Judge Halts UCSF Construction
The plan to increase its size by the equivalent of two Transamerica Pyramids in the middle of two overcrowded neighborhoods has neighbors on edge
Judge Frank Roesch, of Alameda Superior Court has ordered all construction activity on UCSF’s plan to balloon itself by 50% at its Parnassus campus halted, not because it is inconsiderate of its neighbors, not because it violates its agreement to contain its current envelope limits, nor because it infringes on the existing natural area it abuts. Nope, it’s because Toland Hall, which it seeks to demolish, contains an historically significant WPA mural, which may not be movable. Bernard Zakheim, a student of Diego Rivera, and his assistant Phyllis Wrightson painted the murals, fresco style—directly into the wet plaster walls of Toland Hall from 1935 to 1938, which murals, UCSF itself concluded, after consultation with two historic preservation firms, could not be moved because “20 to 30%” would be irreparably damaged.
The temporary restraining order granted to San Franciscans for Balanced and Livable Communities (SFBLC) halts the project while a separate lawsuit questioning that project's environmental impacts plays out.
Three lawsuits have been brought by neighborhood groups under a state law, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), that allows third parties to sue if they believe the environmental impacts of a project haven't been studied enough. CEQA requires government agencies to study the environmental impacts of projects including everything from traffic and air quality to the effects on historic resources.
Prior to the current plan to move the murals, UCSF had previously planned to demolish the mural along with the building to make way for construction of a replacement building.
Toland Hall has served as a lecture room within UC Hall a 104-year-old building that the university says is seismically unsafe and the murals have been used as a teaching aid, studied by hundreds of thousands of doctors and medical workers for over 80 years. (Apart from the 20-year period when they were wallpapered over, because a professor objected that they were “distracting.” See below for more information about the murals.)
Looming Construction Overwhelms Local Neighborhood
While there is considerable agreement about the murals, it is the decision by the Regents to construct an immense building to replace UC Hall that remains the strongest dispute among neighbors.
San Franciscans for Balanced and Livable Communities The petition that restrains UCSF’s project, San Franciscans for Balanced and Livable Communities v The Regents of the Univ. of CA, et al, requests that UCSF “complete adequate environmental review of the Project’s environmental effects.” The SFBLC petition complains that UCSF’s CEQA Environmental Impact Report (EIR) does not adequately study the effects on housing, transit, air quality, and neighborhood aesthetics — as well as any potential harm to wildlife in the nearby Mount Sutro Forest.
“This is still at a very early stage of the litigation,” said former Planning Commissioner Dennis Antenore, a neighbor of the Parnassus project and member of SFBLC, “until now we have been met with an impregnable wall of arrogance. We hope that we are beginning to get their attention. UCSF treats neighborhood issues and concerns with cynical lip service, all the while presenting a public face of concern and paying attention. This project represents a repudiation of decades of promises and commitments to the community. They intend to add some 2 million square feet of space, almost doubling its size, to a site that is in the middle of two established neighborhoods. UCSF has for decades repeatedly promised and committed to “decompressing” this crowded site. While pretending to listen to and consider neighborhood concerns in their planning, they adopted a plan and then presented it to the community. There are numerous issues including the lack of affordable housing for its workforce, and an overly burdened transportation system, which is at times dysfunctional. Not to mention the fact that it will cast significant shadows over Golden Gate Park, including the baseball diamonds at Big Rec, Kezar Stadium and an important park nursery. In addition, it would cast shadows over a playground, two schools and entire portions of both the Inner Sunset and Cole Valley Neighborhoods. We hope this small victory is a step towards being listened to.”
Two other public interest groups have filed to stop the project as it is currently designed.
The Parnassus Neighborhood Coalition and housing activist Calvin Welch filed a petition seeking to enforce an agreement the regents made with neighbors in 1976 for a permanent ceiling on the size of the Parnassus campus at 3.55 million square feet, an agreement that resolved a lawsuit brought by its neighbors. That agreement was reiterated in UCSF’s 2014 Long Range Development Plan that envisioned no significant increase in campus size.
