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Creating Community Preservation Groups

How you can help SOHO Save San Diego's Past for the Future

By Bruce Coons

c. 1920's historic photo along Ft. Stockton Street in Mission Hills, a neighborhood that still retains its historic character.


SOHO serves all of San Diego County. A region that covers 4,200 square miles, roughly 2.7 million acres with 18 cities and 45 unincorporated areas. SOHO's mission of preservation, utilization and promotion of historic resources covers this large geographic area. The resources representing our collective heritage range from the built environment, that is residential, commercial, and industrial buildings and landmarks, to cultural landscapes, archeological sites, and transportation corridors, basically "saving our heritage" is all that those words imply.

I attend community meetings throughout the county and hear time and again citizens expressing concerns about their quality of life, the loss of historic resources and the loss of what attracted them to their neighborhoods in the first place. They try to explain to public officials how the preservation of historic character enhances their neighborhoods and of the importance this is to them. We receive many phone calls from concerned neighbors who attend these community meetings asking for advice on how to make progress to preserve their community's identity. It has long been one of SOHO's major goals to have individuals and community groups band together and form their own preservation advocacy groups. When we have one community preservation group after another speaking on a given issue in concert with SOHO a powerful force is created.

Two years ago we saw the start of this effort begin in earnest when Mission Hills residents, alarmed by the impending loss of the character of their community, formed Mission Hills Heritage, a neighborhood group that has multiple missions with historic preservation being at the forefront. Soon thereafter La Playa Heritage was formed when SOHO provided help to the community in stopping a demolition of an important residence. The community under the impending danger of further threats became concerned with what would happen to the place they love if these threats were left unchecked. This was exciting and we were cautious but hopeful that this trend would continue. Then last year following on the heels of La Playa Heritage, another community that SOHO has long been working with formed the Coronado Cottage Conservancy. Three is a magic number they say and indeed it seems so, as just last week Tom Shess of North Park wrote an article in the North Park News citing his concern and need for a North Park Bungalow Group, focusing on the preservation and promotion of that neighborhood's amazing stock of bungalows.

With these new groups, along with the established historical societies of University Heights, Lemon Grove, and Escondido, who all have a strong preservation element, what we have now in San Diego is a movement and SOHO is calling on other neighborhoods to follow suit. We are here to provide the support required for each community to help them succeed. The first thing each individual in these groups should do is to join SOHO because as our recent membership campaign says, "There is strength in numbers." This is not just a ploy for new members; this is the most powerful preservation tool for your use.

SOHO will be hosting a free workshop in the near future for the formation of neighborhood preservation groups. If you are interested please contact us to reserve your space. Meanwhile we are always just a phone call or email away to answer questions. The SOHO website is a good place to start. Here you can download best practices, state and federal regulations, historic designation information, the Secretary of Interior's Standards, contact information for officials and more These are all building blocks for protecting and preserving your neighborhood.

While you are organizing your group and an individual site becomes threatened, it is best if you can compile as much information as possible for SOHO to help. A guide for preservation advocacy is outlined here with possible courses of action.

One thing that is certain is that when a threatened historic site has the interest, concern and support of the community this goes a very long way in allowing SOHO to successfully argue its case.

We like to remind people that the rights of the community as a whole are greater than the rights of a single owner or developer or agency. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a community has the ultimate right to decide what it will look like and preserving and protecting its historic buildings and landscapes falls squarely into that category. Firstly, discover whatever you can about the building or site that you are trying to preserve, identification of the site's importance is the first order of business.

What makes the building or place significant?

  • Is the architecture unusual or special?
  • Did a famous or local architect design the place?
  • Did an important builder build it?
  • Did a famous person live there?
  • Did an important event take place there?

SOHO has an online step-by-step guide of how to research a historic site that can help you to determine these next important areas, visit sohosandiego.org/research. If you do not have internet access, just call the office and we will mail you a copy.

Is it on the National Register of Historic Places?

  • You can locate National Register status at the National Register Information System at http://www.cr.nps.gov/NR/research/nris.htm
  • A register listing doesn't always protect a building but it does show significance of the structure.
  • Usually structures and landscapes in historic districts are protected by district regulations
  • If not part of an existing local historic district, consider its ability to be incorporated into one, visit sohosandiego.org/historicdistricts
  • Does it have any other type of important designation or status in the community?

