Critics: La Jolla’s ‘Windemere’ demolished without proper permit

Attorney Frank Bottini, owner of the ‘Windemere’ site on Virginia Way, defends his decision to demolish the Irving Gill cottage last December. Pat Sherman photos
Attorney Frank Bottini, owner of the ‘Windemere’ site on Virginia Way, defends his decision to demolish the Irving Gill cottage last December. Pat Sherman photos

By Pat Sherman

Members of La Jolla’s Development Permit Review Committee (DPR) say the city should have required the owner of a property where Irving Gill’s “Windemere” cottage once stood to obtain a coastal development permit before demolishing the structure last December.

During the DPR’s Dec. 11 meeting, the committee voted unanimously that findings could not be made for a coastal development permit the property owner is seeking to build a two-story, 4,918-square-foot replacement structure on his parcel. The committee found that the proposed project did not comply with a municipal code requirement that all demolition in a coastal zone requires a coastal development permit.

Historic preservationists and some community members are upset that the city instead issued the property owner, Frank Bottini, a same-day emergency demolition permit to dismantle what they say was arguably the state’s oldest example of Craftsman-style architecture. The demolition at 1328 Virginia Way occurred while the California Office of Historic Preservation was in the process of considering a historic designation for Windemere.

“This applicant did have options,” said La Jolla attorney Courtney Ann Coyle, who spoke during the meeting. Coyle said Bottini could have purchased another property in La Jolla that was closer to the French aesthetic he desired, or continued working with the La Jolla Historical Society (LJHS) to move Windemere to its Prospect Street headquarters.

Attorney Scott Moomjian and Laura Black, manager of the city’s Sustainable Building Expedite Program, which reduces the time it takes to review development permit requests.

Coyle said Bottini’s action showed a “disregard for the values of the community — and the community cares about history.”

During the DPR meeting, committee members also questioned whether the property owner engaged in “project segmentation,” in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), for not initially disclosing an intent to rebuild on the site.

According to “A CEQA Primer” by Keith Sugar, development project descriptions must include all relevant aspects of a project, including future development.

“The danger of segmentation is that it chops projects into smaller bits, which standing alone, may not present the full range and intensity of adverse impacts resulting from the entire project,” Sugar writes.

Project manager Laura Black, with the city’s Development Services Department, maintained that there had been “no project segmentation pursuant to CEQA.”

In September 2011, the city’s Historical Resources Board declined to grant Windemere historic designation, saying the property had suffered a loss of integrity.

However, preservationists contend that Bottini, acting on the guidance of historian and attorney Scott Moomjian, removed or altered character-defining features of the property, such as windows, eaves and accompanying hinges that destabilized the building and diminished its historicity.

La Jolla attorney and CEQA expert Courtney Ann Coyle said Bottini’s action showed a “disregard for the values of the community.”

Speaking at the DPR meeting, Moomjian also maintained that there had been no segmentation, adding that the property owner only decided to develop the property after the city’s Historical Resources Board (HRB) declined to deem Windemere historic.

Addressing the DRP meeting attendees, Coyle said the property was a prime example of “demolition by neglect.” Coyle, a CEQA expert who lives in the vicinity of the former ‘Windemere’ site, said Bottini had left a second-story window open and banging in the breeze for months.

Former LJHS Director John Bolthouse and board President Tom Grunow were in discussions with Bottini about relocation prior to its demolition, she noted. “That gave me hope that there was a way to work this through,” Coyle said.

Representatives from the LJHS and the Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) said Moomjian suppressed much of the contents of a historic report prepared by San Diego-based Legacy 106 during the HRB hearing. When the report’s author, Ron May, attempted to publish the report on his blog, Bottini threatened him with legal action, said SOHO Vice President Dan Soderberg. Preservationists say the report contained information crucial to help the HRB make its determination.

“It’s very suspicious and problematic,” Coyle said. “It sets a terrible precedent that someone can go through and work the system.”

La Jolla Community Planning Association member Phil Merten said the city should have required greater environmental review of Windemere, and not issued an over-the-counter permit.

“In the municipal code, the demolition of any structure, whether historic or brand new, requires a coastal development permit,” Merten said. “The Development Services Department really dropped the ball on this.”

Addressing the DPR committee, Bottini said he followed all the city’s rules, and that Windemere had been “condemned by the City of San Diego.”

Bottini said Windemere was “in very bad disrepair” when he purchased it and uninhabitable, standing as an “attractive nuisance for children on Virginia Way to come in.”

“The foundation was in very bad repair, as you can imagine with the move from Prospect Street to Virginia Way,” he said.

However, historical society representatives said they had been in the house prior to the sale and that it was still structurally sound.

If Windemere was in a state of irreparable disrepair when Bottini purchased it, Coyle contended, then he must have known he would rebuild on the site from the start. That this intention was not disclosed as part of the demolition permitting process shows that project segmentation occurred, she said.

“Why buy the property then if it was in such bad shape,” she said. “It’s very suspicious.”

Diane Kane, a member of the LJHS’s Preservation Committee, questioned how Windemere could be structurally sound one day and bulldozer-ready three months later.

“It seems to me there was a highly cynical approach in the development process — and I think it’s troublesome for our processes as we go forward in the city,” she said.