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Be cautious with Mills Act reform

The recent proposal by Mayor Jerry Sanders to reform the way the Mills Act is implemented in San Diego raises serious questions for La Jolla. The primary question: are there any other tools available to preserve the buildings and the neighborhoods that have for so long made La Jolla a gracious place to live?

Parts of La Jolla look ever more like neighborhoods on steroids, and in some cases the Mills Act - which allows tax breaks to those who preserve older buildings - may be the only antidote.

Bloated buildings are not signs of civic health. Note Las Vegas, where the structures impress but do not form a cohesive whole.

So it increasingly seems in La Jolla. Homes that might look lovely on five acres are shoehorned onto lots that are a few thousand square feet. Arabian-themed palaces jostle with Tuscan villas, which elbow against Victorian estates or California moderns.

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The drive from one stop sign to the next can bring an amusement-park-like tour of the cultures of the world.

If reform of the San Diego Mills Act process means that La Jolla will be less able to maintain its graceful older buildings, then we must hope mightily for the reform to fail.

Without doubt San Diego has been liberal in allowing houses to be protected under the Mills Act. As the mayor rightly points out, a quarter of all Mils Act properties are in San Diego.

But this city, so seasonable and so near the ocean, is particularly vulnerable to excess in housing construction.

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Will Rogers once said, “Buy real estate, they aren’t making any more land.” Well, they certainly aren’t making any more land like San Diego coastal land.

It is easy to imagine a future in which the predominant structural qualities are largeness and newness.

By then we will have lost many structures, much history and any opportunity to preserve a humane architectural character.

This is not a future to be desired.

Rather, areas such as La Jolla need to preserve what is good from the past and promote some sense of proportion in future construction. Reigning in the Mills Act hardly seems to address these needs.

Some of the changes the mayor is seeking are minor and can easily be supported, such as moving the deadline for applications from October to March and improving inspection of Mills Act homes.

Others are far from minor, such as capping the number of homes that can be protected each year and making it much harder to get a Mills Act designation.

Whether major or minor, however, none of the proposed reforms seems geared to improving the very thing the Mills Act is meant to accomplish - preservation of buildings that make the city more human.

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While the proposed reforms might slightly improve the city’s annual tax haul, they will weaken neighborhoods such as La Jolla exactly where they need to be strengthened - in their efforts to maintian civility in architecture.