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The two small Victorian homes on 20th Street in Sherman Heights that Louise Torio and her husband Steve Veach have restored are examples of how the Mills Act can benefit the owners, their neighborhood, and the city. Available only for designated historic homes, the Mills Act is a contract between the City and the property owner that requires the home’s exterior be preserved in return for a property tax break. The savings can range from 20 to 70 percent.

“When Golden Hill and Sherman Heights were considered ‘bad’ areas to live,” Torio says, “it was the preservationists who moved in, fixed up, and revitalized the community.”

Torio and Veach’s residence is the Mary and W.C. Howard House, a 1110-square-foot Victorian Stick built circa 1885. The house next door is the Crellin Cottage, an 850-square-foot Folk Victorian built in 1887 and originally owned by Lillie and John Crellin.

Torio says that when they were shown the Howard House, in 1994, they arrived early to meet the realtor, only to see police raid the house and arrest a tenant, while roommates came screaming and crying out into the street. Torio and Veach still made an offer, but it was rejected. Six months later the owners reconsidered the offer.

The house was in pretty bad shape. The original wooden double-hung windows had been painted shut and covered with security bars, their glass replaced with Plexiglas. Plugging in appliances came with an electrical shock. The exterior was painted a storybook blue, lavender, and white. The interior, occupied for years by renters, was even worse. Upstairs, the hardwood floors were hidden under beat-up red shag carpeting; downstairs, linoleum had been glued on top. The plaster walls were covered in layers of wallpaper. The placed reeked of dog urine.

Torio and Veach began restoring the house: replacing the windows, stripping the paint, then using a historic color palette of amber gold, green, and brown to slowly bring the exterior to resemble its original appearance. During that time, the elderly owner of the cottage next door offered to sell them her home. They jumped at the chance.

“We didn’t know what we were in for,” Torio says.

“The house was so packed, the house inspector refused to charge us because he said he couldn’t see enough to evaluate the property. When our neighbor moved out, we had to remove several layers of carpeting, old furniture, room dividers that served as expanded closets, and the intensely dropped ceiling that caused my husband to [stoop] whenever we went into the house — the woman who lived there was really short.

“We opened up doors that were either nailed shut or covered over. When we actually got to see what we bought, it was really in awful shape. The house was covered with Tex-Cote, the porch had been enclosed, an illegal room and bathroom addition at the back of the house had to be demolished, and then I freaked about just how much work had to be done. We applied for the Mills Act right away when we bought this house.

“We’re not rich people, and we’re looking at costs,” Torio says. “If we didn’t have the Mills Act, we wouldn’t be doing this.”

Torio and Veach stopped working on the Howard House and put their energy into the Crellin Cottage. Torio says it took a year to scrape the Tex-Cote off the exterior. They opened up and reconfigured the porch. They replaced the aluminum windows with wooden ones. After a neighbor who had lived across the street for more than 50 years related how the original stained glass had been pulled out and sold, they put in six stained-glass windows. Their restoration work earned the couple an award in 2004 from the City of San Diego Historical Resources Board.

“My tax savings is a couple of grand a year,” Torio says. “I started restoring the house — you get into it, you see another thing that needs to be fixed, and then another thing. We undertook a total and complete foundation-to-roof restoration, put in eighty thousand dollars’ worth of effort, and used local trades people and put that money into the local economy. Nobody gave us a loan. It wasn’t a Mills Act loan; it was a Mills Act incentive.”

Nobody Wants to Live in a Museum

Preservationists such as Veach and Torio worry that the City, looking for new sources of revenue, could kill its Mills Act program with recently proposed changes to eligibility requirements.

The reforms, presented by city staffers on January 14 at a meeting of the Historical Resources Board’s Policy Subcommittee, sent a shockwave through the city’s preservationist community, made up of homeowners, realtors, consultants, and craftsmen. While some of the proposed changes are welcomed, such as increasing fees to cover the cost of staff time, the audience questioned whether the City was trying to undermine the program.

The reforms include “imposing a limit on the number of Mills Act contracts awarded each year” and limiting eligibility to houses that are threatened by deterioration or abandonment, that can be used for affordable housing, that are owned by someone who cannot afford to maintain the house, or that are located in areas “where the City is concentrating revitalization efforts.”

As the meeting ended and the room cleared out, attendees predicted that historic homes in San Diego’s oldest neighborhoods — Kensington, Point Loma, North Park, La Jolla, Sherman Heights, Loma Portal, Golden Hill, South Park, Mission Hills, and others — would be torn down for McMansions and cookie-cutter condos.

