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Late landscape architect’s La Jolla home being considered for historic designation; 2 other sites are chosen

The landscaped frontage of the Joseph and Elizabeth Yamada House in La Jolla's Muirlands neighborhood
An image presented to the San Diego Historical Resources Board during its Sept. 22 meeting shows the landscaped frontage of the Joseph and Elizabeth Yamada House in La Jolla’s Muirlands neighborhood.
(Screenshot by Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Given that one of the three La Jolla properties that went before the San Diego Historical Resources Board on Sept. 22 for potential historic designation belonged to a landscape architect, the role of landscape architecture was a key item of discussion about it during the board’s meeting.

The Joseph and Elizabeth Yamada House at 1676 El Camino del Teatro in the Muirlands area was up for the board’s review, along with the Arklow Cottage at 7425 Fay Ave. and Mut kula xuy/ Mut lah hoy ya Site No. 11, a Kumeyaay archaeological site for which there is no address.

The board ultimately asked the applicant team for the Yamada House to return, and the others were approved as consent items, meaning there was no discussion.

While HRB trustees agreed that the Yamada House should be designated, the features to be included in the designation were up for debate.

San Diego city staff member Alvin Lin said the property is named for late San Diego landscape architect Joseph Yamada, who designed for institutions such as SeaWorld and UC San Diego, and Elizabeth Yamada, who “worked in prominent landscape architecture firm Wimmer and Yamada” and “led activism and education efforts for preservation of Japanese American history.” The two lived at the property from 1973 until their deaths just days apart in May 2020.

A report prepared about the property determined that the home is historically significant under Criterion B (indicating a property is identified with people or events significant in local, state or national history) and Criterion C (which states a property embodies distinctive characteristics of a style, type, period or method of construction or is a valuable example of the use of natural materials or craftsmanship).

The Joseph and Elizabeth Yamada House at 1676 El Camino del Teatro in La Jolla
An image shown to the San Diego Historical Resources Board shows the Joseph and Elizabeth Yamada House at 1676 El Camino del Teatro in La Jolla.
(Screenshot by Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

But HRB trustee Ann Woods said: “I find it ironic that we are designating the home of a landscape architect and there are no landscape components in the designation. … Aren’t there components that should be included?”

The natural boulder walkway and the waterfall next to the front door are noted in the nomination, but the inclusion of other landscape features — which can grow, change and die — are harder to include, according to city staff.

San Diego senior planner Suzanne Segur said that “once you get into things that are more abstract, it is really hard to regulate. In the past, we have designated certain trees or plants and particular items, but they have been called out specifically. But it is hard to regulate things that are growing.”

Kelsey Kaline of IS Architecture, which prepared the historical report, said the nomination has been in the works since January and that “there is a mountain of work that would need to be done” to revisit the landscaping features. However, she said the team is willing to map out specific landscaping elements.

In support of that idea, HRB trustee and La Jolla resident Courtney Coyle said she wanted to have a complete designation and said, “I don’t want it to be on my watch that we miss something important that might be there.”

A motion to postpone the vote until November to give the team more time to consider whether to include landscaping elements in the nomination passed unanimously.

Arklow Cottage

The Arklow Cottage was brought before the HRB because of owner Leigh Plesniak’s wishes to have the property designated as a historical resource.

A report prepared by Landmark Historic Preservation concluded that the cottage is eligible for designation under Criterion C and Criterion A (which states a property 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).

While city staff agreed that the site is a significant historical resource under HRB Criterion A, it did not agree with the listing under Criterion C.

The argument for Criterion A is that the property “exhibits the primary characteristics typical of La Jolla beach cottages: one story, small dwelling, low pitched roof, wood siding and orientation toward an available coastal view.”

The property was designated under Criterion A as a consent item.

Mut kula xuy/ Mut lah hoy ya

The board determined as a consent item that Mut kula xuy/ Mut lah hoy ya Site No. 11 is historic under Criterion A.

“The subject property is located within the mapped boundaries of a regionally significant archaeological site known as the Spindrift Site,” according to a city staff report. “This site encompasses a large habitation area known to its Kumeyaay inhabitants as Mut kula xuy/Mut lah hoy ya (‘place of many caves’). The area is composed of several large midden areas, temporary camps, pottery and lithic scatters, various shell scatters, and burials found throughout multiple, consecutive layers representative of different cultural phases found in the San Diego region.”

Benefits

Benefits of historic designation include availability of the Mills Act program for reduced property tax for owners to help maintain, restore and rehabilitate historic properties; use of the more flexible Historical Building Code; use of the historical conditional use permit, which allows flexibility of use; programs that vary depending on site conditions and the owner’s objectives; and flexibility in other regulatory requirements. However, houses cannot be modified significantly once they are designated historic.

The San Diego Historical Resources Board meets monthly. To learn more, visit sandiego.gov/development-services and click on “Public hearings, meetings and notices.” ◆