The San Diego City Council on Wednesday, April 30, removed the historic designation for a house at 1619 J Street — but is banking on the owner, Jerry Navarra, to move it rather than tear it down.
"I made the offer and I hope to keep it, but I have to find someone to take the house," Navarra said.
The Sanford B. Myers Spec House #1 (Historical Resources Board #751) was built in 1906 and is wedged between a squat beige house with the Rolling Stones' lips logo on the fence and an apartment building.
The structure was declared a historic resource in April 2006 despite a fight from the previous owner, according to city documents, which describe the house as "A representative example of working class transitional vernacular residential architecture during the third phase of development on East Village beginning in 1906 and ending in 1921."
It is one of three such houses still standing, according to the report. City records indicate that the historic designation was applied for several years ago, after Katalyst, LLC had begun plans to demolish it and other houses next door to build an apartment building. Katalyst (not a Navarra entity) scheduled appeals hearings for a year and then stopped in 2007. The property fell into default in 2008 and was transferred to a bank the next year. Navarra bought the house in 2011, knowing the designation was in place.
Councilmember Sherri Lightner noted that Navarra knew the problems with the house when he bought it. Lightner was the one “nay” vote in removing the designation.
"A business decision was made here," Lightner said of Navarra's decision to buy the property. "The historic properties may not be protected because of what we do here." But the other councilmembers found that there were factual errors in the 2006 finding that made overturning the designation possible — over the concerns of city staff.
"I walked through the house and I couldn't see it," councilmember Scott Sherman said.
Removing the designation drastically reduces the fees involved in moving the house — which Navarra has pledged to pay for if someone will take it.
"I can write you a check for $50,000 and you can do the rest or I'll do the Super Duper Mover package," Navarra said.
Moving a historic resource house requires a deposit of $8,000 to $10,000 for the city permit, a California Environmental Quality Act review, and "several tens of thousands of dollars" for permits. That's before moving day. It also means the owner has to hire six pros: a qualified historian, architect, monitor, and a qualified mover among them, said Navarra.
Lifting the designation makes moving the house cost much less, and $50,000 should cover it, Navarra said. He noted that there had been talks with takers who wanted to use the structure as a church. Once it's gone, Navarra plans to develop the parcel.
"What belongs there is an apartment building like the one right next door to it," Navarra said. "It's infill and it's better for the neighborhood." Navarra's fight to remove the city's designation stalled for seven months while the only employee who could review his appeal was on leave, he noted. It took 18 months to get an opinion from 2006 reviewed.
Navarra sees the case as being about private-property rights and about how the city council needs to manage the Historical Resources Board better. He read aloud part of the municipal ordinance behind the board — arguing that the house didn't really qualify.
"My case is more about that I uncovered the part of the municipal code that says that it's about the general public being able to appreciate the historic significance of a project, not just expert historians. That historic designation is for those places and things where people look at them and say, ‘This is something special,’” he said.
Bruce Coons of Save Our Heritage Organisation says the Sanford Myers House is something special: “It was worker housing in Sherman Heights — we've done little preservation of worker housing in San Diego and almost none of middle-class housing," Coons said. "This designation is the only way to keep having this conversation."
But council president Todd Gloria saw it differently.
"There's a reasonableness to allowing the house to be moved and that's rarely the outcome to let a historic house be moved," Gloria said. "In this case, moving and preserving the house and letting development go forward is a win-win-win."