By Charles Shaw
Among San Diego’s best-known landmarks are its iconic neighborhood signs. Individually, they represent the distinctive flavor and feel of their respective neighborhoods. Collectively, they constitute a remarkable piece of public art and a unique slice of history. Built mainly in the 1950s, these signs are important relics of a bygone American era, the halcyon days following World War II, when San Diego began to boom as a major hub of national defense.
Over the years as weather and wear have taken their toll, the signs have needed varying degrees of refurbishment and care. In 2003, due to advancing deterioration, the residents of the Kensington neighborhood decided that it was time to either repair or replace their sign in time for the Kensington Centennial in 2010. The sign had been hanging across Adams Avenue since 1954 and was clearly showing its age. It had been taken down and repainted in 1990, but a week after re-hanging it, on Memorial Day, a violent wind storm snapped a support cable and sent the sign crashing to the street, breaking all the neon tubes, which needed to be replaced. Since then, a number of the replacement neon letters have gone out, and the sign is peppered with bullet holes and rust and flaking paint.
In order to meet the costs of a new sign, the Kensington-Talmadge Community Association applied for and received a grant from the county for $40,000. They were able to raise an additional $48,000 from residents in the neighborhood (the sign was originally built for a cost of $1,166, also paid for by the community). Five hundred households voted on a new design, and after securing bids from several sign companies, KTCA settled on Fluoresco Lighting & Sign Co. Plans proceeded for the construction of a new sign that would replicate the look of the original sign, but would be mounted on steel trusses instead of hanging by cables. The winds of Memorial Day 1990 had not been forgotten.
In April of 2008, after the KTCA had filed for construction permits, an application to designate the Kensington Sign as a historical marker was filed with the city’s Historical Resources Board by Kensington resident Cecelia Conover, the owner of a historical renovation design studio. The Historical Resources Board looked at the sign and designated the faceplate (or “skin”) and the neon letters historic. But the board specifically noted that the “poles, cable and airspace” were not historic and did not have to be repaired or replicated.
The KTCA appealed the ruling, which has been held up while both sides attempt to agree on a design solution. At present, disputes over whether to use cables again, or steel supports, are what is holding up an agreement. The KTCA claims that their budget only allows for one design with the option of either a straight or arched sign and truss.
“This is where historical preservation and budgetary reality collide,” said Harold Koenig, president of the KTCA.
At an additional cost of $3,000, the sign was taken down on Oct. 29, 2008, for a complete inspection by engineers from Structural Technology Consultants, the firm retained by Fluoresco. Engineers found lead-based paint that violated the City of San Diego’s Lead Abatement Ordinance, and determined that the transformers inside the sign–the originals–contained PCBs, which were banned from use in the 1970s because they are known carcinogens. Pigeons had taken up residence inside the sign and caused a substantial amount of damage. The main structural frame was compromised.
According to the California Historical Building Code, historical structures can be reconstructed to replicate the appearance of the original if the original is “unsafe, a distinct hazard or an imminent threat.” Because of the findings of the engineers, the position of the KTCA is that their proposed sign meets all three conditions and is a “public nuisance.” Despite a compromise proposal from the KTCA to create an exact replica of the sign using 19 of the 20 neon letters currently in use, the Historical Resources Board would not budge.
About 100 residents of the community crowded into the Kensington Community Church on June 10 for a public meeting to air both sides of the debate. Each side was permitted to give a presentation, and then Q & A followed in the form of a panel discussion. On the panel was KTCA president Koenig, Historical Resources Board Senior Planner Cathy Winterrowd, Don Restin from the City of San Diego Development Services, and Jim Miller, a structural engineer. The City Attorney’s Office was invited to participate but declined to send a representative.
Sentiment in the room was overwhelmingly in favor of replacing the sign, and against the preservationists. Palpable frustration was expressed by some residents during the public comment sections.
“We need to find a middle ground solution, and get going on this. This sign is about our community identity, and this is very important to us,” said Dick Bart, a Kensington resident
In response, Winterrowd explained that the project is not in compliance with standards set by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior for the treatment of historic properties, and any historical renovation project requires consistency with these standards before it can be approved. “To repair the structure is the standard, but if repair is not feasible, replacement can proceed,” said Winterrowd. “In the case of the Kensington sign, the historic cladding needs to be repaired, not replaced. The interior—the transformers and machinery–can be replaced.”
In the comments portion, a man who identified himself as a former member of the Historical Resources Board stated: “The standards of the Secretary of the Interior are one of the reasons that the Kensington community looks the way it does these days. Without it, Kensington would look like Rancho Bernardo. The standards are not arbitrary, they are here to benefit the spirit of the community.”
In support of preserving the sign, David Marshall of Heritage Architecture and Planning, a recent winner of SOHO’s “People in Preservation”award, said, “the Planning Group is essentially trying to ram this down the neighborhood’s throat.”
“They are essentially holding the sign hostage, claiming that their way is the only way,” Marshall said. “They don’t know the proper process. The structural engineer they quote in their two reports is the engineer for the sign company (Fluoresco), who would get the contract to replace the sign.”
“This issue is not about what the sign is made of,” said another speaker, Sean Harrison. “It’s about what it represents, which is us. So let’s stop complaining about what it might be made of and just build the thing!”
Harrison then echoed the sentiments of a few attendees, who felt that the sign was distracting from other more important priorities. “I can’t believe we as a community are getting sandbagged by discussions about signs that have nothing to do with anything except about how ‘great’ we are, when we have a serious problem with the current water shortage and our dilapidated water delivery system. That’s where our time and money should be going. This is a huge waste of time.”
The sign remains in pieces in an off-site location, and the county grant is set to expire at the end of the year. Until a design solution can be agreed upon by both parties, Kensington will continue to go without the most visible symbol of its community identity.
Charles Shaw is a widely published writer and editor whose work appears in Examiner and the Huffington Post. A longtime community activist, he recently moved to San Diego and lives in the Hillcrest area.