Then two months later, on March 19, the San Diego County Grand Jury released a report titled “History Hysteria: Historical Resources in the City of San Diego.”

The grand jury’s report was also an attack on the criteria used to designate historical buildings and on the number of Mills Act contracts approved every year. It called for an 18-month moratorium on accepting new applications; recommended that the city council, rather than the historical board, approve new contracts; and advocated restricting the number of examples of each housing type eligible for a contract. The report asked, “How many examples of Craftsman houses does the City really need?”

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Louise_Torio April 16, 2008 @ 4:56 p.m.

Great article, but one correction: my husband and I put in $80,000 into restoring the Crellin Cottage, not $8,000. This $80,000 better illustrates how a small Mills Act incentive produces an important, positive ripple effect of reinvestment in older neighborhoods. We hired local trades people and craftsmen. The local economy benefited. This reinvestment ripple to the City of San Diego has not been studied, but I guarantee you that the benefit to the City is vastly larger than the cost of the incentive.

As a Mills Act advocate who has spoken to historic homeowners around the state about the benefits of the Mills Act, I know that San Diego is viewed as a model of SUCCESS regarding use of the Mills Act to preserve and restore historic buildings, and thus restore older communities. How wrong for the City to view this success as a problem. If you are concerned, please join us on April 18 at 2:00 at 202 C Street for the mayor's "workshop" on the Mills Act. This is a "penny wise but pound foolish" attack on an incentive program that works well, at minimal cost to the City.

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Scoop April 16, 2008 @ 7:56 p.m.

Hooray for your article! San Diego needs to cherish and protect the limited historical homes still left in this sprawling and increasingly homogenous metropolis. Phoenix and LA have their charms and far too many blemishes to even want to compare. San Diego has many unique, historic urban neighborhoods that need to be preserved. Check out what is happening nationally with historic homes and neighborhoods. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is working to fight the "McMansionization" of historic neighborhoods in many communities, where historically significant homes are being torn down to make way for homes that are out of character for the neighborhoods. The measure of historicity should be broad enough to maintain the look and feel of older neighborhoods that began as working or middle-class enclaves as well. This should be broad enough to maintain the character of our older neighborhoods, from Mission Hills to Sherman Heights. This is where San Diego actually is doing the right thing, but maybe the city could be doing it better administratively. Improve the system, don't destroy the support and incentives to keep the small percentage of older San Diego homes and neighbhorhoods intact for future generations.

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Arkangel_007 April 17, 2008 @ 9:15 a.m.

Being a student of real estate and economics, I do not believe that the position of this article is truthful in asserting that the preservation of historic properties is in the best interest of the public in terms of tax revenues or stimulation of the local economy. The study presented from the University of San Diego in truth considers only comparable properties if it is to give any valid results whatsoever. In practice, bringing a property to its highest and best use in the face of changing conditions on the ground in the properties area will always bring 1.) the highest ammount in tax revenues for the city as the property will achieve its highest fair market value after achieving its highest and best use. 2.) the highest ammount of profit for a property owner and his or her contractors if after achieving this highest and best use the costs of converting the property does not out weight the net present value of the property given a certain holding period.

What does this mean in english? It means that you can't compare apples and oranges. If you redevelope a property and it costs 300,000 dollars to do that is more economic stimulus than 80,000 to renovate a standing structure. That probably also means that you will be paying more in property taxes because newer larger homes with modern amenities and updated construction mean a higher selling price which means more in tax revenue for the city.

In truth, historical preservation is a decision based on societal mores, norms and values. Arguments for historical preservation usually carry no weight in financial terms whatsoever.

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Erik April 17, 2008 @ 11:46 a.m.

Arkangel: as a "student" of economics you should defer to the professors of economics until you can present a more cogent paper than they do. You clearly didn't read or didn't understand the report. Nobody is saying that tearing down a single family house and building apartments or a huge spec won't make money for the owner and builder. What is being stated is that not doing so adds value to every property in the blocks nearby. Just as building a maximum sized new building will devalue all the properties nearby that wish to keep their properties as single family homes and not as accounts to cash out. Take a spin, for example, down 35th Street South of Adams. Would you want to live in one of the few remaining single family homes next to the "higher and better" ones? After more than one or two houses on a block are scraped and maxed-out the properties on the block will never be restored, ruining everybody's experience. As odd as it may sound to the capitalist in you, many people buy houses because they think its a nice place to live the rest of their lives and raise their children, perhaps passing the home down to the kids. Not every one does the math about what an empty lot will fetch, and those who do can't be allowed to do a "taking" of usage from those who don't. Ray Huffman is dead, get over it.

