• Photograph by Matthew Suárez
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“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.

One of Shawn Bakhsh’s rental properties

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

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.

A rental property owned by Shawn Bakhsh

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

“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.

David Twining’s home in South Park

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

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.

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Comments

Hardcover Nov. 15, 2018 @ 8:16 a.m.

The Reader needs to remove their posters for the burger and beer fest 2 months ago before they get to comment on Golden Hill aesthetics.

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stonevalley Nov. 15, 2018 @ 11:02 a.m.

If the City made classified some homes incorrectly, that’s unusual (given its staff expertise), but it’s good that there is an appeals process to address possible mistakes.

This article is skewed, though, in adopting the assumption of some disgruntled owners that they should have unlimited rights to do whatever they want with their homes (or other buildings, including multi-family residences) because “it’s my property.” While individual property rights do matter, it’s also important to accommodate interests of the broader community, as we routinely do with zoning laws, building codes, permitting requirements, etc. That’s why the City works with local Planning Groups and listens to other interested parties as well when determining historic designations.

Even if/when only a minority owners in a neighborhood appreciate the economic and cultural benefits of historic designation (and often owners do favor designation!), the City also needs to consider both the short- and long-term benefits to non-owner residents in potentially historic districts and to all of the citizens of San Diego, now and in the future. Turns out that the City actually does that, informed not just by anecdotes but also by research and expert opinions.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation circulating about historic designation, including about the restrictiveness of renovation requirements and the safety scare in this article. This article also presents a case for designation being worse for lower income owners, without mentioning that it spares them the upfront costs of individual historic designation while still allowing them the right to apply for a tax reduction of up to 70%, which is real money to most everyone.

Looking forward to seeing a more balanced piece on the topic of neighborhood historical designations soon!

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Ntqbe Nov. 17, 2018 @ 12:37 a.m.

The City staff says they are not required to do the same level of research on properties in potential historic districts as would require for individually designated properties. They also say that the standards for designating properties as contributors to a historic district are lower. Less research means more mistakes, and lower standards for contributors makes it harder for owners to fight designation.

The City’s historic preservation program does not benefit the general public. Only a small group of about 100 people make money from the program. The overwhelming majority of people in San Diego don’t care about it, and don’t visit the existing historic districts. We don’t need to spend taxpayer money forcing designation on more owners, especially when historic designation actually hurts the broader community by preventing owners of rundown properties from upgrading them in the most efficient way, or replacing them with new energy efficient buildings that are better for the environment and climate change. It also prevents desperately needed new housing from being built near jobs and public transportation. Designation hurts property owners by lowering the value of their properties, and hurts the City of San Diego by lowering the amount of property taxes the City collects.

Lower value properties aren’t likely to be worth much more than their value as rentals, so their owners aren’t likely to save much on their taxes; probably not enough to pay for the added costs of designation, such as being required to pay for building permits for projects that non-designed properties wouldn’t be required to get permits for. Because of the way the Mills Act is written, only owners of expensive properties might, in some situations, save as much as 70%.

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Geranium Nov. 18, 2018 @ 9:01 a.m.

You are making stuff up. My sense is both the general public and the property owners benefit from and care about the Gaslamp Historic District, and the Old Town Historic District. Perhaps right wing extremists like you protested those with the same claims. And if you bothered to read about what historic districts are you would realize they don't prevent development, they guide it. With the result being interesting and meaning neighborhoods that have both new and old housing. And your made up claim it lowers property values and tax revenue is nonsense. I can see the value of a reasoned argument about historic districts, but facts, not nonsense, matter in that discussion.

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Cassander Nov. 15, 2018 @ 1 p.m.

I’m not sure what’s going on with the editor(s) at the Reader lately, but this "Cover Story" wouldn’t pass a class of Journalism 101.

The author was allowed to see fit to do an article on historic districts without quoting any actual historians, preservationists, or subject matter experts, instead using generic text from websites to prop up a straw man for his sources to tilt at. And boy, what sources: a developer who claims there are no engineers on the HRB (there are); a criminal defense lawyer admittedly “confounded” by the issues rather than a land use attorney; and a serial public meeting attendee with a record of naysaying anything that wouldn’t pass muster with Ayn Rand. I lost count of how many times these people were allowed to say that they heard something by someone somewhere that was left unchallenged or unverified. Which matters, because the one thing these sources clearly do have in common is a personal motive to oppose these districts.

Let’s hope we’re not going to see more of these “SD on the QT” pieces trotted out as features in the future?

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cousin Nov. 17, 2018 @ 12:14 a.m.

