Ocean Beach Planning Board Votes Against Demolition of 100-Year-Old House

by on February 5, 2015 · 5 comments

in Culture, Economy, Environment, History, Ocean Beach

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn a bold move that would put a smile on any preservationist, the Ocean Beach Planning Board last night voted against approving a proposed development for 4677 Niagara that included the demolition of the current house, originally built in 1915.

OB Niagara 4677 frontAt their monthly meeting, after the developer’s presentation and a lengthy question and comment session, the Board voted 8-2-1 against the developer’s application for a permit to build two condos on the lot, once the lot had been cleared of the old hundred-year-old structure.

During the developer’s presentation (we did not obtain his or the representative’s names), the project was described as the construction of two detached single-family homes, each with 3 bedrooms. The front unit would include a basement and elevator and access via the street, whereas the rear unit would have access via the alley. The total square footage, including the basement, is 6,275 sq ft. The height of the buildings would be under 30 feet.  There would be 5 parking spaces on-site.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe developer’s rep explained how they had met with some neighbors to the east of the project, and plan to work with them in tweaking its plans in order to maintain some of their views, and allow them to assist in picking out the trees that are part of the landscaping plan. The developer intents to condo-ize the lot once everything is built.

Chairman Pete Ruscitti opened up the floor for questions from both the audience and the Board. In one line of questions regarding the basement, the rep explained that in excavating for the basement and other areas, 470 cubic yards of hillside would be removed.  The developer denied that this would lead to any destabilization of the hillside, and in general, they saw no geological problems. Their engineer told them that it’s “good soil”. They will monitor for artifacts.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen under at times a withering period of questioning and criticism from some members of the audience and the Board, the developer attempted to halt the tilt of the Board that had become apparent. Some members were surprised – particularly vice-chair John Ambert –  that there was no historic review by the developer or even by the City. “The razing of a 100 year building,” he said, ” has historic significance.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn response, the developer told the Board that they had completed an historical ownership record on the property (Ed.: which they have to do by law), had checked for historic photos of the place in Balboa Park archives – but found none other than some aerial photos, the City had not found anything of historic significance, and that the house had been altered during the 1970s. Those alterations included the original windows being removed, and a bathroom had been taken out.

Other Board members, led by Tom Gawronski, questioned why there had been no consideration of preserving the old house. To this, the developer said, that they had “concluded it had been altered so much, and changed so much, that the building had no significance.” He stated:

“The house had no historic significance, and the aerial photos showed a smaller box.”

This comment caused a ripple of reaction among the Board members, with one saying, “any old cottage 100 years old has historical significance.”

Other Board members offered the popular idea that the developer could use the old facade of the house for the front unit, keeping the original substantially together, even putting a second story on it, and still build another unit in the back. Newly appointed Board member Craig Klein liked this idea.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJane Gawronski commented that the New York Times described Ocean Beach “as the last authentic beach community in the country, and it’s due to the old cottages.”

It turns out – from discussion on the Board – that the old house at 4677 Niagara is on the OB Historical Society’s list of historical cottages, and OB is recognized as an “emerging historical district.” But as Ruscitti pointed out, the list of cottages identified in Ocean Beach is not legally recognized by the City.

Ambert also had unresolved issues with the project from his Project Review Committee, particularly the issue of storm water and drainage. Klein opined that water coming off Niagara during rainstorms floods businesses on Bacon Street.

Once the issue was opened up for public comments, Pat James, president of the OB Historical Society, gave an impassioned plea to keep the  house. He spoke of his history in the community, falling in love with OB’s cottages, and invoked Priscilla McCoy’s name, described working with the former Board member, since passed, who initiated OB’s historic cottage program.

“Don’t tear down our cottages!” he finally said.

Just before their vote, several Board members gave voice to their considerations. After several had stated that they couldn’t support the project, Ruscitti tried to give some balance to the discussion. “The project has some positives”, he said, noting that its of a “pretty good quality, it maximizes space, it kept a low-profile, didn’t go up 30 feet, has a good design ….” He noted that the property to the west presents a blank wall, and he understood they their “design is trying to get around that wall.”

“There’s definitely issues with consistency with the neighborhood plan,” he said, but the list of Historical Cottages is  not recognized by the city. “I have a hard time supporting the project due to the demolition of the cottage.”