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historymatters April 17, 2008 @ 1:53 p.m.

Arkangel, I assume that you are from the same line of thinking that thought the subprime mortgage idea was a good one. Your thinking is an epidemic that has created the current economic mess and continues to be self destructive. It is thinking that is VERY short-sighted, that only considers immediate economic gains and doesnt examine the long term economic impact or the quality of life impact that you are having on those around you. Do you think San Francisco would be in better financial shape if they had allowed developers to scrape all their victorians and build the lackluster 4-packs that litter our neighborhoods, how about Portland Oregon, or New York City. In fact why dont we let them scrape Balboa Park so we can enjoy the economic benefits. Look, Ark, you have alot more reading to do. Hit the books!

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onamission April 17, 2008 @ 11:40 p.m.

Preservationist thinkers are an extremist few who base their philosophy on the emotional rhetoric of days gone by. The concept of proving private owners with a monetary incentive to preserve the original integrity of their property is borderline insane. As soon as you improve any property is starts to deteriorate. There is no way to keep anything unchanged. We should be mature enough to accept these changes for the better. Nor should we try to stop or hold back technological or social improvements. New developments in construction, energy, utilization of space and safety will undoubtedly require the removal and construction of better and smatter properties. Private properties need to be larger than the old 900 square feet cottages being designated as historical. Communities today shouldn’t have to move to the suburbs to raise a family. We can plan and zone better to ensure development is not detrimental to our economic or social growth. Redevelopment can be great if it is done in phases based on the current and future needs of our society. Preserving the historical facades of private properties has no merit in the true economic and social values of our future. People should realize that properties as young as 35 years are being considered historical. Don’t be fooled, this article is a slanderous attack against the city’s attempt to improve its tax revenues at the cost of our most affluent citizens, who have found a loophole like the mills act to avoid paying property taxes. If this was a fair and equitable designation process we would have less affluent areas with the same amount of designated historical properties. In fact, most historically registered properties are in affluent areas. Mission Hills and Hillcrest have over 35 registered craftsman homes as historically designated, in addition to other types of designated properties. City Heights on the other hand, with its many craftsman homes has none and there is less than a handful in Logan. This article also fails to state that the city’s historical board could force private properties into permanent historical designation, rendering it un-approvable for mayor renovations. Once a property is historical it can never be undesignated or moved from its original site. The city has finally realized that its designation process is flawed and the old guard is trying to use this media to keep their job by influencing you. If organizations such as SOHO or other preservationist want to force private properties to look like something out of the 20’s, they should be offering to pay for it out of their organization’s checkbooks. And they should look into low income areas to help first. What ever happened to the property rights this country was formed on? If you don’t like this country’s capitalistic principles, I suggest you move to Cuba, there’s no problem with preserving history there. You could even drive around in a classic car.

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onamission April 17, 2008 @ 11:43 p.m.

Preservationist thinkers are an extremist few who base their philosophy on the emotional rhetoric of days gone by. The concept of providing private owners with a monetary incentive to preserve the original integrity of their property is borderline insane. As soon as you improve any property is starts to deteriorate. There is no way to keep anything unchanged. We should be mature enough to accept these changes for the better. Nor should we try to stop or hold back technological or social improvements. New developments in construction, energy, utilization of space and safety will undoubtedly require the removal and construction of better and smatter properties. Private properties need to be larger than the old 900 square feet cottages being designated as historical. Communities today shouldn’t have to move to the suburbs to raise a family. We can plan and zone better to ensure development is not detrimental to our economic or social growth. Redevelopment can be great if it is done in phases based on the current and future needs of our society. Preserving the historical facades of private properties has no merit in the true economic and social values of our future. People should realize that properties as young as 35 years are being considered historical. Don’t be fooled, this article is a slanderous attack against the city’s attempt to improve its tax revenues at the cost of our most affluent citizens, who have found a loophole like the mills act to avoid paying property taxes. If this was a fair and equitable designation process we would have less affluent areas with the same amount of designated historical properties. In fact, most historically registered properties are in affluent areas. Mission Hills and Hillcrest have over 35 registered craftsman homes as historically designated, in addition to other types of designated properties. City Heights on the other hand, with its many craftsman homes has none and there is less than a handful in Logan. This article also fails to state that the city’s historical board could force private properties into permanent historical designation, rendering it un-approvable for mayor renovations. Once a property is historical it can never be undesignated or moved from its original site. The city has finally realized that its designation process is flawed and the old guard is trying to use this media to keep their job by influencing you. If organizations such as SOHO or other preservationist want to force private properties to look like something out of the 20’s, they should be offering to pay for it out of their organization’s checkbooks. And they should look into low income areas to help first. What ever happened to the property rights this country was formed on? If you don’t like this country’s capitalistic principles, I suggest you move to Cuba, there’s no problem with preserving history there. You could even drive around in a classic car.