The City of San Diego’s historic regulations are so complicated that even the lawyers on the HRB have a hard time understanding them. Of course, a conscientious criminal lawyer like Mr. Roberts would recommend that you hire a property or land use lawyer if you have a legal problem with the City.

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Geranium Nov. 15, 2018 @ 9:17 p.m.

First, this article seems to be more of a Nextdoor Golden Hill rant than journalism. Second, historical preservation matters. And its complicated. But all great cities grapple with it because they realize if you find a way to meaningfully respect and preserve key aspects of your past you have a shot at preserving your soul.

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Ntqbe Nov. 17, 2018 @ 12:42 a.m.

Cities have to choose between historic preservation that benefits only a small group of people, and increasing the housing supply and fighting climate change that benefits everyone. San Diego should choose housing and the environment!

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Geranium Nov. 17, 2018 @ 10:38 p.m.

Really? So tearing down old buildings will fix corporate greed and deception that has brought us to where we find our selves with the environmental crisis we are in? And also fix the housing pricing crisis, which we are in substantially by the related concentration of wealth and therefore control of real estate prices, both for rental and sales. Sounds like you are one of YIMBY types who are espousing simplistic right wing libertarian ideas in service of corporate developers and their lobbyists. Sadly these simplistic binary notions are not going to solve those problems, anymore than building a wall on the border is going to address global issues of inequality. Sadly, just like discussions of a border wall, your misguided ideas are both a diversion and destructive of both communities and meaningful, truly democratic discourse. Which is the only shot we have to cure the issues you articulate. If we are smart we can preserve our past, build housing and address environment issues. If we are stupid we can let corporations trick us into doing their PR work for them...

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beernsports Nov. 16, 2018 @ 9:42 a.m.

Good article on the issues surrounding historic designation. Most of the commenters above say nothing about the critical distinction between voluntarily seeking historic designation and having it involuntarily imposed on your property over your opposition. Involuntary historic designation definitely raises legal issues of taking some of your ownership rights without compensation, and equal protection compared to those owners of property not subject to historic designation. An involuntary historic designation effectively makes the owner contribute some of his or her property rights for use as a "public museum". How would the above critics feel if they were told, "Good news! We have given your property a historic designation and now you have to open it to public tours all day every weekend." This would simply be a larger, but not different, burden on the owner than telling them, "you have to preserve the exterior of your house exactly the way we say so the general public can drive by and lokk at it."

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DontDisturbMyCircles Nov. 16, 2018 @ 10:38 a.m.

I think that what gets people so worked up about this issue is that it exposes the existence of two opposing attitudes towards private property. Some people believe that the public good is paramount, and should be defined and enforced by those who know best; such people work hard to put themselves on committees from which they can carry out this policing. Others believe that the autonomy of the homeowner is paramount, and should be defended and preserved even when it clashes with the subjectively defined public good; these people tend to be more retiring and less involved with definition and enforcement. Finding the proper balance between these two viewpoints is a difficult and complicated process, which is constantly being renegotiated. One thing that's for sure is that, in this specific instance, the Historical Resources Board and its small but aggressive group of supporters needs to be checked.

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Cassander Nov. 19, 2018 @ 11:59 a.m.

I was with you up until your last sentence. The historic district this article is specifically about, South Park, had been in planning since 1996 and was approved by 73% of the 142 participating property owners. Just three people were sourced for this article, all opposed, and only one lives there. Which tells me the “one thing that's for sure is that” it's the opponents who are a “small but aggressive group” that “needs to be checked.”

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jjrowe Nov. 16, 2018 @ 12:17 p.m.

A lawyer that doesn't understand the law, an engineer that thinks facia is structural and a landlord that wants to use the cheapest/ugliest materials possible in a neighborhood he doesn't live in. These are your subject matter experts who contributed to this piece.

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cousin Nov. 17, 2018 @ 12:15 a.m.

Many thanks to the Reader for publishing an article on the negatives of forcing historic designation on properties, to balance the many pro-preservation articles that have appeared in the magazine over the years. Thanks also to the property owners who were willing to stick their necks out by talking to a reporter about a serious issue that hurts thousands of property owners in San Diego, and negatively impacts the City as whole by preventing new housing near jobs and public transit.

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Geranium Nov. 18, 2018 @ 7:48 p.m.

Can you identify a single housing project that was prevented because of a historic district. Sounds like another developer talking point to me. I realize you might self identify as a YIMBY, but that's the same as being a developer lobbyist. There's nothing wrong with developers and their paid and unpaid lobbyists, but there is something wrong with not acknowledging your interests in the dialog. Historic districts provide a framework for development and a tool to make for meaningful cities. If you don't care what a city you live in looks and feels like why do you want to live in a city as nice as San Diego?