“The project,” Ruscitti added, “could adopt the front to keep the facade.” He also noted that the developer following the “bare minimum”, and that “following the bare minimum is not a goal of the Community Plan,” and that the project is “not quite in character” with the Plan.

Other Board members echoed the comment about using the facade for the front house, but that they couldn’t support the demolition.

In one final plea before the Board, the developer declared: “It’s not historic. It’s not an historic cottage.”

Soon after, Jane Gawronski made the motion to deny the application based on the destruction of a classic Ocean Beach cottage. Hubby Tom seconded it. And the vote came down – 8 to 2 against the project, with one abstention.

Both Gawronskis voted against it, as did Michael Nieto, Dan Dennison, Klein, Ruscitti, Valerie Paz and Kevin Becker. In support were Ambert and Drew Wilson; Andrew Waltz abstained; Scott Therkalsen was absent.

 Other News

  • In other news from the Planners, Craig Klein, a former member of the Board from 2004 to 2012, was appointed as a businessperson to a seat in District 4. Klein had submitted a completed and valid application for an appointment.
  • There are still two vacancies, one in District 7 and one in District 4.
  • The Board decided to form some kind of joint committee with the Peninsula Community Planning Board to address violations of the 30 foot height limit and to seek clarifications of aspects of its enforcement.
  • The Board is holding its annual elections on March 10th. Please see the OB Planning Board’s website for election, candidate and voting details.


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Seth February 5, 2015 at 1:42 pm

Interesting. Kinda surprising that there was not a more thorough historical review done here. While it might be hard to prove either way, chances are, there is an actual answer to the question of whether the cottage is or is not historic by definition. If the claim is that there was substantial work done on this building in the 70s, there is probably – but not definitely – some way to demonstrate that. My guess is that the cottage is not in fact historic by definition, but in my opinion, there’s some degree of burden of proof here lies on the applicant, and not the City or OBPB. Without something more definitive than an applicant claiming, but not demonstrating, that the building footprint used to be smaller in aerial photos, the only evidence that really exists one way or another is that the cottage was built in 1915. With that in mind, I personally would have been inclined to not vote for this until that question was resolved or at least a little more clear.

My guess is that the property owner will appeal this non-binding advisory decision, and my unsolicited advice to people on either side is to do some homework. Present the aerial photos referred to. Find a 1950s/60s era picture that shows the building as either being the same or substantially different. Show property tax records from the assessor’s office demonstrating a change in square footage. Demonstrate that a substantial amount of the building materials are not 100 years old, or that a person of historical significance used to live there or that it is representative of some notable architectural style. Something, anything. Give the decision-makers something more to go on, basically.


Jim February 5, 2015 at 6:17 pm

I worked in many of the older areas of the city anytime we had a home 45 years old we had to have the property reviewed by the historical branch of the city prior to alterations. It should not be difficult to determine alterations to the home , some controlled demolition to the suspect areas will tell you if newer sized lumber was used. As an example In 1915 full sized 2x4s were used etc…..I am not sure I understand this is not a decision by the city but a suggestion by the OBplanning board correct?
Homes of this age are very difficult to make safe , and livable is it bring lived in now ?


Marci February 6, 2015 at 11:47 am

I hadn’t been to OB in over a year due to health problems. After Christmas, my husband and I drove around our old stomping grounds. I felt sick to my stomach seeing what developers have done to OB. Many of my favorite cottages and Cape Cod style homes were gone. In there place were hideous, cookie cutter townhomes and Mc Mansions. This is not the OB I grew up in.


Debbie February 6, 2015 at 5:32 pm

No it’s not the same. No where is the same.

OB still is a beautiful town with wonderful people and a great OB Rag.


mikekalanick February 15, 2015 at 7:43 am

I was so surprised and proud to see this house is being saved from condofication. Growing up in OB, our family lived in many of it’s unique homes. We lived in this house from 1964 to 1966. What a great view from up the hill. I remember fondly this home having window box seats and a gravity flow toilet in the back bathroom, also watching the pier being built. We knew this was a special home then, though it was only 50 years old.

When I get back to San Diego, my family will continue to be treated to my tour of OB, which will still include a stop here on our way to visit the cliffs and the pier.

By the way, rent then was $110.00 monthly.

Thank you OB Historical Society for your dedication preserving OB landmarks and to the OB Rag for your reporting of this victory over developers.


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