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Erik April 18, 2008 @ 9:14 a.m.

"New developments in construction, energy, utilization of space and safety will undoubtedly require the removal and construction of better and smatter (sic) properties."

A "green" building takes 65 years on average to mitigate the energy spent in the original construction of the building and the demo debris. And we know how you feel about 65 year old buildings.

"Private properties need to be larger than the old 900 square feet cottages being designated as historical."

Make up your mind, is it 900 sq.ft. cottages or the mansions of the rich that are being designated?

"Communities today shouldn’t have to move to the suburbs to raise a family"

What does this mean? You can't raise a family in, say Mission Hills?

"Preserving the historical facades of private properties has no merit in the true economic and social values of our future."

Just because you don't value it does not make it so. You could also make the argument that picking up litter is not use.

"People should realize that properties as young as 35 years are being considered historical"

Please name one here in town. I can hardly wait.

"most historically registered properties are in affluent areas"

That's because it costs 4 or 5K to have a report written and printed up. Poor poeple have other things to do, like work to eat. Besides (as if you didn't know this) poor people here tend to live in rental properties owned by wealthier people. Perhaps the city should subsidize historical reports.

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Erik April 18, 2008 @ 9:17 a.m.

"City Heights on the other hand, with its many craftsman homes has none and there is less than a handful in Logan."

If you have a property there you would like to have designated, I will support you all I can. My guess is you have no interest in having this done.

"Once a property is historical it can never be undesignated or moved from its original site."

This is an absolutly uniformed bit of nonsense. Please refrain from talking about things you know nothing about. We have (unfortunately) demolished or moved many designated properties. Even ones on the National Register. Ever been to Heritage Park in Old Town?

"If organizations such as SOHO or other preservationist want to force private properties to look like something out of the 20’s, they should be offering to pay for it out of their organization’s checkbooks."

It will happen.

"And they should look into low income areas to help first."

How do you know what SOHO looks into? Do you read their board minutes. Or is it just because you don't read about it in the La Jolla-owned U-T? The huge majority of historic designations are done with no preliminary input from SOHO.

"What ever happened to the property rights this country was formed on? If you don’t like this country’s capitalistic principles, I suggest you move to Cuba"

You need to get your story straight. Are you against poor people or rich ones? You are coming from both directions at once. Its beyond your primitive understanding that there are both poor and rich people in town that are preservationists. I'm guessing you have some sort of job that you vaguely think historic preservation will harm, because of your inability to adapt to the lack of open land to build on, and you are spinning in circles trying to appeal to both Ayn Rand and Bario Logan at the same time.

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onamission April 19, 2008 @ 6:50 p.m.

“A "green" building takes 65 years on average to mitigate the energy spent in the original construction of the building and the demo debris. And we know how you feel about 65 year old buildings.”

Its small minded to think of only the economic impacts of green building without looking into the impact of future generations. That’s right preservationist can see past 1920. And like everything on this article, you and the writer can’t do simple arithmetic.

“Make up your mind, is it 900 sq.ft. cottages or the mansions of the rich that are being designated?” I don’t mind designating a home if the owners choose to accept this designation. However no property, whatever size, should be subsides by not paying taxes. Get rid of the Mills Act, I’m sure your organization and its wealthy donors can afford to pay for property improvements.

“Just because you don't value it does not make it so. You could also make the argument that picking up litter is not use.” Just because a few prefer a select type of architectural styles, doesn’t mean they should have the right to impose others to build or keep it. If you like an architectural design, build it yourself on your own dime.

“That's because it costs 4 or 5K to have a report written and printed up. Poor poeple have other things to do, like work to eat. Besides (as if you didn't know this) poor people here tend to live in rental properties owned by wealthier people. Perhaps the city should subsidize historical reports.”

