Thursday, May 28, 1998
As the country commemorates National Historic Preservation Month this May, Monterey, a city famous for its history, struggles to define its own past and determine the future of historic preservation efforts, a struggle that could potentially change the character of the community.
Partly in response to public outrage over the city-ordered demolition of the historic San Xavier warehouse on Cannery Row last summer, the Monterey City Council has created a historic process subcommittee of the Monterey Historic Preservation Commission in order to re-evaluate the way that the city decides what buildings are deemed historical and to educate the public on the process of historical designation.
"There was a lot of public concern that led to the historical process subcommittee," says City Planner Bruce Kibby. "[San Xavier] was one of the issues, that is very much an exception. Monterey is a very beautiful city, a great many of its old buildings have been retained. It''s surprising to see a building like San Xavier come down."
Thus far the subcommittee, which is chaired by Mayor Dan Albert and includes members of the city planning commission, community advocates and property owners, has called for the surveying of 81 potentially historic buildings throughout the city to determine which are worthy of historic designation. It has also created a six-month moratorium on the destruction or remodeling of historical buildings, allowing the city time to complete the survey.
The subcommittee is currently looking at an additional zoning district to include buildings of local, but not necessarily national or state historical significance. It also seeks to distinguish between historical value and neighborhood compatability. Final findings are expected this summer.
But the historic process subcommittee''s role is not to design public policy, says Monterey City Manager Fred Meurer.
"The purpose of the subcommittee is not to make recommendations to city council," says Meurer, "but to help the city council understand the full range of the issues."
Some historical preservation activists are skeptical, saying the city''s new efforts are too little, too late, and criticize officials for supporting business and landowner''s interests at the expense of Monterey''s historical, cultural and literary heritage. Moreover, Monterey is missing the boat economically, they say, by not aggressively investing in the preservation of historical sites, a move that could ensure future tourism and stablize property values.
Additionally, citizens are concerned about city council''s resistance to the proposed .5 percent increase in the transient occupancy tax (TOT) that would raise funds to acquire historical sites for the city. In last week''s city council meeting, the council decided not to place the initiative on the November ballot.
"The real issue is not historic preservation, [property owners] are not against historic preservation. What they''re against is regulation," says Neal Hotelling, historian and former president of the Cannery Row Foundation. "They want to operate with a free hand. What is necessary is to have clear rules that everyone understands and have them enforced."
"There is some effort being made. There is a historic master plan being done, but, no, they''re not doing enough," says Dr. Barbara Bass Evans, president of the Monterey Heritage Society. "What we want is for the city council and staff to implement the historic elements of the general plan and land use plans more rigorously. They''re doing great things but more needs to be done. Opportunities for preservation are being lost because they''re moving so slowly."
"I''m scared that the survey is just foot dragging," Hotelling adds. "We already have a strong preservation ordinance. I would like to know that my city government and city staff study and enforce the plans."
At a May 14 public forum on historic preservation in Monterey sponsored by the Cannery Row Foundation, Kibby, a forum panelist, defended the city''s commitment to historical preservation, pointing to examples of city-owned historical buildings, such as the historic Spanish and Mexican-era adobes, Doc Ricketts'' Lab, the worker''s shacks on Cannery Row, and the city''s recent acquisition of historical sites on the Presidio.
"Who can tell the story of Monterey?" he asks rhetorically. "We can. The city can."
Kibby explains that most of the salvaged historical buildings on Cannery Row, near downtown, and in the Lighthouse district have been restored by the property owners themselves or by citizen-initiated efforts without city intervention, while the city has concentrated its efforts on buildings constructed prior to 1878. But the city is feeling increasing pressure to define more recent history in terms of public policy, he says, particularly relating to Cannery Row.
"Our primary effort has been on the national level, the Spanish and Mexican eras and early California history," he says. "The question now is what happens to the buildings constructed after the turn of the century and how the city is going to deal with that."
Critics say that the city has a track record of historical neglect. For example, they say, Casa Serrano was slated for a bulldozer visit in 1955 to make way for a parking lot until the Monterey History and Art Association intervened. Later, the city''s proposed sale of a Victorian home on Archer Street prompted the formation of the Monterey Heritage Society in an effort to save the house.
At the forum, Monterey Planning Commissioner and panelist Molly Erickson presented the city''s general plan, which does indeed call for the preservation of significant structures built after the turn of the century. The general plan states the following as goals: "Preserve early-20th century structures that may become rare and endangered during the next few decades." And, "the reinforcement of the historic character of the downtown area and Cannery Row area is an important economic goal for Monterey."
Nevertheless, Hotelling says Monterey continues to bend under pressure from well-connected landowners. According to Hotelling, the city uses the lack of a maintenance provision for historical buildings as an excuse to practice a laissez-faire policy. Property owners are not required by the city to upkeep historical buildings that are privately owned. Eventually, like San Xavier, some buildings fall into disrepair, are condemned, and are torn down.
"I''m against over-regulation," he says, "but there are zoning laws, there are rules. And when you have a city that promotes its history in the general and land use plans, for the city not to enforce it is a complete lack of respect."
Currently, citizens are concerned about the future of the Stohan building on Cannery Row owned by Cannery Row Marketplace, LLC, which is seeking to build a mixed use development on the waterfront. Citizens were alarmed last January when the historic building appeared to be undergoing internal renovations. Once alerted, the city issued a stop work order. But activists also fear that when the Cannery Row moratorium expires in September, the Stohan building will be the first to go.
"The big danger right now is...the Stohan building," says Evans. "The owner ripped out the alarm, the building has been left open. The city has the responsibility to keep that building from deteriorating, to say ''either protect that building or we''ll do it for you.''"
But the future of historic preservation in Monterey is ultimately in the hands of the voters.
"You have this constant swinging pendulum effect and lately it''s been swinging in the direction of property rights," says Hotelling. "Historical preservation, or the lack thereof, will be an election issue. I hope that the city council learns in November that, yes, the rights of property owners are important, but community values cannot be ignored." cw