“If I went to the city and said I wanted my house to be a historic resource,” says South Park resident Dave Twining, “and I wanted the tax benefits associated with that, there would be a lot of work done, both on the city’s side and my side, to prove that the property meets the standard of historical significance. There’d be a lot of review, they’d pull old pictures, the people who make the decisions would come out and visit, including experts. That didn’t happen. Otherwise, it would have been quick and obvious that my house didn’t meet that standard.”
Instead, Twining spent countless hours crafting both an oral and written appeal to present the city council, back on February 2, claiming that his property is not historically significant. He did so because the city’s Historical Resources Board, in creating the South Park Historic District, had declared 250 out of 386 properties in the neighborhood’s Golden Hill section to be “contributing” to the district, including Twining’s house on 29th Street. In regulating what can be done to contributing and, to a lesser extent, non-contributing properties in a historic district, the Historical Resources Board follows the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s standards for maintaining and restoring buildings.
According to the San Diego Planning Department, the South Park Historic District is “bounded roughly by 28th Street to the west, Elm Street to the north, 31st Street to the east, and A Street to the south, excluding some portions of the northeast corner.” The district is intended to commemorate the South Park neighborhood as the first “streetcar suburb” in the city. “The district consists of 299 contributing resources, all developed between 1906 and 1949, and 108 non-contributing resources,” states a San Diego Planning Department website.
The South Park district, plus the North Park communities of Spalding Place and Valle Vista Terrace, are the first 3 of 13 newly planned historic districts in San Diego. Residents of other neighborhoods, such as Mission Hills, which already has two such districts, are taking note of this progress, some intent on finding ways to avoid a similar fate.
“The normal process was flipped on its head,” says Twining, whose choice of the word “normal” indicates a belief that the initiative in having a property declared historic ought to lie with its owner. In reality, the Historical Resources Board is equally, if not more, likely to initiate the historical designation of properties.
Twining’s appeal to the city council, presented both orally and in writing, argued for two things: that his home be declared a “non-contributing” resource in the South Park district and that “the designation of the South Park neighborhood as a historic district without consent of homeowners of affected properties” be rejected. He prevailed on the first but lost the second, giving him non-contributing status in the newly approved historic district.
I am speaking with Twining outside Cafe Madeleine at the southwest corner of Juniper and 30th Streets. His red hair notwithstanding, his manner is calm and rational. He is the owner of a “small tech” company and the “proud employer” of 14 workers, some of whom live in South Park, too. He says he likes his neighbors, whether contributing or non-contributing, and is fond of his tenants, who live in two units separated from the one he and his wife Marian Lim occupy on the property.
The gist of Twining’s argument before the council was that his house on 29th Street “has been sufficiently modified, including within the past decade, so that its historic relevance is... diminished and is no longer reflective of the period of significance.”
Twining tells me that his house was built in 1920 and was occupied by its first owner for the following 85 years. During that time, she maintained and improved the property with numerous adaptations. A subsequent owner removed a front portico that Twining wrote in his appeal was a “defining feature” of the original home. “This covered porch can also be seen in Google Streetview photos as recently as 2009.” Then there were the original doors that were replaced with “modern, mass produced doors,” a garage that was removed and “defining window features [that] have been modified.”
Perhaps most telling, both for both his own home’s designation and for the integrity of the South Park district, was Twining’s exposure of a major error, among several, that the district used to classify his home. The board called it a Craftsman Bungalow when all the available evidence shows that it is a “Board and Batten Box.”
“Such errors mean that the [Historical Resources Board] was not able to correctly assess the property,” wrote Twining in the appeal he made to the council. He also believes that subjective elements creep into the reasoning of [Historical Resources Board] members as they are deciding which properties contribute to the district. The San Diego Municipal Code, he wrote, requires that board members “must follow specific criteria, and not personal feelings, when making a decision to designate a property.”
But Twining cites a conversation during the Historical Resources Board’s October 26, 2017, meeting, in which a member is expressing a belief that a particular home does not meet the criteria for designation. The member says, “I love this house, but…” Another member then advises, “Go with your love,” repeating it one more time.
“The second board member encouraged the first to make his decision based on his emotional state,” wrote Twining, thereby showing “that at least some members are not considering the criteria laid out before them.” The property was declared a contributing resource. This subjective element should cause the city council to be “very concerned” and to “consider a moratorium on historic district designations… until the process can be reviewed,” wrote Twining.
Outside the cafe, Twining and I are discussing how the Historical Resources Board polled Golden Hill residents to express their approval or disapproval of the South Park Historic District. To answer, a resident had merely to signify yes or no by sending back a glossy flyer that many, if not most, property owners, thought was junk mail. “I ignored it,” Twining admits, as did many of his neighbors. As a result, the response rate was 37 percent. The Historical Resources Board can legally establish the district even if a majority of residents answer no.