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Time Is Now to Keep S.D.'s Past Alive

Little of San Diego’s rich ethnic history has been preserved in the form of significant buildings.

It is difficult to place blame for the loss of many of these structures, which was speeded by urban renewal and redevelopment efforts in the 1970s and 1980s. But the city of San Diego must take some responsibility.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Sep. 19, 1991 Los Angeles Times Thursday September 19, 1991 San Diego County Edition View Part E Page 15 Column 3 View Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
The photo of the Chinese Mission Building in last week’s Architecture column was taken by Ely Gamboa of Fotohaus International, courtesy of the Chinese Historical Society.

The city has never allocated adequate funds and staff to historic preservation. The city has never funded a comprehensive, citywide survey of historic buildings, so its preservation efforts often consist of knee-jerk reactions to lobbying efforts to save individual structures, instead of a broad and concise long-range preservation plan.

A new Historic Preservation Plan and ordinance scheduled to be considered by the Planning Commission on Oct. 31 will offer the city a chance for redemption.

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Actually, the plan isn’t really new. It was first introduced in 1989, but the city has dawdled in moving it along.

The proposed plan contains four elements: a new, comprehensive inventory of historic buildings, an educational and informational outreach program, greater public awareness of incentives (including tax benefits) for preservation, and the ordinance, which would protect significant buildings. (To date, the city’s Historical Site Board has designated nearly 900 buildings as significant.)

Downtown San Diego has been a microcosm of the city’s woeful preservation track record, especially as it relates to ethnic minorities:

Of the many black businesses and hotels that once flourished downtown, none remain, including the nationally known Douglas Hotel, where such entertainers as Duke Ellington and Count Basie stayed when they came to town.

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All that remains of the Douglas, torn down in 1984 to make way for a redevelopment apartment project, is a commemorative plaque in the sidewalk on Market Street. Nor has any memorabilia--signs, photos, pieces of buildings or other artifacts--been brought together in one place to preserve some of these important African American memories.

Most buildings from the earliest Chinese presence in San Diego, dating back to the 1860s or 1870s, have been lost over the years. The original Woo Chee Chong Chinese market in the Gaslamp Quarter, for example, which dated to the 1880s, burned down two years ago, before the city could get the owner to sign a preservation agreement.

Although the city’s overall track record on preserving its Chinese heritage has been dismal, the outlook has improved somewhat in recent years.

In 1987, the city designated 19 buildings in and near the Gaslamp Quarter as a “Chinese-Asian Thematic Historic District.”

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There are plans to reconstruct one of these buildings--the Chinese Mission, designed by architect Irving Gill’s nephew Louis and completed in 1927 at 1st Avenue and G Street--as an Asian-Chinese museum downtown. For the moment, though, the disassembled building rests on a 3rd Avenue lot, as the Chinese community attempts to raise the $300,000 to $400,000 needed for restoration.

And on Tuesday, the San Diego City Council approved the San Diego Chinese Center’s proposal for another of the buildings in the Asian historic district.

The Chinese Center plans to convert the Lincoln Hotel on 5th Avenue to 18 units of housing for senior citizens on the upper levels, with a Chinese tea room or gallery on the ground floor and the center’s offices and classroom in the basement. It remains to be seen whether the Chinese community will be able to raise the needed hundreds of thousands of dollars for rehabilitation costs.

Along the waterfront, few buildings remain from San Diego’s largely Portuguese tuna industry, a significant force in the local economy that lasted from the beginning of this century until well into the 1970s. None of the original waterfront canneries are still in operation, and many of the buildings are gone. One of these buildings would have made a natural home for a colorful fishing industry heritage museum.

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Preservationists received what many perceived as more bad news last month when Ron Buckley, a senior city planner responsible for historic preservation within the city architect’s office, was transferred to the development and environmental planning section of the Planning Department. Buckley’s replacement, Bill Levin, has no experience in historic preservation, acknowledged City Architect Mike Stepner.

As secretary to the city’s Historical Site Board, Buckley led the board through the drafting of the new Historic Preservation Plan and ordinance.

“I give Ron credit for a lot of things, including a broader public awareness of preservation,” Stepner said. “He’s been the keeper of the flame for the last 10 or 12 years.”

Stepner credits Buckley for helping the city obtain state and federal grant funding for many preservation projects; helping many property owners understand the tax benefits of preservation, which led to significant restorations; and pressuring building owners to maintain historic properties, such as the Egyptian Court apartments on Park Boulevard whose new owners restored some ornamentation that had been destroyed by previous owners.

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After 12 years in preservation, Buckley was contemplating a move to another area within the planning department, but his transfer came at the worst time, just as he should be shepherding the preservation ordinance through the city Planning Commission and council. He will still work part-time on the ordinance, but historic preservation needs his full attention right now.

Minority critics of the city believe it should take a much stronger leadership role when it comes to historic preservation.

“When preservation is brought to their attention, the people on the City Council are very enthusiastic,” said Dorothy Hom, who led a successful effort to create the Chinese-Asian Thematic District. “But they’re so busy worrying about everything else before them that unless someone brings (preservation) to their attention, it goes by the wayside.

“There’s not enough direction given to the city manager, and the planning department (needs) to have more staff for preservation.” Hom also thinks Buckley needs to be reinstated.

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For their part, ethnic groups may also share some of the blame for the loss of the structures that symbolized their heritage. Buckley said there isn’t always community support for preserving significant buildings.

“One example: In the black community, there is Brothers United, a black firefighters group,” said Buckley. “They have created a museum of sorts at the original firehouse in Southeast San Diego where black firefighters were stationed. But they haven’t shown an interest in bringing the building forward for local historic designation, which they should.”

Hom argues that a lack of financial clout makes it hard for minority groups to fight for preservation of historic buildings. She thinks that more ornate, luxurious buildings built by the affluent stand a much better chance of surviving than, for example, some of the simple downtown warehouses where many Chinese lived and worked during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

In her 1988 State of the City address, Mayor Maureen O’Connor called for a higher profile for historic preservation, among many goals. For a time, there was progress. The city architect’s office was created in 1988, and Stepner formed an Urban Conservation section. But with this year’s drastic city budget cuts, the city architect’s office staff is down from 58 employees to about half that, Buckley is gone and the historic preservation movement is on much shakier ground.

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As the commission, and eventually, the City Council, consider the Historic Preservation Plan and ordinance, they must take a serious look at its long-range implications.

They should approve both--then find the money to implement them. Buckley says the survey of historic buildings, for example, could be completed in five years at a cost of $25,000 a year, a tiny scrap of the $1-billion city budget.

In any city, historic buildings--including those that mean a lot to minority groups--serve as vital threads that tie the changing urban landscape together. Without them, we run the risk of having a gutless, anonymous-looking San Diego.


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