I’ve paid for these reports and they don’t cost half of what you mentioned. I suggest you go back to high school and learn math. You might learn to spell at the same time.

“If you have a property there you would like to have designated, I will support you all I can. My guess is you have no interest in having this done.”

If elitist white people like yourself weren’t scared of walking in these neighborhoods, you could ask someone if they would like $80,000 to fix their property. You might have some takers. I suggest you do your walk at night. You’ll find more folks home from work.

“You need to get your story straight. Are you against poor people or rich ones? You are coming from both directions at once. Its beyond your primitive understanding that there are both poor and rich people in town that are preservationists. I'm guessing you have some sort of job that you vaguely think historic preservation will harm, because of your inability to adapt to the lack of open land to build on, and you are spinning in circles trying to appeal to both Ayn Rand and Bario Logan at the same time.”

Unlike you, I have no special interest in this whatsoever. I’m not completely against anything or anyone unless it is immoral or physically harmful. You on the other hand, hate progress. If you tried to be more tolerant of different tastes, cultures and lifestyles, you might be mature enough to see different points of view.

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taxcollector April 19, 2008 @ 7:37 p.m.

I can't wait for the IRS to audit SOHO. As a 501 (c)3 they are not suppose to lobby government agencies, not even indirectly. This article was so one sided it can only be construed as such. Good luck trying to convince uncle same to keep your non profit status. In the future hire a real PR firm to do your dirty work.

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Sombadi April 21, 2008 @ 4:27 p.m.

In my neighborhood (Mission Hills) it is mainly people who have bought homes in the past few years who are interested in historical designation. If you think about the taxes you can understand why. It is a big deal if you bought a house for $1 million and you can drop your property tax from $12k to $3k. That's what people are doing.

People who have lived in the neighborhood for 10+ years already pay low property taxes thanks to Prop 13. They have little interest in historical designation.

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Erik April 21, 2008 @ 6 p.m.

Taxcollector: I'm not sure what any of this has to do with SOHO, most of the people quoted in the article are not speaking for SOHO, and are not on their staff or board. I think Bruce Coons is the only one. YES, a 501(c)3 group IS allowed to lobby a legislator. They are not allowed to support a candidate or subsidize them in any way. Non profits ARE allowed to support ballot propositions. Why you think that hiring a PR/Lobby firm would be any different from doing it in person is beyond me.

For example, I've never been to a City Council meeting without seeing Father Joe Carrol from St. Vincent de Paul there. The Building Industry Association (a nonprofit) is in mayor Sander's office frequently. The council and mayor receive visits from Senior Adult Services, the Zoo, The Old Globe, college presidents, The Nature Conservancy, etc.

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Erik April 21, 2008 @ 6:37 p.m.

"You on the other hand, hate progress. If you tried to be more tolerant of different tastes, cultures and lifestyles, you might be mature enough to see different points of view.

By onamission 6:50 p.m., Apr 19, 2008"

You don't know a thing about me, and your comments are both wildly speculative and dead wrong. If you know anyone else who was the only White man at an Indian sweat lodge and drove a 20 year old car to the antiquarian bookfair in LA the same weekend, just speak up. I'm happy to live in a diverse block, with a lesbian cardiologist on one side and a straight part-time pest control man on the other. I'm on a first name basis with homeless men and guys who own high rises downtown. I don't need you telling me about diverse cultures. And, yes I do walk at night in 92102. The fact is that EVERY historic building I've seen demolished has been replaced by something worse, and I challenge you to name one that has not. That's the biggest reason that I'm a preservationist. I'm in full support of good new work, and I'm friends with several architects who are doing it.

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Erik April 21, 2008 @ 8:04 p.m.

And also to Onamission: If "That’s right preservationist can see past 1920" is your idea of a complete sentence, if you spell "smarter" as "smatter" and if you can't control posting the same message twice, then please don't talk about who should "go back to high school."

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Arkangel_007 Aug. 16, 2008 @ 1:42 p.m.

A city block full of newer and greener homes provide...

1.)More in tax revenues 2.)A reduction in negative effects to the environment.

in comparison to a block of older homes tax sheltered by the mills act. Just some simple logic to consider.

By the way, there is a commercial development in downtown chula vista that is really nice. It used to be a bunch of dirty apartments and single family homes. I was glad to see that development. It brought new jobs and more revenues to the city of chula vista. This is progress and that is a good thing. Designated properties should be few and far between to highlight their uniqueness and exemplary nature of this country's past.

This is how I feel about this subject.

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