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Preservation Battles Rage Nationwide

A debate between preservation and what others consider progress simmers across America.

Just about every city and town has a historic preservation commission that keeps watch over treasured old buildings to be sure they aren't torn down or radically modified. Residents who live in historic districts typically must submit plans to the commission for approval before they're allowed to add a deck or a garage or otherwise change the outside appearance of their homes. And certainly the commission must OK any plan to demolish a historic structure.

But holding on to the past can anger those believe that old buildings are useless relics or eyesores and that modernization is progress.

Nowhere is this battle more pitched than in San Francisco, California, an architecturally rich city of 800,000 people, many of whom are passionate activists about one issue or another. And preservation is one of them.

San Francisco is a liberal place when it comes to politics and lifestyles. But it's ultra-conservative when it comes to holding on to old buildings.

Aaron Peskin, a former president of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, is leading an effort to rewrite the city planning code to ensure that valuable old buildings all over town are saved. Peskin's opponents argue that, as the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper put it, he is trying to stifle construction, hamstring renovations and turn virtually every building into an untouchable historic site.

No, no, Peskin protests. He's not trying to, as he puts it, "shrink wrap" the city. Shrink wrap is a polymer plastic film that, when heated, wraps tightly around precious objects and preserves them.

The preservation debate has been going on for a century in San Francisco, the Chronicle's C. W. Nevius wrote recently. As always, he said, historical advocates like Peskin maintain they are trying to protect the unique architectural feel of the city. That's fine, Nevius continued, but not if it means creating an urban museum.

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.