By Allen Hazard & Alana Coons
(Left to right) SOHO Executive Director Bruce Coons; State Parks District Superintendent Ronie Clark; Senator Christine Kehoe; Rob Hutsel, San Diego River Park Foundation; Caltrans District 11 Director Pedro Orso-Delgado; Assembly member Lori Saldaña; City Councilmember Donna Frye
The river in old San Diego, 1869, courtesy SDHS collection
Tuesday, September 6, was a history-making day in the effort to reclaim our lost heritage. A coalition of San Diego's political leaders led by State Senator Christine Kehoe came together in an outstanding show of support and enthusiasm.
Present at this historic occasion were Mayor Jerry Sanders; Senator Kehoe; Assembly member Lori Saldaña; City Councilmembers Kevin Faulconer, Donna Frye; Chairperson of the San Diego River Conservancy and City Councilmember Toni Atkins; District Director Clarissa Falcon represented Senator Denise Moreno-Ducheny; Pedro Orso-Delgado, Caltrans District 11 Director; Ronie Clark, State Parks District Superintendent; Gary Gallegos, SANDAG Executive Director; Jeannie Ferrell, Chair of the Old Town Community Planning Committee; Fred Grand, President of the Old Town Chamber of Commerce; Bruce Coons, SOHO Executive Director; Cindy Stankowski, San Diego Archaeological Society; Rob Hutsel, San Diego River Park Foundation; and Eleanor Neely, Chair of the San Diego Presidio Park Council. They all gathered together for a press conference to announce their support to transfer the former Caltrans site in Old Town from Caltrans to the Old Town California State Historic Park.
First, a brief recap. For years the community had been promised that the site would be given to State Parks as a part of mitigation for the building of the new Caltrans project just across the street. This project included the demolition of two 1920's historic buildings at the new site and major environmental impacts due to the construction of the very large Caltrans building. However, budgets, the economy and other factors in play made the fate of the 2.5 acres Caltrans site suddenly in great jeopardy of being sold for development for office buildings.
SOHO, with the help of the Old Town business and the non-profits community, spearheaded a letter writing, email and phone calling campaign that SOHO members bolstered. With Senator Kehoe taking the lead, Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña, and, Councilmember Kevin Faulconer worked together to coordinate the successful campaign.
The transfer would add 2.5 acres to the 13-acre Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. The new addition to the State Park will open the 'front door' if you will, to Old Town, and reclaim a key piece of San Diego's early history. Senator Kehoe called the transfer a rare opportunity, "It is not very often that an urban park completely surrounded by development can extend its boundaries and in the process enhance and protect significant historical and cultural resources." Indeed, the reclamation of this land would be the most significant event since the creation of the 12.96-acre Old Town State Park in 1969 and will begin to take back for San Diego its birthplace.
Mayor Sanders reflected on not only how important this archaeological, cultural and historic site is, but also how this new addition to Old Town State Park will help facilitate pedestrian access to Presidio Park. This is a significant issue and is important not only for the over 14,000 fourth-grade students from San Diego City Schools who visit Old Town and Presidio Park each year but for the many visitors and tourists who rarely make the trek up the hill because of the disconnect between the parks. "It's truly an innovative plan that will restore and bolster the cultural history of Old Town as well as provide much needed parkland to San Diego," Mayor Jerry Sanders said.
Caltrans District 11 Director Pedro Orso-Delgado pledged to get a written agreement with State Parks within two months. Senator Kehoe thanked Caltrans for such an aggressive timeline. She went on to say "Parkland is precious to San Diegans and this particular site is all the more important because under it, and under the slope we're standing on right now, are several historic structures that could be excavated and restored, allowing public access to more of our past. I'm personally excited about the opportunity for there to be displays about life along what we now call the San Diego River, by Native Americans, Presidio soldiers and early settlers in San Diego's Old Town. Once the river's channel flowed right through here. To be able to resurrect the vision of those early landscapes and river-related activities, along with the historic structures, is an opportunity that must not be lost."
SOHO Executive Director Bruce Coons reminded us that San Diego was founded in 1769 on Presidio Hill overlooking Old Town and is known as the "Plymouth Rock of the West Coast." It represents the first permanent European settlement in California. The San Diego River's former location explains why the Native American Village of Cosoy, the original settlement at the Presidio, which included the first mission in Alta California and resulting pueblo of San Diego was founded where it was, a story that few people today know about. This important restoration of a historic and cultural landscape will help to change that and San Diegans will be able to stand on the riverbank and experience San Diego's past where it happened, not in books, not in photographs, not in HABs reports, but where it happened, and San Diego can begin to take back its rightful place in our nation's history. It was interesting to see the look on peoples' faces when told that the hill in the asphalt parking lot on which we were all standing actually was the riverbank! Love those visuals.
On the site of the former riverbed itself is where, in circa 1907, the Mission Olive Oil Factory was built. This was one of the most fanciful Mission Revival style buildings in San Diego and it also played an enormous role in the growth of the commercial olive oil industry, which is a large part of our agricultural patrimony and yet another important piece of our history largely forgotten. It was demolished in 1952 for the construction of the current office building, which was designed by architect C.J. Paderewski for Caltrans. This building has long been slated for removal by Caltrans in part because it is located directly on an earthquake fault. The restoration of the riverbank will allow us to finally illustrate the neglected story of the first people to inhabit our area, allow the recreation of some of the first buildings and Native habitations in Old Town and tell the many stories of the Native Americans, Spaniards, Mexicans, Americans and others. This can all be part of the newest addition to Old Town San Diego State Historic Park and add greatly to understanding the legacy of San Diego's origins. The reclamation of this site will also allow on adjacent State Park property the reconstruction of Henry Fitch's and Josefa Carrillo's store and residence, California's first real store (1830s); the Osuna Adobe (1830); and possibly the Aguilar adobe (1827), whose remains lie just beneath the surface.
Many SOHO members were in attendance to show their support and celebrate the day. We thank those who took the time on a weekday morning to participate; your show of support was noted by all in attendance and greatly appreciated. We thank our political leaders for having the vision to secure this legacy.
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