Alibi V.17 No.3 • Jan 17-23, 2008 

Council Watch

2008: Back to the Future

The wilder fringes of the built environment dominated the Jan. 7 City Council meeting, from tents to adobes to very tall cosmetic shells.

Councilor Isaac Benton's bill authorizing the use of city property on the southeast corner of Lomas and Second Street to build workforce housing was postponed until Jan. 23. Several representatives of housing coalitions spoke in support of the bill.

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Issue Council's Take Reporter's Take
Dancing in the Dark

In 2005, the Council granted city landmark status to El Vado Motel on Central soon after it was purchased by Richard Gonzales. A district court rejected the designation because a required economic study had not been done. An appeals court remanded the matter to the Landmarks and Urban Conservation Committee (LUCC) for another round.

The economic study now completed, Councilor Isaac Benton sponsored a bill to restore the motel's landmark status. Gonzales, represented by attorney John Kelly, opposed further attempts to landmark the motel's three buildings. Gonzales wants to demolish the structures and build high-density residences on the property.

The bill was treated as a land-use appeal, or "quasi-judicial proceeding." As in a courtroom trial, spectators were not allowed to speak, and involved parties could not present evidence that was not already in the record.
Ed Boles, city historical preservation officer, said the motel met landmark criteria due to its Route 66 cultural history, distinctive Spanish Pueblo Revival style, adobe construction and multicolored neon and painted metal sign. In 1993 the motel was placed on the National Register of Historic Properties and the state Register of Cultural Properties. Boles said the LUCC voted unanimously for its preservation.

Attorney Kelly said an owner may still demolish a landmarked property if it will not produce a reasonable economic return. Gonzales, he said, would have to spend between $2.1 and $3.6 million to renovate the property, on top of the hundreds of thousands he'd spent on lawyers, appraisers and the purchase price. Kelly said the renovated motel would probably not be worth more than $700,000.

The city has been negotiating with Gonzales, but councilors were left in the dark regarding any offers, counter-offers and areas of possible compromise. Landmark status passed 5-4, Councilors Ken Sanchez, Brad Winter, Debbie O'Malley and Trudy Jones opposed.
Councilors agreed on two things—El Vado should be saved, and Gonzales has suffered from a wrangle that has dragged on far too long. There should be room for compromise. According to Peter Pierotti, assistant city attorney, the city made an offer to allow townhouse development on the back portion of the property, while the front buildings and courtyard space would be preserved. That's not very far from the original compromise proposed by Gonzales. Combined with $700,000 in city subsidies from a recently passed Metropolitan Redevelopment bond, Gonzales could come out quite well.

Regardless of whose fault it is, one can't help feeling sympathy for Gonzales, who has been in legal limbo for more than two years. However, Gonzales seems much too bright a person to have never entertained the notion that the property, on state and national historic registers since 1993, could be landmarked. Or never to have realized that a zoning change, necessary for townhouses, cannot be legally granted just to increase an owner's profits.
Why, I Can't Even See It

Councilor Don Harris sponsored a bill to camouflage new wireless telecommunication facilities so they are aesthetically integrated with their surroundings and "blend in with the nature and character of the built and natural environment." The bill would not affect existing towers.
Two speakers from the local T-Mobile affiliate opposed the bill, saying it limited the services they provide customers and treats cell phone towers differently from other tall structures. Renee Horvath of Taylor Ranch said residents wanted larger setback distances for towers. The bill passed unanimously.

The mind boggles at the possibilities. A Tingley Beach harbor full of yacht masts. Multiple all-year May Poles. Tiny Washington Monuments. Backyard Space Needles. Paul Bunyans. Acres of Chevys-on Really-Tall-Sticks. Tricentennial Towers on every block.

Equality for Locavores

Councilor Rey Garduño sponsored the creation of a task force to study local growers' markets, which are becoming more numerous around the city. In particular, the group would identify regulations that make selling at the outdoor markets more difficult.
Councilor Sally Mayer wanted to find out more about programs to put organic foods in schools. Harris was interested in similar programs for senior centers. Several growers, along with Brian Morris of the Downtown Action Team, supported the bill, which passed unanimously. Even open-air markets involve building regulations. Local farmer Eli Burg said Morningside Park, site of the Nob Hill growers’ market, did not allow stakes to be driven in the park's soil, yet city regulations require stakes to be used when erecting tents.