Recession's Latest Victim: Plans to Restore Old Mint

Categories: Recession Watch
Were local tycoons too cheap to bankroll this?
Nine years after Mayor Willie Brown put in motion a plan to turn the 136-year-old San Francisco's Old Mint at Fifth and Mission Streets into a "21st-century mixed-use cultural center dedicated to the residents and visitors of the Bay Area," the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society is scaling back plans, citing insufficient funds.

Turns out it takes a mint to restore one.

In 2007, the Society announced on its web page they were "asking a select group of community leaders to make lead gifts."

But it seems the tycoons might not have come through with enough money.

"We're looking at re-assessing this project right now to set our sights a little lower," said Society chief operating officer Kurt Nystrom.

Seven years ago, Sens. Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer introduced legislation to authorize a San Francisco Mint commemorative coin to raise money for a restoration project. That same year, the U.S. Treasury transferred the property to San Francisco, with plans to lease the facility to the Museum and Historical Society, which would oversee an ambitious restoration project. Before long the Mint museum would attract 1 million visitors annually.

And why not? The Fifth and Mission Mint is one of the most historically important structures in the west.

"The mint is an unusually significant historic structure," said Debra Frieden, who was project manager on the completed new de Young Museum, and had been a consultant on the Mint project. "Because of both its architecture, and its history in the federal system, as well as it's role in San Francisco history, it's considered one fo the top landmarks in the nation."

According to the Society's Mint website, the fact the Old Mint hasn't yet been restored leaves San Francisco with a cultural black hole:

San Francisco is one of the few major cities in the U.S. without a major institution dedicated to its history and culture. The Mint Project will fill a gap in the city's cultural landscape and give the Bay Area a truly innovative 21st century learning center dedicated to its people, achievements and global impact.

In 2007, when was created, the Society imagined major work would be under way by now.

We have the Momentum
Since acquiring the development rights from the City and County of San Francisco in December of 2006, our progress with the pre-constructions plans (incl. architectural, engineering, and preservation plans) has positioned the project to be 'shovel ready' in 12 months or less. Work completed includes key milestones related to preservation and environmental reviews. Many other important civic projects are not as ready as we are.

According to the project's promotional materials, this down economy is the best time for a vast historical preservation project.

Is now the right time to restore the Mint? It is only appropriate that we address this question. Given the current economic recession, when thousands are struggling to provide just the basics for themselves and their families, should we not postpone the development of the Mint? After exploring the merits of delaying the project, the outcomes suggested otherwise. Our reasons are... Now is the Best Time to Build in years Pricing for construction materials are at their lowest level in years and qualifi ed construction manpower is available. The Mint Project is twelve months away from being "shovelready" and can begin construction immediately upon securing financing. Once inflation resumes the project budget costs will climb.

Alas, there seems to have been at least as much economic friction as momentum associated with the project. The Society has attempted to forge ahead despite the recession, so far paying for about $10  million worth of demolition, seismic work, engineering, and other preliminary work.

Local billionaires seem to be unwilling to fork over the $50 million or so needed to complete the project.

"In these tough economic times, fund-raising is our No. 1 game right now," Nystrom said.

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