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

View the Windemere discussion and council vote:


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.

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).

Hamilton said Bottini and his attorney suppressed this report in 2011 at the time the HRB was deciding whether to grant a local historic designation for the property, even going so far as to threaten its author with litigation.

Elizabeth Shearer-Nguyen, the senior planner with development services who originally reviewed the project, will be re-analyzing it as if Windemere still remained.

“I’m stumped myself,” Shearer-Nguyen said about conducting an environmental review on a property that no longer exists. “We’re having an internal meeting to try to determine how to proceed. This is very unusual. … We’re going to have to look at what (information) we have internally … and also go back and read the (city council) motion and make sure we’re following a direction staff was given.

“I don’t know how I’m going to proceed yet; it’s difficult for me to determine exactly when it will be done,” she added.

LJHS Executive Director Heath Fox said he expects the city’s new environmental analysis will show that there was a potential historic resource on the site and that the owner or possibly the city will be culpable for “some form of mitigation for that loss.”

“The process will determine what the proper mitigation could be and should be,” he said.

Though in 2011 the LJHS and its former executive director discussed with Bottini the prospect of relocating Windemere to the LJHS campus on Prospect Street, Hamilton said the LJHS recognizes that incurring the costs of re-creating Gill’s cottage from architectural drawings is largely impractical.

“We had originally told them we realized that it is impractical,” Hamilton said, adding that earlier this year the LJHS suggested that Bottini make a “$300,000 contribution to the (LJHS’s) historic preservation front” as mitigation for demolishing Windemere.

Hamilton said those e-mails were forwarded to the city council. “We weren’t playing hide the ball,” she said, adding that the contribution would have been a way to mitigate the loss and “avoid some of the pain.”

Hamilton said money paid to mitigate Windemere’s loss could have been put toward the ongoing restoration of the LJHS’s museum and offices, which include an Irving Gill addition.

“That would have been ideal,” she said. “That would have been the best mitigation.”

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