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Judge blocks removal of historic murals at UC San Francisco

Painted by Polish-born artist Bernard Zakheim in the late 1930s, the “History of Medicine in California” murals are housed in a 104-year-old building that the university says is seismically unsafe.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — A state court this week blocked the University of California, San Francisco, from removing a set of Depression-era murals from a historic campus building as part of a massive expansion project being challenged in three separate lawsuits.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch ordered the school on Monday to stop moving forward with its plan to relocate 10 New Deal-era murals from a century-old campus building slated to be replaced.

“It means that our clients’ remedies are being preserved at least until the court can rule on a preliminary injunction,” said attorney Patrick Soluri, who represents the Parnassus Neighborhood Coalition, one of three groups suing to stop the project.

Soluri, of the firm Soluri Meserve in Sacramento, said officials at UCSF refused to delay removing the murals until after the court renders a decision on his clients’ motion for a preliminary injunction. A hearing on that motion is scheduled for Sept. 16.

“It’s unfortunate that we were forced to spend the court’s resources analyzing this issue and putting together papers when all UC had to do was agree to a three-week delay, but UC was unwilling to do that,” Soluri said.

In a statement Tuesday, UCSF said the temporary restraining order only applies to its work to remove and relocate the murals. It does not affect its broader work to modernize its Parnassus Heights campus.

"The murals must be removed from [their] current location because the building in which it is housed is seismically unsound and must be replaced," a UCSF spokesperson said.

UCSF also argued that it was "disingenuous" for the Parnassus Neighborhood Coalition to claim there has been inadequate public engagement and discussion regarding the murals. The school said the mural relocation work was discussed in public meetings, testimony before the San Francisco Planning Commission and in a draft environmental impact report for its comprehensive modernization plan.

The “History of Medicine in California” murals were painted by Polish-born artist Bernard Zakheim, a Diego Rivera collaborator, in the late 1930s. They were painted directly on the plaster walls of an auditorium in Toland Hall, a 104-year-old building that UCSF says is seismically unsafe and needs to be replaced.

Last year, the school hired RG Conservation Services (ARG/CS), a San Francisco-based contractor that specializes in historic preservation, to remove and relocate the large, curved murals, some of which are brittle and have suffered water damage.

“There was no guarantee this effort to cut the murals from the building would be successful,” Soluri said, adding that the court had to consider potential damage or destruction of the artwork as a factor weighing in favor of a temporary pause.

In February, three neighborhood groups filed separate lawsuits against the University of California Board of Regents and UCSF in Alameda County Superior Court to halt the ambitious expansion project. They argue the school’s 30-year comprehensive plan to modernize its Parnassus Heights campus will drive up housing costs and clog streets in the “very constrained” Inner Sunset neighborhood.

UCSF introduced the plan to add roughly 2 million square feet to its already 4 million square-foot Parnassus Heights campus in 2018. The project is estimated to cost $3 billion and take three decades to complete.

Along with roughly 1,200 units of student and faculty housing, the development plan will replace a nearly 70-year-old hospital that no longer meets California’s seismic code and must be retrofitted or decommissioned for inpatient care by 2030.

Groups suing over the project include San Franciscans for Balanced and Livable Communities, the Parnassus Neighborhood Coalition and the Yerba Buena Neighborhood Consortium. They are demanding a full environmental review of the project to determine its effect on housing, transit, air quality, and neighborhood aesthetics — as well as any potential harm to wildlife in the nearby Mount Sutro Forest.

Soluri said a prior environmental review did not adequately examine the health impacts of construction noise and emissions in close proximity to homes.

The Parnassus Neighborhood Coalition also seeks to enforce an agreement the regents made in 1976 to permanently cap the size of the Parnassus Heights campus at 3.55 million square feet.

“This comprehensive Parnassus Heights plan is the first attempt by the regents since 1976 to repudiate that enforceable promise,” Soluri said. “We need to obtain an injunction to preserve the status quo.”

The neighborhood group further argues that the plan will demolish historically and culturally significant buildings that are eligible for listing on the California Register of Historic Resources. UCSF argues the buildings are unsafe and need to be replaced.

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