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Los Rios district struggles with modernity and preservation in San Juan Capistrano

Walk south on Los Rios Street and to the right is the Ramos House Cafe, a restaurant and home owned by John Humphreys. To the left is The Tea House, a cafe run by the Niccola family, who also live on the property.

Up and down the street are homes and businesses, often blended in one location.

The Los Rios Historic District mandates that property owners live in their centuries-old houses if they operate a business from them. The rule, put into place years ago by the San Juan Capistrano City Council, might seem like overreach even in a county where some cities dictate the color of houses and the look of yards.

The rule was enacted to maintain the old-timey and homey quality of an area that has gotten, according to some, over-commercialized. It was also believed that forced occupancy would give the owners the added impetus to preserve deteriorating structures.

If residents are complaining, though, it's about the people who flout the rule by having stand-in tenants or seeking an exemption.

Resident Stephen Rios admits he gets upset when business people want to set up shop but don't want to abide by the requirement that they live in the area, where tourists and noise from passing trains can seem overwhelming at times.

The buildings, framed against the backdrop of Mission San Juan Capistrano, remind visitors of times past, when life moved more slowly, agriculture was the force of the local economy and European, Mexican and Native American cultures prevailed together.

Los Rios neighborhood, which in 1983 was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, grew up as the home of Native Americans who built and worked at the mission. It's a tribute to the history not only of San Juan but of Orange County.

The area near the railroad depot has gone through the hard times of any city — though no one wants to go on record as saying it was seedy — and now seems to be a gleaming tourist mecca, which is a boon to the city but often an annoyance to the district's residents.

It was a quiet neighborhood, Rios remembered, up until six or seven years ago. But then foot traffic increased as Los Rios Street underwent gentrification, with homeowners better maintaining dwellings and visitors traveling to the street to learn more about early California history and visit local attractions.

But the battle between modernity and convenience versus preservation goes back years. At one point, the city proposed taking out a few homes in the district to widen Los Rios Street, the main road through the district, for easier access to Oso Parkway, but people objected. The street was protected after the San Juan council declared the 40-acre area a special district that needed to be "protected and preserved for posterity," according to the Los Rios Specific Plan, dated October 1974.

"It was recognizing that Los Rios was beautiful and fragile and in need of protection," Rios said. "That was the genesis."

Back then, two to three homes in the neighborhood operated small businesses, selling bread, sodas and tortillas. There are considerably more now among the 40 structures.

Visitors to the picturesque area may fill the city coffers quite nicely, but they have gotten to be too much at times for district residents. And now there is talk of building a mixed-use development of retail and offices.

Rios and a group of the neighborhood residents have taken a few matters into their hands in upholding their privacy rights in the Los Rios district, but they still must defer to the municipality.

"Los Rios neighborhood is part of the city of San Juan Capistrano, so that's where the governance lies," said Chris Jepsen, assistant archivist at Orange County Archives.

John Humphreys, owner of the Ramos House Cafe, has made signs reading, "Attention photographers: You are standing in front of a private home and you are disturbing us. Kindly, ply your trade elsewhere."

He and Rios said they don't mind tourists snapping pictures, but they are fed up with the disturbances caused by commercial photographers who pull wagons carrying their equipment and take pictures in front of homes and businesses at all hours of the day.

"I love my house but I would rather want a quiet condo than a charming photo booth," said Humphreys. "They're just like paparazzi."

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Adapting policies

In 1997, the San Juan City Council initiated an update to the specific plan to address emerging issues including over-commercialization, preservation of residential character, demand for parking facilities, traffic congestion and central park area land use.

The challenge for the residents and businesses of Los Rios, the plan said, was to allow the district to evolve and adapt to changing conditions without losing the area's essence.

To save deteriorating historically significant structures, the district mandated residential occupancy with any small-scale commercial use.

But over the years, the city allowed a specific plan amendment to The Lupe Combs House, which sits at Los Rios and Verdugo streets and once housed a gift shop.

The shop was the first business permitted to vary from the residency requirement because, first and foremost, the City Council wanted to save the 500-square-foot Combs house, which is positioned alongside the railroad tracks, former Mayor David M. Swerdlin told the Times in 1997.

"When you have a home right on the tracks and 28 or 30 trains going by every day, it's not my intention to have government tell someone they have to live there," Swerdlin was quoted as saying.

In 1997, another exemption was granted.

The City Council approved plans for an extension to the Rodman House on Los Rios Street, which was a teahouse operating with a limited liquor license, while also allowing owners Allan and Claudia Niccola to renovate and move the historical "Buddy" Forster house from its site off Ortega Highway in San Juan Capistrano to the Los Rios property so the couple could live there.

When approving the plans for the restaurant, the council expressed concerns about the sale of alcohol in the district.

