Historical Resources Board votes to designate Torrey Pines Mesa site as historic

Member Courtney Coyle of La Jolla addresses the San Diego Historical Resources Board during its online meeting last month.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

After heavy deliberation on the extent to which local Native American tribes should be consulted, the San Diego Historical Resources Board decided to designate an area of the Torrey Pines Mesa as a historic archaeological site.

The board voted 7-0 last month to designate the undisclosed location near UC San Diego as a historical resource under Criterion A, in which a site “exemplifies or reflects special elements of the city’s, a community’s or a neighborhood’s historical, archaeological, cultural, social, economic, political, aesthetic, engineering, landscaping or architectural development.”

For the record:

2:38 p.m. March 22, 2022This article has been corrected to say the board was tasked only with determining whether the site is a historical resource and not the factors that should be considered for the upcoming project.

Torrey Pines Mesa encompasses UCSD and research institutions such as the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Scripps Research, Sanford Burnham Prebys and the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, according to the university.

The surrounding areas have “known archaeological and cultural significance … that contain deep and intact deposits rich in cultural material with the potential to address important research questions,” city staff member Suzanne Segur told the HRB.

The designation is coming forth “in conjunction with a proposed development project,” Segur said. The specifics of the project were not disclosed.

The board was tasked only with determining whether the site is a historical resource and not the factors that should be considered for the upcoming project. No board member opposed the designation, though some had concerns about a lack of outreach to tribes.

According to a staff report, the location is “one of a series of archaeological sites” identified in the 1920s on the Torrey Pines Mesa.

“In 1961, Dr. James Moriarty and a group of students from University of California San Diego … recalled that as many as 30 units were hand-excavated on a grid system, but no map of the excavation units was found, nor were any field notes. … According to Moriarty, six burials were uncovered and recorded during his excavations … and were left in place.”

A report submitted to the board suggested that “the city of San Diego would be initiating … a government-to-government form of consultation” to area tribes for their input, but “there is nothing in the paperwork that said this has occurred,” according to HRB member and La Jolla resident Courtney Coyle.

City staff member Elizabeth Shearer-Nguyen said the stipulation would apply to the project itself but that the tribes would not be consulted on the historical designation.

Coyle said she found that “troubling” and said the site could have “tribal and cultural value.”

Given that six burials reportedly were held there and beads were found there, “to not have the tribal perspective integrated into the designation of the site and any mitigation and treatment that might happen is problematic for me,” Coyle said.

She also posed questions about the proposed boundary of what would be considered the historic site, noting that only a portion of the area would be considered.

HRB member Cindy Stankowski said “this is a significant site surrounded by other significant sites, and mitigation has been difficult. You may not be saving anything, or you may be saving something great.” She said it bothered her as well that the tribes were not brought into the conversation.

“To not have the tribal perspective integrated into the designation of the site ... is problematic for me.”

— Courtney Coyle

Shearer-Nguyen said the intent of the designation is to “conserve any remaining part of that site and mitigate for what the project will do … [and place] a conservation easement on the designated area.”

She said 75 percent of the area is being preserved, some as open space and some under a parking lot that will remain as such, with a no-build easement on it.

Applicant representative Neil Hyytinen said “there is nothing nefarious on the part of the applicant. … There is a very robust mitigation plan and data recovery plan that is going to be tied to the project.”

Nevertheless, Coyle said she wanted to be assured that the boundaries are correct and reflect archaeological and tribal significance.

She said she supported the designation overall, though she abstained from the vote.

The San Diego Historical Resources Board next meets Thursday, March 24. No La Jolla properties are up for review. To learn more, visit and click on the “Public hearings, meetings and notices” tab. ◆