part of the site to preserve its history while adding much-needed housing. He plans for 20 percent of the units to be affordable.

"I think it's more powerful if we can actually use the funds that were used to raise for housing to create a historical memory of that use than to try to convert this back to some type of farm that's hard to say can't be viable," Tao says. "Especially with the toxic hazardous materials on the ground."

Tao says there were fewer regulations when the nursery operated, and it used a fair amount of pesticides.

"In the ground where there's a fair amount of DDT and other hazardous materials that will need to be cleaned up and will cost a fair amount of money," Laird-Metke.

He hopes his company and neighbors can find a compromise.

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"We're very proud of our agricultural heritage here in the Portola so losing it would be a devastating blow," Laird-Metke says. "It's definitely a David and Goliath battle there's no question. Big developers with a lot of money versus a little neighborhood. Were very blue-collar, we're not rich down here. But we believe in our history and that matters.

Neighbors say their vision is to restore these greenhouses and make this a commercial farm that could grow flowers and produce to sell to local restaurants.

And also have education space for kids and teens.

This is still the beginning of the process. The first of three hearings to determine landmark status will be Wednesday at 12:30 pm.

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