To ease the council's concerns, the Niccolas agreed to a two-drink maximum at their teahouse, which serves only wine and Champagne.

This did not bode well for Monica Mukai, owner of the Hummingbird House Cafe, also known as the Lupe Combs House. In 2013, when she asked the city if she could sell alcohol, her proposal was rejected, since the Ramos House Cafe and the Tea House sold beer and wine because they had obtained permits under a 1995 ordinance that was rescinded the following year.

City Councilman Sam Allevato said allowing more businesses to serve beer and wine would add to the commercialism and not be in keeping with the wholesome character of the area, according to city documents.

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'Trying to make it a mall'

Stephen Rios sits in his frontyard, under a canopy formed by the extensive branches of an old pepper tree that shades his adobe home, the oldest house in the oldest residential neighborhood in California.

He's the latest resident of the Rios Adobe of San Juan Capistrano, a registered California state landmark where his family has lived from generation to generation since it was built in 1794.

The narrow Los Rios Street is surrounded by cactus and wildflowers, beneath towering eucalyptus and palm trees. Children can pet animals at a nearby petting zoo and visitors can dine at cafes and shop for trinkets in unique stores.

Rios, a semi-retired attorney, is steadfast in denouncing development that he feels is incompatible with the tiny neighborhood.

Rios' father, Dan, was among those who 40 years ago pushed for the specific plan. He and two other Los Rios residents sat down with city staff to discuss developments in the neighborhood.

"I'm not complaining about tourists or businesses," Rios said. "I get upset when businesses are not being properly managed. If you're going to come to Los Rios, don't try to change the plan and make money. When people move in here, they need to do their due diligence and understand the concept."

The Ramos House Cafe, built in 1881 and situated in the heart of the district, was the long-time residence of the Ramos family, one of San Juan Capistrano's oldest families. The house began a new life as a cafe and residence for chef and owner Humphreys in 1994, when he found the cottage for $167,000. Humphreys added a commercial kitchen to the back of the house, restored dilapidated portions of the board-and-batten home and installed an exterior patio seating area around the property's century-old mulberry tree.

But about five years ago, Humphreys said, he started noticing that more visitors were ignoring the occupational laws and photography regulations. Photographers would hold "intrusive" portraits from dawn to dusk in front of his home and business.

Humphreys said he stayed at hotels some weekends since he couldn't sleep because of flashing cameras and noisy crowds. He said he has asked photographers to refrain from shooting in front of his residence and that he has been threatened with negative restaurant reviews on Yelp.

"I run from it," Humphreys said. "I'm not happy about it."

Rios said he often has wedding parties, groups of high school students heading to dances and families standing before his home and blocking his driveway for photographs.

Camryn Clair of Camryn Clair Photography in Dana Point said she photographs in the Los Rios Historic District because of the homes, bright colors, exposed brick and greenery.

A particular place she liked for a backdrop was a wooden panel on the Ramos House Cafe property. A plastered sign to the wall read: "Delivery Door: No Photography!!"

"That wall is so cool," Clair said. "And then I learned I couldn't shoot there. Are you kidding me? But I totally understand. I didn't know people lived in there and you have to be respectful."

After learning she had to obtain a business license from the city, Clair paid the $40 annual fee, which offers a badge to wear on the day of a shoot.

Cindy Russell, chief financial officer and city treasurer of San Juan Capistrano, said the city understands that the district is a popular and sensitive photography location and that's why controls were put in place.

"We love for people to come and take pictures, but we want them to be mindful and considerate of the neighbors," Russell said.

Not many photographers have paid the fee and gotten the badge, Russell said, but over the last six months, the city has not received complaints from neighbors. If a professional photographer does not abide by the rules — like climbing up on a resident's porch, standing in neighbor's entry way or on the property — code enforcement officers would impose parameters, she said.

Lt. Scott Spalding, chief of police services for San Juan Capistrano for the past 10 months, said he was unaware of any recent calls concerning disturbances at Los Rios.

Rios said since the photography permits were enacted in Los Rios in 2015, he has noticed that photographers are a bit more sensitive.

But he and some other residents still question whether San Juan Capistrano is stretching the delicate balance in Los Rios between charm and commercialism.

"This neighborhood could tip irreversibly toward commercial development," Rios said. "This is a sensitive neighborhood. We live here, and we want to enjoy it."

"It was just a better neighborhood years ago, but you have some people trying to make it a mall," Humphreys said. "Los Rios is a precious part of San Juan Capistrano."

Lorie Porter, a member on the San Juan Capistrano Cultural Heritage Commission, offered a different perspective.

"It's never going to be open to just industry and the city will protect that," Porter said. "The people who live there don't move. They want it to stay that charming look, and it will always remain picturesque."

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