Determine what the exact nature of the threat is to the building/landscape
Is it owner neglect? If so, most cities have a local health and zoning law that requires that buildings be maintained. San Diego City has a Demolition by Neglect ordinance. Call the city immediately to notify them and make a formal complaint.

Is it threatened with demolition or with alteration beyond recognition?
Check to see if your community has a demolition delay ordinance that will halt the demolition. If permit signs have been posted, copy information from the sign to contact the owner or developer to find out more about the proposal.

Can you offer the owner any prudent and feasible alternatives to destruction?

  • Consider adaptive reuse via private ownership. Old/historic buildings can be successfully converted to office, residential, retail or other use.

Determine your goal (or that of your group)
Do you want to save and stabilize a building or are you considering long-term plans for the building/landscape?

  • Long-term plans require a great deal more funding, planning and energy than just short-term stabilization. Make sure that you have a solid plan (which includes funding sources) before you embark on any large projects.

Determine who else is trying to save the building (local historical societies, preservation organizations, government agencies) and join forces with them.

  • Along with this, make friends throughout the community. Often a variety of people (environmentalists, business leaders, local officials) not just preservationists will join you if they believe in your cause.
  • A group is more effective than a lone protestor.

Make the community aware of the threatened site. Show people why it is important to save.

  • One way to illustrate this is to show an image of the site with and without the historic building/landscape.
  • When you present reasonable/feasible alternatives to demolition, you provide the community with more reasons to oppose demolition of the building or site. There are often reasons cited for demolition, you should be able to provide reasonable/feasible alternatives.
  • Contact the media and keep the issue in the public eye.
  • Contact your elected officials and inform them about the threat to the building/landscape. State your concerns about the destruction of the building/site and why it's important to save it. Present your plan for alternatives to demolition.
  • Work with SOHO and the community group, if one exists in the neighborhood where the building is, to help preserve the historic building/landscape. SOHO can help you with these keys to successful advocacy, and can also provide information on restoration contractors, engineers, architects and researchers. The City of San Diego HRB and the County's HRC can assist with the historic designation process, as can most cities throughout the county.

Always maintain professional behavior

  • Listen to the opposition (as you would have them listen to you) and learn from them.
  • When you are called to make presentations, you should be clear and succinct.
  • Emotional outbursts are counterproductive and will alienate potential allies.

Once successful in your efforts, work with SOHO and the City government whose area it is in to determine the best ways to protect the site

  • A good first step is to get a stay of demolition.
  • Another approach is to place a preservation easement on the property. A preservation easement is a legal agreement that grants a limited right to a qualified nonprofit organization to protect the property from changes, which are not in keeping with its historic, architectural or natural character. It provides the knowledge that the property will be protected for generations to come.
  • Or, consider other historic designations such as the National, or State Registers of Historic Places, historic districts, and local landmarks status.

Important points to remember when writing and calling your elected officials

  • Keep the letters and calls brief and concise (letters generally not more than 3-5 paragraphs; phone calls generally 1 to 2 minutes).
  • Inform the Legislator who you are and if you are from his/her district.
  • Say why you are writing/calling.
  • Explain the action you want the elected official to take.
  • Explain what this action will accomplish (especially in his/her district).
  • Ask for his or her vote. Ask if you can count on his/her commitment.
  • If the official is unavailable when you call, speak to the staff member. This is more likely to get the message across than waiting for a return phone call, especially if a vote is pending. Staff is very helpful and is there to assist.

Make Your Letter Count - Essential Components of a Letter to Your Elected Official

  • Introductory Paragraph. Give a reason for your letter; identify yourself and your interest in the historic site.
  • State the action you are seeking. Communicate reasons why they should act in support of the site. These reasons might include historical facts, logic, data, credible opinion, personal experience, and the weaknesses of opposing points of view.
  • Letter closing. Restate the action you are seeking, ask for the official's comment. Express appreciation for considering your views. Indicate willingness to help.

Thanks to these partners, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation for providing portions of these advocacy steps.

2006 - Volume 37, Issue 4

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