“Euphemistically referred to as a ‘revitalization,’ the Project proposes a dramatic increase in development density at the Parnassus Heights Campus - including development of approximately 2.9 million gross square feel of new building space at Parnassus Heights. The total amount of campus space at Parnassus Heights upon full implementation of the CPHP [Comprehensive Parnassus Heights Plan] would be 6.0 million gsf,” the Coalition petition attests. “This 6.0 million gsf flagrantly violates the Regents’ permanent development space ceiling of 3.55 million square feet for the Parnassus Heights Campus (“Space Ceiling”). The Space Ceiling was a part of the bargained-for exchange back in 1976, and has been repeatedly affirmed by the Regents (to their benefit) and relied upon by others for decades.
CEQA mandates ... that “the key question and first step” in analysis of alternate sites is whether any of a projects’ significant effects “would be avoided or substantially lessened by putting the project in another location.”
“The Regents compound the CPHP’s harm to the community by preparing and certifying an Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”) that fails to disclose the CPHP’s significant impacts, provide adequate mitigation measures, and analyze all feasible project alternatives, among other detects. Thus, in certifying the EIR and approving the CPHP, the Regents prejudicially abused their discretion and failed to proceed in the manner required by law…”
Yerba Buena Neighborhood Consortium also filed a petition to stop the expansion, which also discredits the EIR “… failed to identify and adequately analyze potentially-feasible mitigation measures and potentially-feasible alternatives, including locating a portion of the Parnassus Plan off-site as suggested by the Consortium and others.” John Eberling, Director of the consortium indicated four locations as better alternatives for the expansion: Mission Bay hospital, at one of four sites: Pier 70, the Potrero Power Plant, Candlestick Point or Mission Rock, near Oracle Park. “All four of these very large master planned projects are in early/planning stages of development and could be readily modified to fully accommodate expanded UCSF development of this scale and meet fundamental project objectives… All four of these sites are inarguably environmentally superior because they are much closer to the Mission Bay campus and directly connect to it by the existing MUNI Metro Third Street route that has far more potential capacity than is now being utilized. UCSF expansion would be accommodated by supplanting and replacing an equal amount of the commercial development currently-proposed on any of these four sites. There would be little or no net new environmental impacts at the four existing development sites, and the very significant environmental impacts of net new development at the constrained Parnassus Heights campus would be avoided. CEQA mandates no less: Guidelines section 15126.6 (f)(2) pronounces that “the key question and first step” in analysis of alternate sites is whether any of a project's significant effects "would be avoided or substantially lessened by putting the project in another location. Otherwise, the current UCSF proposal in Parnassus Heights is absolutely insane.”
Supervisor Myrna Melgar told the Westside Observer: “there are still many issues with the project that UCSF needs to work out. They need to listen to the neighbors and their concerns, and I hope they understand their questions around CEQA and I encourage them to listen to neighbors.”
However, she added, “the 1976 agreement with neighbors is not an issue that I am pushing. 1976 is a long time ago, I did not even live here then. Medicine has changed a good deal since then. Most people were visiting their own doctors, not anything like it is now, and there are fewer hospitals in the City then there were in ‘76. I do not support moving services to Mission Bay because UCSF is the only hospital on the West side, and we need to be sure it is sustainable.
Dennis Antenore, a long-time member of the Community Advisory Group to UCSF, was not persuaded that the 1976 agreement was not binding. “The university has planned for well over a decade to seismically retrofit UC Hall and convert it to housing. Most recently, this was confirmed in 2014 Long Range Development Plan, which was only amended in February. Under those plans the murals would be left totally intact within a preserved Tolland Hall. Tolland Hall itself is also an important historic resource.
“For many decades the University has acknowledged the binding nature of the "space ceiling" of 3.55 million square. Most recently, the 2014 Long Range Development Plan provided for a replacement hospital at the same time as setting forth the actions it would take to comply with the ceiling. That acknowledgment was arbitrarily repudiated in February without any real analysis of the issue.”
Preserve the Zakheim Murals
“How does a significant piece of public art” Jewish Weekly asks, “go from being the “jewel of the University’s art collection” to a work designated for the wrecking ball in just five years?”
“The creation of the murals was one of the New Deal's first Federal Arts Projects,” SF Historical Society’s Lorri Ungaretti said, they tell ‘The History of Medicine in California,’ with 5 murals depicting events in northern California and 5 in southern California. ‘The History of Medicine in California’ is one of only a few frescoes created in the Bay Area. Bernard Zakheim's murals show often difficult aspects of medicine—including quackery, early forms of health and health care, amputation, autopsy, and more—and show actual Californians who contributed to medicine in the early days of this state.”
