LAND-USE CONTROVERSY PITS CHURCH SCHOOL AGAINST PRESERVATIONISTS
By Ann Jarmusch
In one of Uptown’s most sheltered enclaves, the Academy of Our Lady of Peace and a neighborhood group are clashing over the fate of three historic houses the school owns.
Between Heights community association, or BeHi (for its location between University Heights and Normal Heights), thought it had won a long, complicated battle to preserve the houses and what residents term “our beautiful BeHi way of life” in March, when the San Diego City Council voted down the all-girl Catholic high school’s expansion plan.
For their efforts, BeHi received a 2009 People in Preservation Award last month from Save Our Heritage Organisation, the county’s largest preservation group. BeHi was lauded for its perseverance and unity in protecting neighborhood historic resources and character in the face of pressure from an established, well-funded institution.
But officials at OLP, as the school is known, weren’t celebrating. In early May, their lawyers filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing the city council of violating OLP’s religious freedom by denying its ability to fulfill its mission through “modernization and expansion,” which the school maintains requires taking out the three houses.
“OLP’s decades-old facilities can no longer meet the educational needs of its students in the digital age, and they fall well below current educational standards,” the suit states.
The lawsuit alleges the city violated the school’s constitutional rights by denying the academy of its rights to free speech and free exercise of religion, as well as its rights to due process and equal protection under the law. The suit accuses the city of “treating private religious institutions on less than equal terms with nonreligious institutions.”
By denying the expansion plan that included removal of the three contested houses, the city council “chose to put the needs of a small constituency of neighbors ahead of the much larger Catholic community of San Diego,” states an open letter dated May 4 from Mary Caratan Sloper, chairwoman of OLP’s board of directors.
After conferring with a lawyer, SOHO’s executive director Bruce Coons said the suit lacks merit. “The city has rights to apply the same (planning) rules to everybody. Churches are no different,” he said. “The suit says OLP is being discriminated against, but it’s the opposite. They’re being treated the same.”
The school, now 127 years old, took up residence in the former Van Druff estate at the north end of Oregon Street, overlooking Mission Valley, in 1924. Preservationists argue that OLP has not properly maintained the estate, which Coons describes as “a mini San Simeon.” In addition, over the years, the school has razed five neighborhood houses to make room for new classrooms and parking.
OLP leaders startled neighbors nearly three years ago when they first presented their latest expansion plan, which includes demolishing a grand Spanish Revival-style home called La Casa Encantada and two smaller Spanish-style houses, all dating from around 1930. La Casa Encantada was built in 1928 and is special because a very similar casa romantica mirrors it across a shared courtyard with a central fountain. One of the other houses was built by Louise M. Severin, a pioneer in the construction field whom the city of San Diego considers a master builder.
Little has changed in OLP’s plan despite numerous community meetings and sharply worded directives from several public officials for the academy to meet with the neighbors to find common ground.
“Of all the developers we’ve tried to work with, [OLP] operated in the worst faith,” said Coons, who toured the school twice with SOHO’s Preservation Action Committee and later offered alternatives, including adapting the three houses to meet the school’s needs. “I don’t think they considered anything seriously, only their original plan.”
Neighbors tried to discuss the proposal with OLP officials, but were turned away. “The saddest thing is we always wanted to work with the school,” Becky Sullivan said. “We’ve drawn up plans, but they won’t even look at them.”
By contrast, the North Park Planning Committee praised leaders of St. Augustine High School, which recently completed a major expansion, for their receptiveness to community input.
According to the lawsuit, OLP and its architect investigated alternative sites for its new classroom building and evaluated reusing existing buildings, but none of the proposals were feasible for legal, safety or financial reasons.
OLP wants to construct a 30-foot-tall, 21,000-square-foot classroom and lab building — designed by McArdle Associates Architects of Carlsbad to look like a Spanish-style house from the street — in place of La Casa Encantada. The other two houses would make way for more surface parking, utility buildings and a new level of underground parking.
In response to community criticism, the school reduced the classroom building’s size and changed its appearance to better blend with nearby residences. It also began exploring the possibility of moving the houses and donating them for nonprofit uses, and eliminated plans for a two-story parking structure where the one-story historic houses now stand.
