Kensington residents see new sign as lackluster compromise
By Pat Sherman
SDUN Assistant Editor
After years of bitter debate that nearly ended in litigation, the neon sign that once seemed to float magically in the night sky above Kensington — and which has been conspicuously absent during this year’s centennial festivities — may soon make a reappearance, or at least a facsimile of it.
The sign, which extended across Adams Avenue from the branch library steps, was taken down in October 2008, just months after the San Diego Historical Resources Board deemed it historically significant. The board required that every effort be made to repair and restore the original sign, or that an exact replica be erected in its place.
San Diego’s Development Services Department is currently reviewing plans for a near replica of the original sign, which was installed in December 1954. The Kensington-Talmadge Community Association said the old sign was too corroded and timeworn to salvage.
If approved, the sign would be constructed and installed by Spring-Valley-based Fluoresco Lighting & Signs.
The original sign, composed of steel and composite tin would be replaced by a lightweight, less expensive and more durable aluminum replica that is less prone to rust and oxidation.
Harold Koenig, president of the association, which owns and maintains the sign, said that if the city approves the permit, the new sign could be finished in time for a Thanksgiving dedication ceremony.
“It won’t take very long to build,” Koenig said. “The manufacturers tell us six weeks to two months.”
Some minor structural changes for the new sign were required to meet modern building codes. Cables that once held the sign aloft and allowed it to sway in the breeze will now be rigid and thicker, suggesting the original design element while keeping the sign firmly in place. Support poles on either side of the street also will be wider.
Most of the pink neon letters from the old sign will be salvaged and used in the new design.
“We will reuse all the tubes that aren’t broken, which is all but one letter as far as I know,” Koenig said. “There may be some cracks in others that are discovered when we try to refill them with gas.”
If the city approves it, the new sign would be located 8 ½ feet west of the original, placing it in the center of the block, Koenig said.
The sign’s location must be altered because cement cores surrounding the original poles’ base would be too costly and labor intensive to remove, Koenig said. The old poles will be cut off at the base, and a plaque placed in the concrete marking the location of the original sign.
Though Kensington residents say they will be happy to have a sign again, neither the historic purists who insisted that the original sign be restored, nor those who favored a new design, are expressing complete satisfaction with the resulting compromise.
In votes conducted before and after the sign received its historic designation, a narrow majority of Kensington residents said they preferred a new design. It featured an arched sign with a trestle support system, decorative lampposts and river rock pillars.
Though the historic designation would have prohibited that ornate design from consideration, association members continued to promote it – a point of contention among those who favored a restoration or replication of the original, straight-top sign with simple gray poles.
The association raised about $85,000 for the sign project through a $40,000 grant from the county and Supervisor Ron Roberts, as well as about 370 individual donations of between $10 and $500.
Roberts said the time frame in which the grant was to be spent had to be expanded.
“Normally we’re expecting projects will be initiated within a 12-month period,” Roberts said. “Clearly, this wasn’t. … This is one of the longest (delays) we’ve ever seen.”
Association treasurer Thomas Ciaraffo said the association spent about $8,000 on its initial design and mail ballots.
More than a dozen people who favored a restoration or a new design asked that their donation be returned, resulting in a loss of about $4,000.
“They were just so furious,” Koenig said. “Almost every week (other) people come up to me and say, ‘You know, I can live with it but I sure would have liked the other (design).’”
Ciaraffo said Fluoresco had not yet given the association an exact price for the job, though Koenig estimated it would cost between $75,000 and $80,000.
“I am of the belief that it will be within our budget or somewhat less than our budget,” Ciaraffo said.
The association was prepared to approach the City Council to seek an appeal of the Historical Resources Board’s determination and pursue a new design, which would have set the project back by at least another year. Association leadership contacted an attorney, expecting that the matter could wind up in litigation. While the association was willing to wait out the Council’s decision, they balked at the estimated $25,000-plus in legal fees it would have cost to fight the Historical Resources Board, Ciaraffo said.
“At that point we said, ‘Thank you very much. Let’s see if we can come to some sort of a compromise,’” he said.
Louise Guarnotta, the association’s membership chair, favored yet another design that would have replicated the original sign, while using more decorative support poles, similar to what are used in the Encinitas sign, or the existing light poles.
“They’re fluted and they’re a pretty forest green and it would match some of the other things, like the playground equipment across the street from where the sign is going to be,” Guarnotta said. “I’m disappointed because I think we’re missing an opportunity to kind of enhance the neighborhood a little bit.
“The majority of residents had voted with their money to have a new sign,” she said. “It’s too bad that majority can’t rule in this case … but I understand the process and I’m willing to live with it.”
Celia Conover, a graphic artist and Kensington resident who preferred restoration of the original sign, made the initial contact with the Historical Resources Board to obtain its historic designation. Before the sign was taken down and moved to a Fluoresco’s warehouse in Spring Valley, it had been the oldest of San Diego’s neighborhood signs.
“Maybe some people preferred the new version, but majority doesn’t rule in the case of historic designation,” Conover said. “It’s a bigger symbol for the city than just a few people’s opinions.”
Conover said more decorative neighborhood signs in San Diego County might look nice, but they aren’t original and create “a false sense of history.”
“Normal Heights and Kensington had the original deal,” Conover said. “To me it was kind of insanity to take down the original, basically junk it, and (try to) put up a sort of overblown new design.”
Koenig and Guarnotta maintain that the original sign was too corroded, contained dangerous levels of lead (from peeling paint) and leaked polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which the National Cancer Institute has classified as probable human carcinogens – health factors that preservationists claim the association inflated to push their preferred design.
“It was this cheap sheet metal that had been up there for 60 year,” Guarnotta said. “There was nothing you could do with it.”
Darrel Divine, a branch manager with Fluoresco, confirmed that assessment.
“There was absolutely no way to restore it,” Divine said, noting that the interior frame was severely rusted.
Wiring redone in the early 1990′s had deteriorated due to birds nesting inside the frame, defecating and decomposing after being electrocuted, he said.
“Any time you get a bird inside of a sign they do a tremendous amount of damage,” Divine said.
Conover said she can live with the current proposal, though she feels the association wasted time and money promoting designs that would have ultimately been rejected. Due to the sign’s age, it would have had to go before the Historical Resources Board. By working to obtain the designation herself, Conover said she wasn’t being an obstructionist, but merely saving time by advancing an inevitable determination.
Kensington resident Daniel Soderberg, who favored restoring the old sign, noted a similar dispute in Coronado, where historic preservationists prefer refurbishing the Coronado Theatre’s terrazzo tile, while city staff recommends new terrazzo be installed. In that case, however, the terrazzo was examined to determine its historic significance and condition before plans were drawn up for their possible replacement, Soderberg said.
“That’s what didn’t happen in Kensington,” he said. “You had the fox guarding the chicken coup.”
The current design plans were first shown to the community as early as January, Conover said.
“I don’t understand why he (Koenig) has continued to let the clock run out … (and) to delay getting permits and getting it approved,” she said. “That’s been a very frustrating thing… . The community’s really tired of the issue and everybody just wants the sign finished and back in its place.”
Roberts said that if the project were to be pushed back by another year or two he’d consider “reprogramming” the county grant for alternate uses in the Kensington-Talmadge area.
“We have no shortage of things that need to be done (there),” he said
The office of District 3 Councilmember Todd Gloria submitted a letter of support for the current design plans May 24.
“That particular (design) will ensure that we get the sign up during the centennial year for Kensington,” Gloria said.
“I think the common denominator, no matter which version you might prefer, (is that) everyone wants to see the sign up sooner, rather than later.”