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nostalgic Nov. 19, 2018 @ 7:52 a.m.

My goodness! These people who want someone else's house in a historic district with historic designation really do care about what you do with YOUR private property, in addition to their own. That is what this is all about. If you think the city is going to take care of you and protect your property values, then a city district is for you. If you think the city is going to require money from you through a special assessment in order to preserve it the way the city thinks it should be - welcome to your future. Maybe getting everyone to chip in real money as the next step is what this is all about. Time will tell, but by then it will be too late. The article is valid as stated, and the Reader has done a valuable service, in informing people that there is more than a nice title - Historic District - that is involved here.

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Cassander Nov. 19, 2018 @ 10:59 a.m.

So much for consistent thinking, nostalgic. When it comes to AirBnBs and code enforcement, you're all about having the government step in to tell others “what to do with YOUR private property." But you don’t accept historic criteria as objectively valid or that community character affects your property values? And the best you can up with to defend your hypocrisy is threats of phantom taxes?

Nice try, but once you admit that there are legitimate brakes on the unfettered use of YOUR property, you need to come up with a more compelling reason why preservation isn’t one of them other than that you simply don’t like it.

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garyroberts Nov. 20, 2018 @ 12:23 p.m.

I’m the homeowner quoted in the article as saying the legalities of neighborhood historic designation are complex, and recommending that residents who want to fight a historic designation hire a property or land use attorney. (I am neither, and no, this isn’t a plug for legal services.) Due to space limitations for comments, I offer one example of the legal complexities I was referring to.

City staff told the City Council, “the Municipal Code does not require the property owner’s consent to designate a historical resource.” In other words, in their opinion, the consent of the governed didn’t matter. But this hardline position – that public sentiment wasn’t a governing criterion – was in disconnect with the reality on the ground in South Park. Shouldn’t a historic district be something that everybody in the neighborhood wants, not just a few vocal true believers?

The proposed South Park historic district implicated a residential neighborhood comprising 395 separately owned properties – a neighborhood where the home is probably the owner’s primary residence, where the home may be the owner’s single biggest investment, where the owner may have poured his life savings into the property, and where owner may have owned the property for decades before the neighborhood was designated “historic.” Under those circumstances, shouldn’t the level of support for a historic district matter? Shouldn’t it matter that there was so little support for the district in South Park?

In the case of South Park, 64% of the property owners didn’t return ballots, and just 27% of homeowners – 105 properties out of 395 properties – returned ballots expressing support for a historic district. Considering all the time that the true believers – SOHO and David Swarens (who chaired the Greater Golden Hill Planning Committee and served on the SOHO board) and his group – had to mobilize their supporters to mail in “yes” ballots favoring a historic district, and considering how well organized they were, if there actually was a groundswell of support among South Park homeowners for a historic district, shouldn’t SOHO and Mr. Swarens have been able to come up with a higher level of support than just 27% (105) of all of the South Park property owners (395)? In the absence of numerically widespread support, shouldn’t the city have held off approving the South Park historic district?

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Cassander Nov. 20, 2018 @ 4 p.m.

We get that you're trying to position yourself as the champion in all this, but the numbers don't back you up. Bumping the approving votes up against all the properties that could have but did not respond is intentionally deceptive. That's like trying to say all the eligible voters in an election who didn't vote really support you, so we should count them against the actual results.

But your argument does show even more how yours is an extreme minority opinion: only 32 owners out of 395, just 8%, returned ballots expressing opposition for a historic district.

Face it: this district was approved by 73% of everyone who voted.

The fact is, there were four separate outreaches by the city to ALL the property owners. At the end of the day, those who cared either way acted—and those who didn't, didn't bother.

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nostalgic Nov. 20, 2018 @ 7:22 p.m.

Anyone can apply for a Mills Act exemption. Is this not the case? So what is the purpose of the district? Some of you love it. You seem to really, really care what other people do with the property and your rights to adjudicate that. Some others DON'T.

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Cassander Nov. 20, 2018 @ 11 p.m.

Yet you really, really care about your neighbors, whose "$7000 per week house here can generate $360,000 a year for an investor. No ordinary family can compete with that investor for home ownership." Until you admit what they do with their property affects you and yours—and thus others in their neighborhoods—you really, really need to step away from the keyboard.

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D.Marshall Nov. 21, 2018 @ 1:41 p.m.

Who would have thought that a supposed "progressive" publication for the people like The Reader would end up as a stooge for the deep pocket development community? Painting preservationists as an all-powerful big brother crushing innocent property owners is a joke. I regret breaking my oath to stop reading this error-filled rag.

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