Inadequate school parking and reckless drivers late for class have bothered BeHi neighbors for years. Their frustration surged to anger and distrust after a member discovered the school had been overenrolled by 110 students and nearly two dozen staff for 10 to 12 years, in violation of its city permit. The school refused to reduce the numbers and the city council and BeHi have accepted an enrollment cap at 750.
“We want the school to be here another 127 years, but not at the expense of the neighborhood,” said Dan Sullivan, who, with his wife Becky and two kids, lives in the casa romantica that would be deprived of its garden setting, not to mention its architectural mate, if OLP’s new classroom building were constructed.
“This is a low-density, historic neighborhood. We assumed that house would always be there,” Becky Sullivan said of La Casa Encantada. “Where we now look out at red tile and blue sky and a garden, there’d be a 30-foot wall.”
The Sullivans founded BeHi in this neighborhood of nearly 400 Spanish Revival homes and Craftsman bungalows. They put out fliers one weekend inviting neighbors to their house for a potluck supper to discuss OLP’s plans.
“We thought we were alone in our worry. Then 40 to 50 people showed up,” Becky Sullivan recalled. Potlucks became an organizational tool and have continued, along with community celebrations and yard sales, all touted along with OLP-related developments in a monthly newsletter.
“This is one of those ‘it takes a village’ stories,” said Dionné Carlson, one of the organizers. In addition to SOHO’s professional attention, she said the group got essential help from the North Park Planning Committee and neighborhood preservation groups in Mission Hills, Kensington, University Heights and Hillcrest. A space planner and an environmental analyst who live nearby also lent their expertise to the cause.
Also important was BeHi’s decision to hire Jim Bartell, a lobbyist, and Susan Brandt-Hawley, a Bay Area lawyer who specializes in environmental law and represents SOHO. The group spent more than $43,000 and a member’s frequent flyer miles for their services and still has a $13,000 debt to retire.
“The neighborhood group was the most pragmatic, easiest partner we’ve ever worked with,” said SOHO’s Coons. “They made concessions on every issue – parking, student and faculty enrollment, parties – but they wouldn’t give up on preserving the houses.”
But, according to the lawsuit, it was the neighbors who refused to be reasonable, bringing the process to a standstill. Members of the BeHi group attended numerous meetings on the subject, the suit states, “and remained vocal opponents of the modernization plan, notwithstanding the numerous, important design modifications and concessions made by OLP.”
At one point Dan Sullivan offered to sell his house to OLP if the school would agree to preserve it and the adjacent La Casa Encantada and fold these “companion” homes and their central courtyard into the campus. Sullivan said the school sent a real estate agent who made a “lowball” offer, far less than the $1,179,000 OLP paid for the similar Casa Encantada in 2006.
“The Sullivans did offer to sell us their home at a price that wasn’t acceptable to us,” said Dasan Mahadevan, OLP’s business manager. “I do not recall at all a contingency that the houses be preserved.”
“To remove these houses, especially the large one, would deprive the neighborhood of its historic character,” Coons said. “The school demolished five houses in the past. To take out more would jeopardize the neighborhood’s chances of qualifying as a historic district” and possible tax savings for homeowners though the Mills Act.
Coons said OLP could accomplish its modernization and expansion goals by integrating the three houses into the campus and reallocating space in its historic buildings. Second-floor counseling offices with beautiful views could be moved into one of the small Spanish-style houses, freeing up room for classroom space, for example, he said. Two nuns who live in a huge campus building with a commercial kitchen could relocate into the other historic house.
“Those are really easy solutions that would satisfy both sides,” Coons said. “Besides, we think adaptively reusing the original buildings will make them much more beautiful and useful than they’ve been in years.”
Some of the suggested adaptations are not practical because of the age of the existing campus buildings, according to the lawsuit. To be upgraded for other uses, some of the buildings would have to be changed to meet current earthquake and building codes — a costly process that would severely impact the historic nature of the buildings. Preservationists counter that the state Historical Building Code could apply to some of these upgrades, making them feasible and affordable without damaging the historic Van Druff structures.
OLP spokeswoman Paola Avila defended the school’s current expansion plan. “When you look around the city you see everybody’s updating schools with Propositions MM and S [funds]. We’re really just talking about one classroom building.”
To see the expansion plans proposed by the Academy of Our Lady of Peace, go to www.aolp.org
Ann Jarmusch, who lives in South Park, writes about art, architecture and historic preservation. She can be reached at email@example.com.