Ungaretti's You Tube Presentation discusses the Zakheim murals in detail and includes dialogue with Nathan Zakheim and Dr. Robert Sherins, who wrote a History of Medicine In California, Articulated in Frescoes. The Story Behind the Murals of Cole and Toland Halls available as a illustrated PDF. The Westside Observer is grateful for their contributions to this article.
Excerpt from San Francisco Chronicle Herb Caen column
“A few weeks ago, Artist Bernard Zakheim’s huge murals in the U.C. Med School on Parnassus were ordered covered with wallpaper, because they were allegedly distracting students. The famed Dr. Howard Nafziger, one of the medicos who ordered the wallpapering, asked a classroom of 60 students, which they preferred: the mural or plain wallpaper. Fifty-six voted for the mural. But, the wallpaper will stay where it is. ‘We were just curious,’ said Dr Nafziger.
‘HE is curious?’
Dr. Lynch, among others unhappy about the wallpapering, remarked at the time: ‘My God! That’s what we want! We want them to have something to come back to in twenty or thirty years, something they’ll remember, and want to come back for.’
‘I want the students’ undivided attention,’ said Dr. Nafziger.
On June 18, 1964, the immutable Chronicler, Herb Caen, again reported:
‘The Journal of the American Medical Association convention reproduced on its cover one of artist Bernard Zakheim’s frescoes in Toland hall in the U.C. Med Center, a belated tribute.’
Back in 1948, Zakheim painted ten striking and expensive frescoes in the lecture hall, which certain powerful medics led by the late Dr Howard Nafziger, found ‘too distracting.’ Despite protests by the artists’ community, four of them were covered with wallpaper, behind which they remain covered to this day. As for Zakheim, who now lives in Sebastopol, he has had a tough time of it ever since. ‘All of a sudden,’ he says, ‘nobody had a job for a controversial frescoe painter.’
The artist, Bernard Zakheim, recorded a medical history of the west in the Toland Hall murals, reminiscent of [Diego] Rivera’s. One panel illustrates the chaotic condition of medicine as it was practiced in the San Francisco of those years; Dr. Elbert P. Jones (for whom Jones Street is named); Dr. Townsend opens the first San Francisco medical office in 1846; Dr. Fourgeaud, another of the early physician-pioneers and his family; Dr. Clappe amputates miner’s leg while another pours whiskey for anesthesia; Dr. Toland on horseback, with saddle bags bulging and plans in hand for his Medical School; Dr. Willis shoots drunken Dr. Hullings for tearing up his diploma.
UCSF Proposes Destruction of the Murals
In a letter to Nathan Zakheim, a descendant of the artist, UCSF wrote “UCSF has decided not to use public funds to physically preserve the murals, especially at a time when the UC system faces financial challenges in the wake of Covid-19. This decision in no way has to do with any complaints about the murals.” They estimated that removing the murals would cost $8 million and offered the family a 90-day period to make a proposal to save the murals at their own expense.
Board of Supervisors Intervenes
“This is the beginning of what is going to be a lengthy process,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin said, “hopefully to confer landmark designation, which in this instance is honorific, unlike landmark designations on other properties in San Francisco and I want to be clear about this: the State of California, the University of California … is not subject to our local laws, but I believe that these incredible, radical, 10-part murals, frescos deserve that level of honor, deserve that protection.”
Though Supervisor Melgar supports the projected expansion itself, she said, “I want the murals to come back on campus, they are a part of the history, I made a request that UCSF reconsider their plan to move them, though I support what UCSF is planning to do to make the hospital and campus more usable.”
The Supervisors unanimously approved a resolution on July 31, 2020 requesting “…the Planning Department prepare a Landmark Designation Report to submit to the Historic Preservation Commission for its consideration of the special historical, architectural, and aesthetic interest and value of Zakheim’s History of Medicine in California frescoes.” The Historical Preservation Commission heard the matter on August 19, 2020 and unanimously “Adopted a Recommendation for Landmark Designation as amended that the murals remain together on Parnassus.”
The fate of the murals, as well as the quiet Inner Sunset neighborhood where they live lies in the breach.
Doug Comstock lives near the Parnassus campus and also serves as Editor of the Westside Observer.