Noe Valley Voice July-August 2006

Developer Throws in the Towel on 39 Chattanooga Street

By Corrie M. Anders

For four years, a modest Noe Valley home built during San Francisco's infancy has been the flashpoint in an intense battle between a neighborhood developer and local preservationists.

But last month, John Williams abandoned his effort to transform the dilapidated 19th-century cottage at 39 Chattanooga Street into a residential complex four times the size of the original building. He sold the property in a deal that closed escrow June 20.

"Life's too short," said Williams, a resident of Elizabeth Street. "I spent years trying to make something happen there...but I just found the neighbors very difficult to work with."

Williams' decision to walk away from the project surprised members of the Save 39 Chattanooga organization, an ad-hoc group of neighbors and preservationists that had waged a public relations and political fight to protect the home's heritage.

"We had been working with the developer, trying to work out a compromise," said playwright/performer Charlie Varon, a Save 39 member who lives next door to the Victorian home. "We thought we had been getting pretty close to one."

Neglect and time have taken a toll on the 986-square-foot, two-bedroom home, which may be one of the oldest houses in Noe Valley--and perhaps in San Francisco. City records indicate the two-story structure was built sometime between the late 1850s and early 1860s, when Noe Valley was a sparsely populated countryside.

Even in its present decrepit condition, a buyer paid $902,000 for the property--well above the $749,000 asking price--according to Zephyr Real Estate agent Dianne O'Connell. "There's a lot of upside potential in that site," explained O'Connell, who had promoted the vacant home as a "rare opportunity to rescue a historic Victorian fixer."

Restoration was far from Williams' vision when he spent $681,000 to purchase the property in March 2002. He announced his intention to tear down the small home, which featured a gable roof and a false-front parapet, in order to build a larger, two-unit dwelling.

Williams learned about the home's pedigree soon after his purchase. With his demolition plan facing strong opposition from neighbors and city officials, Williams came up with a half-dozen alternatives that would retain all or part of the cottage and allow him to build a spacious addition.

He was still in talks with preservationists earlier this year. But after $120,000 in carrying costs and various fees, Williams said neighborhood opposition had turned the venture into "a losing proposition."

The historic aspect of the building was a "very convenient handle with which to pitch all sorts of roadblocks," Williams said. "I've got some neighbors who don't want anything built in front of their windows."

The new owner's plans for the property were not immediately known.

"We're hearing it's an individual who wants to live in it rather than a developer," said Varon. "We're hopeful the new owner will preserve the building."