Windemere Saga Continues: City Council upholds appeal of La Jolla cottage demolition

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"When we bought it (Windemere), my wife wouldn’t even allow our children into that house because it was dangerous. Our kids could have killed themselves walking around the second level. … We went to the city and … the city determined that it was a nuisance … and actually ordered us to tear that house down." — Property owners and attorneys Frank and Nina Bottini address the San Diego City Council on Sept. 23.

View the Windemere discussion and council vote:

Visit

bit.ly/windemere

and click on the ‘video’ tab for the city council meeting of Monday, Sept. 23. The discussion begins 51 minutes into the video.

By Pat Sherman

The San Diego City Council voted 5-3 on Sept. 23 to uphold the La Jolla Community Planning Association and La Jolla Historical Society’s (LJHS’s) appeal of a California Environmental Quality Act exemption, which led to the demolition of Irving Gill’s ‘Windemere cottage,” formerly located at 1328 Virginia Way in La Jolla.

The vote is the latest development in a contentious, two-year conversation pitting development against historic preservation.

The house, built in 1894 and believed to be the master architect’s first home in California, and the first Craftsman home in the state, was demolished on Dec. 23, 2011 after the City of San Diego deemed the property a “public nuisance,” thus requiring its demolition (sans a normally required coastal development permit).

Historic preservationists argue that property owner Frank Bottini knew the cottage was potentially historic when he purchased it, and was aware of the costs associated with restoration or relocation of Windemere if deemed historic (from $750,000 to $1 million, according to LJHS attorney, Julie Hamilton).

Hamilton said that to avoid incurring such costs, and to expedite demolition of the cottage so he could build a modern, single-family residence on the site for himself and his family, Bottini altered the structure by removing “architecturally and historically important aspects of the cottage.” These included redwood brackets in the eaves, and diamond-paned windows.

The changes, preservationists say, weakened the structure and led the city’s Historical Resources Board (HRB) to determine it had been altered too much from its original condition to be historic, and the city’s Development Service Department to declare it a public nuisance.

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Windemere cottage circa 1910 when it was located on Prospect Street. Courtesy

The motion to uphold the LJHS’s appeal was made by District 1 City Councilmember Sherri Lightner, who represents La Jolla, and seconded by District 9 representative Marti Emerald (opposing the motion were Kevin Faulconer, Lori Zapf and Mark Kersey, with Scott Sherman recusing himself from the vote).

“It is not appropriate to pretend (Windemere) never existed; this is a wake-up call for all of us about the potential abuse of the system,” Lightner said when making the motion, noting that an environmental analysis should have been done when Windemere existed on the site, and not when it was finally performed, after the demolition on Jan. 11, 2013.

“Handling this any other way sets a dangerous precedent that will allow homeowners to intentionally damage and degrade a historic property to the point that it becomes a public nuisance in order to avoid historic designation so they can obtain a demolition permit from the city,” Lightner said.

The issue will now return to Development Services Department staff, who have been asked to “re-evaluate the environmental determination” from the point at which Windemere cottage still existed on the site.

Lightner’s motion instructs staff to conduct an “expedited” environmental review that takes into consideration a historic report completed on the property in January 2010 by the previous property owners (who sought to designate the property historic before separating and selling it).

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