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— Is it Save Our Heritage Organisation or Stuff Our Handbags Organisation? A controversy rages over the San Diego nonprofit group whose mission is ostensibly to preserve buildings of historical significance.

The group has enjoyed many successes, such as improving the museum, activities, and ambiance at Old Town's Whaley House after taking it over four years ago. However, some former officials and members, as well as current members, are wary of the money-hungry activities of its executive director, Bruce D. Coons, and his ally, local preservation architect Milford Wayne Donaldson.

In April, Donaldson, who did not return calls for comment, was appointed head of the state's Office of Historic Preservation. He will be paid more than $100,000 a year but is suffering a two-thirds pay cut, says Coons.

Coons, Donaldson, and the Save Our Heritage Organisation (the English spelling of "organization" presumably adds authenticity) won national recognition for persuading the Padres to salvage and restore old buildings in the ballpark district. The Western Metal Supply Co. building was integrated into the ballpark design. Of course, Donaldson's architectural firm got the contract. (Until he took the state post, the firm was called Architect Milford Wayne Donaldson. Now, with him gone, it's named Heritage Architecture and Planning.)

Many say that Donaldson, Coons, and the heritage organization have been on the wrong side of key development battles, such as those over the old police headquarters near Seaport Village, the Bazaar del Mundo in Old Town and, particularly, developer Corky McMillin's questionable efforts to restore the historic core of the old Naval Training Center.

The heritage organization pays Coons more than $70,000 a year. In addition, he makes $125 an hour as a consultant on various projects. What irks many people is that the heritage organization has too often taken a stand that dovetails with the business activities of Coons and Donaldson. Since politicians listen to the organization's recommendations, historic preservation causes can be lost.

Coons's wife, Alana, is on the board. Vonn Marie May, legendary San Diego preservationist and former two-term president of the heritage organization, raised questions about "some conflicts of interest -- not taking positions when they should or taking odd or questionable positions," she says. When Alana Coons took over board nominations three years ago, May was left off the slate. "When you are a former president, you are a life member, and I wasn't even getting mailings for a year," says May.

"Donaldson and Coons have taken over" the heritage organization, says Maggie Valentine of the Point Loma Community Planning Board, pointing out that until just a few weeks ago, David Marshall, Donaldson's sidekick and now his successor at the architectural firm, was president of the heritage organization board, representing Donaldson's interests. "I gave up my membership; I was so angry. Vonn Marie fought Donaldson and Coons so much they kicked her off the board."

Maria Curry was another board member who was not renominated. She had taken special interest in Mexican matters and reminded the board that Anglos are no longer the dominant majority in San Diego. Her aggressive pursuit of the point may have led to her being dropped, she says.

Others charge that the heritage organization is decidedly Anglo-centric. This is an issue at Old Town. Coons and Donaldson both raked in money from Delaware North, the New York­based company that the state has tentatively chosen to take over the Bazaar del Mundo concession. Delaware North promised to emphasize the Anglo part of Old Town's history, although it was always a Hispanic settlement, even after Americans controlled it. Since Bazaar del Mundo is by far California's most profitable concessionaire, the state is championing an economically cockamamie scheme -- with Coons and Donaldson helping lead the charge.

"Aesthetically and economically, the fact they are even talking about it [the concession change] is insane," says Kay Kaiser, an architectural writer who was stunned to find out how much Coons is paid by the heritage organization.

Welton Jones, retired Union-Tribune arts columnist and editor, is on the board of the heritage organization. "I support Bruce. He is hardworking, a student of the preservation field, has experience, is eloquent. But I am constantly bothered by the conflicts of interest," says Jones.

The most egregious example is at the former Naval Training Center. Donaldson was a major architect on the project, at one time working for both the city and for Corky McMillin Cos. Coons, in turn, worked for Donaldson there, drawing historic guidelines. Corky McMillin promised he would put $34.3 million of his own money into restoring the historic core, which is made up of 600,000 square feet of buildings, including an auditorium, original barracks, and library. But McMillin has put very little of his own money into it, he has gotten state and federal money, "and he's trying to commercialize the buildings in the historic core," says activist John McNab.

But Donaldson has supported McMillin all the way -- even recently in an attempt to demolish 14 buildings that critics deemed historic. Coons wanted to save some of the buildings, but he made "a puny presentation," says Valentine. "We finally saved 11 of the 14 historic buildings, but Donaldson was working for McMillin, and Coons was giving us hardly any support."

The San Diego Police Historical Association has been trying to save the old police headquarters situated on a 25-acre site on San Diego Bay. Featuring Spanish Revival architecture, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.

The port wants to make it into a waterfront project with a view corridor to the bay, and commissioners voted last year that 40 percent demolition of the headquarters would be acceptable, if necessary.

Donaldson was a consultant for the port and for GMS Realty LLC, among others, on the plans. GMS controls the leasehold of nearby Seaport Village.

Coons and Donaldson "have been a tremendous hindrance," says Steve Willard, director of the police historical association. At one point, the port wanted a pier walk that would have required 40 percent demolition of the headquarters. But the police historical association thought it had that idea killed, says Willard. Then last year, the heritage organization "went to the port and said, 'We are okay with tearing down a big chunk of this building.' They brought the pier walk back from the dead. The port said if the preservationists are okay with it, we are okay with it."

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