Thursday, December 21, 2000
Last Thursday, about a dozen longtime Carmelites journeyed from their sleepy village by the sea to San Francisco to give the state Coastal Commission a piece of their minds. On the commission''s agenda loomed the fate of eight Carmel houses destined for the wrecking ball, and the group hoped to plead its case against the proliferation of home demolitions intended to make way for newer, larger dwellings.
When they got to the meeting, the group was outraged to find that seven of those applications for demolition permits had been moved to the consent agenda and approved in one fell swoop. But the day proved productive nonetheless when the group testified in favor of sparing a pair of historic cottages built in 1915. Dubbed "Periwinkle" and "Sea Urchin" in classic Carmel fashion, the tiny twin Mediterranean bungalows face Carmel Beach, where they stand as landmarks to residents and tourists alike. The commission spared the houses--which are deteriorated to a point unfit for human habitation--from complete destruction. With Commissioner Dave Potter leading the discussion, the commission searched for a compromise in which the facades could be saved and incorporated in the single new house planned for the lot. The commission will issue a final ruling in its January meeting.
While Periwinkle and Sea Urchin live to fight another day, their plight exemplifies a growing concern over Carmel''s destiny. The number of teardowns in Carmel rose sharply this year--33 Carmel property owners applied to the commission to demolish homes, nearly three times more than in a typical year. Since 1990, the commission has processed a total of 145 applications for full or partial home demolitions. Nearly all of them were approved.
"Carmel''s one-square mile is a non-stop construction zone," Carmel City Councilmember Barbara Livingston told the state Coastal Commission last Thursday. Indeed, you can''t drive around Carmel these days without seeing orange-flagged story poles at every turn, outlining the silhouettes of future dream homes.
Some Carmelites fear that the accelerated trend of demolishing and rebuilding threatens to ruin Carmel''s village ambiance and historic character, but their pleas are apparently falling on deaf ears down at City Hall. The Planning Commission continues to approve demolitions, and a historic preservation plan in the works has, at the City Council''s direction, been watered down to exclude mandatory preservation. (Livingston stands as the council''s lone voice in favor of proactive preservation.) As it reads now, the plan only allows for the preservation of homes on a volunteer basis. Meanwhile, the pastoral character of Carmel slowly erodes, one house at a time.
"The very things that make Carmel unique are being totally wiped out by the aggressive demand for houses," says Enid Sales, president of Friends of Carmel Heritage. "There has been no stewardship in the past three to four years--in fact, the complete opposite. There has been a caving in to greed."
Like in other parts of Monterey County, dotcom cash threatens to overtake Carmel. The posh burg is certainly no stranger to money, but with even teardown lots selling for several millions of dollars, speculators are having a field day while homeowners understandably take advantage of their newfound assets and sell out. "The pressure of Silicon Valley hit us like a bomb," Sales says.
The new homes aren''t mansions. The largest one on the commission''s agenda was 2,500 square feet--modest by Carmel Highlands or Pebble Beach standards and diminutive compared to the 15,000-square-foot home north of Santa Cruz approved by the commission on Thursday. But by Carmel''s quaint standards, the new crop of homes threatens to ruin the city''s European-village ambiance, stubbornly preserved through policies limiting residential sidewalks, mailboxes and tree trimming.
"The scale and mass of these [new] houses are just killing the forest and rural aspect of the city," Sales says. "They''re turning us into a suburb. We weren''t intended to be a suburb."
Nor do all the demolished houses have historic value on their own. But the city''s critics contend that nobody''s looking at the big picture, the cumulative effects should houses continue to be replaced with newer, bigger houses. For example, the city has yet to complete its Local Coastal Program as required by the Coastal Act of 1976, which calls for the preservation of historic resources in the coastal zone. The entire city of Carmel lies within that zone. Until the Local Coastal Program and a historic preservation plan are complete, demolitions will continue to be handled piecemeal.
Meanwhile, as Melanie Billig, president of the Carmel Residents Association, told the Coastal Commission last week, "Many Carmelites feel like we''re losing our community''s character one vote, one decision at a time."