Historic Preservation Overview

All about historic preservation in Oakland.

Heritage Property Application Form

Posted: August 31st, 2018 3:44 PM

Last Updated: May 24th, 2023 3:55 PM

Oakland's wealth of historic buildings and neighborhoods is matched by few other California cities. These artifacts reflect the city's rich multicultural history, from earliest times to the present. The materials and workmanship used are impossible or costly to obtain today. Still, they serve as our homes, workplaces, and community centers. How can we protect our historic assets, while moving forward with today's needs?

Historic Preservation Element

In 1994 the City of Oakland adopted a Historic Preservation Element as part of its General Plan. The Element is based on two broad "Goals": to "use historic preservation to foster economic vitality and quality of life" and to "prevent unnecessary destruction of properties of special historical, cultural, and aesthetic value." The Element spells out these goals through policies and actions that govern how the City will treat "Designated Historic Properties" (DHPs: landmarks, districts, and Heritage Properties) and "Potential Designated Historic Properties" (PDHPs).

The City has adopted these policies because it believes historic preservation offers many important benefits:

  • Urban Revitalization
  • Employment opportunities
  • Cost-effective affordable housing
  • Economic development opportunities
  • Community identity and image
  • Educational, cultural, and artistic values.

Landmarks and Preservation Districts

Like most cities, Oakland has a program for officially designating select Landmarks and Preservation Districts. Oakland also has a wealth of historic buildings and neighborhoods matched by few other California cities. To recognize this wide range of historic value, the Historic Preservation Element of the Oakland General Plan, adopted in 1994 and amended in 1998, sets out a graduated system of ratings, designation programs, regulations, and incentives proportioned to each property’s importance.


These are the most prominent historic properties in the city. They may be designated for historical, cultural, educational, architectural, aesthetic, or environmental value. They are nominated by their owners, the City, or the public and are designated after public hearings by the Landmarks Board, Planning Commission, and City Council. Since the program began in 1973 about 140 individual landmarks have been designated, out of nearly 100,000 buildings in Oakland. These buildings, sites, and features range from City Hall to the home of blues legend Brownie McGhee, from the Old Survivor Redwood Tree to the Grand Lake Theater and Roof Sign.

Preservation Districts

Officially designated Preservation Districts are also called S-7 and S-20 Zones. They are areas or neighborhoods that are recognized for the same values as individual Landmarks, and they are nominated and designated in the same way, usually with active neighborhood participation. There are currently nine designated districts containing about 1500 buildings. They include Preservation Park, Old Oakland-Victorian Row, and the Bellevue-Staten Apartment District along Lake Merritt in Adams Point, and Sheffield Village. Also included are Oak Center Historic District and 7th Street Commercial District in West Oakland.

Local Register of Historic Resources

In 1998 the City Council amended the Preservation Element to create a category called Local Register of Historical Resources. This is a list that recognizes the city's most important buildings and districts, whether or not they have been designated by the Landmarks Board. Oakland has this information in detailed citywide survey work and research conducted by the Planning Department. The term Local Register is used in State law to identify buildings covered by the State Historical Building Code and California Environmental Quality Act. In Oakland it applies to properties with Survey ratings of A ("highest importance") or B ("major importance") or in Areas of Primary Importance (areas that appear eligible for the National Register of Historic Places as districts). It also includes all Landmarks, Preservation Districts, Study List and Heritage Properties. About 2,600 buildings, roughly the top 3%, have this level of importance.

Preservation Study List / Heritage Properties

The Landmarks Board maintains a Preservation Study List of properties that are likely Landmark candidates, or that are placed on the Study List because there is concern about their preservation. There are about 400 properties on the Study List. The proposed zoning changes will replace the Study List with a new, formal designation called Heritage Property. Within two years, all Study List properties will be reviewed for possible Heritage Property designation. Other properties will be eligible for nomination if they have at least a C ("secondary") rating or could contribute to a preservation district. Heritage Property can be considered a less exclusive form of Landmark designation, with less extensive regulations and incentives.

Potential Designated Historic Property ("PDHP")

This is the broadest definition of "historic" under the Preservation Element. PDHP, like Local Register, is a description, not a designation. It is a category based on Planning Department survey ratings. The ratings report what the survey has found throughout Oakland, on a scale of A ("highest importance") through E ("of no particular interest"). The City considers any property that has at least a potential rating of C ("secondary importance") or could contribute to a potential primary or secondary district to "warrant consideration for possible preservation." To recognize the importance of neighborhood character and highlight restoration opportunities, this is a very inclusive category. About a fifth to a quarter of Oakland's buildings are considered to have at least some minimal historic value.

The Mills Act

The Mills Act assists property owners in reaping the benefits of historic rehabilitation and preservation. It can reduce taxes for historic properties if the owners volunteer to repair and maintain the historic character of their property.

For more information, download the Mills act brochure:

  • Mills Act Calculator
    Property owners should consult legal counsel and/or a financial adviser before entering into a Mills Act agreement. The city makes no warranties or representations about the accuracy or validity of the Mills Act Property Tax Calculator - it is merely an information tool that applicants may use (at their sole risk), which does not substitute/replace legal counsel or a financial adviser.


The Oakland Cultural Heritage Survey (OCHS) is a general survey of every visible building in Oakland. It contains estimates on building age and possible historical or architectural interest. The survey also includes detailed research and evaluation for many specific buildings and neighborhoods. The OCHS staff maintain:

  • an extensive library of information on historic properties and districts in Oakland
  • Oakland Historic Property listings

A reconnaissance or "windshield survey" of the entire city was completed in 1997. Field surveyors from the City Planning Department drove every street and rated every visible building with a preliminary estimate of its age and its possible historical or architectural interest. In addition, many buildings and neighborhoods have been researched and evaluated in more detail ("intensive survey") by the Planning Department's Cultural Heritage Survey project. All this information is available to the public as well as to city staff.

For more information or to view the survey, contact Betty Marvin, Planner at the Oakland Cultural Heritage Survey, (510) 238-6879 or visit the Historical and Architectural Rating System page.