The San Marino Design Review Committee unanimously declared a Wallace Neff-designed, California Ranch style home at 1040 Oak Grove Ave. to be historically significant for the City of San Marino.
The committee’s action will require the homeowner, Hongbin Peng, to initiate an environmental impact review, or EIR, which will examine the impact of tearing down the home on the environment.
In an hour-and-a-half long hearing on Dec. 7, committee members decided that the home was an exception to the exemption under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.
City Associate Planner Amanda Merlo explained that most homes up for demolition are exempt under CEQA, but that “the exception to an exemption is if the project would significantly impact a historical resource.”
Merlo, who had spent the day speaking to the city attorney about 1040 Oak Grove Ave., continued to provide the committee with more details regarding its options.
“The reports do a good job of outlining the criteria they used to come to their conclusion. You could use that as a framework to determine if you agree with their conclusions or not,” Merlo stated, referring to two consultant-prepared historic resources reports that found the home ineligible for historic designation on the national, state and local levels.
The reports were paid for by two different applicants as a result of a change in ownership of the property.
“Our client did pay for this. First client paid for the first report. Second client paid for the second report. They would’ve been happy for the city to pay for it, but I don’t think the city wanted to pay for it,” said Adele Chang of LCRA Architects, who represented the former homeowner, as well as the current homeowner, in their attempts to tear down the home.
“We never had any communication with them. They would not talk to us beyond arranging for them to have access to the property,” Chang noted, responding to claims—made previously and at the meeting—that the reports were biased.
“I really strongly suggest that in the future the city pays for any of these assessments in order to completely show that high degree of fairness,” she suggested.
The DRC did not question the integrity of the reports; however, it found room for debate with their conclusions.
“Reasonable minds do differ in opinion as to whether [the home] is significant or not. I think, for myself, having heard the community comments and knowing what I know about Wallace Neff as a famous architect, I come down with the opinion that I do think, from our local perspective—and translating that to our local government perspective—that this house is important,” said Member Corrina Wong, leading committee deliberations.
“I think that we have to listen to the people, on this committee, and I think tonight the people have spoken,” Vice Chairperson William Dietrick declared. He concurred, “I would say that that is a significant, important building in our town.”
Committee Member Kevin Cheng, who noted he had some experience with the environmental impact review process, added his comments.
“I would decide to now state that it is in fact a historical resource in order to obtain a higher level of review, and have an expert tell us what mitigation measures can be done to reduce the impact, which the reports we’ve been provided do not do,” he said.
Alternate Committee Member Judy Johnson-Brody also shared her experience with environmental impact reviews.
“This house should go through an EIR. We should have more historic review than what this committee is able to do from the materials we were provided and the discussion we’ve had tonight in order to do justice to this city and the residents who have put the time and effort and concern into voicing their opinions,” Johnson-Brody said.
She added that even if the EIR supported the home’s teardown, “This is one of the major gateways to the city. This is our most pride-filled street. Whatever is put on this property should be something that we are equally proud of as a city.”
Though the proposed home did not get much attention during the hearing, architect Adele Chang noted “[the new home] is in footprint, very similar to the existing house.”
“We kind of stuck up to meet the taller home to the south and stayed more low-profile closer to the single story homes to the north. To me that’s compatible and addresses the overall massing of the street,” she added, sharing her willingness to modify some parts of the proposed design.
The home’s proposed fence and gate were another matter altogether given that the gates, which had been installed without a permit, had separate hearings at two prior committee meetings.
“[The homeowners] would be happy to change the gate to whatever is acceptable to the committee if they could be only allowed to keep the existing gate until such a time there’s an approved gate,” Chang said, noting security as the homeowners’ primary concern.
She also noted that the homeowners were misled by their contractor regarding the attainment of a city permit for the existing gates, which were recently ordered by the San Marino Planning Commission to be removed.
A force of 20 preservation-minded community members turned out to oppose the teardown of the Wallace Neff home.
“I don’t know how many of the Ranch homes that he did, but this is part of his overall legacy that he left. And if you tear it down, you’ve taken away part of the heart of what I think this community is about, that legacy,” said Jane Irwin of Shenandoah Rd.
Irwin echoed another sentiment shared by many other speakers.
“I’m not someone who thinks houses like this shouldn’t be remodeled somewhat or added on to. I’m not opposed to that, but to completely take it down and actually have it sit there for several years now and let it deteriorate is really disgraceful,” she added.
“If you turn around and look across the street from the house, all the homes on the other side of Oak Grove, are two-story, historical 1920s type homes,” said Catherine Tosetti, who lives across the street. “It’s a historic neighborhood, it’s a gateway to San Marino.”
“The reason why this strikes to the heart of so many people in the community is because this is a Wallace Neff,” Tosetti explained.
Chris Norgaard noted the importance of the home’s context.
“If you look at the reports to which the city has alluded, I see those as in a vacuum. In my view this is different from a house designed by Wallace Neff, such as this exact house, out in the middle of nowhere. The fact that this is in San Marino, I think, makes a difference,” he said.
Resident Shirley Jagels, president of San Marino Heritage, drove the claim that the historic reports exhibited bias.
“This reflects a conflict of interest on its face,” she said, noting that the city must conduct a citywide survey of its historic services per the city’s 2003 General Plan.
“You have the authority and the responsibility to serve the community,” Jagels added, referring to the proposed teardown as a “mindless demolition.”
“You must weigh the public input in your decision-making process,” she told the committee.
The public will again have the opportunity to share its input during the commenting period of the environmental impact review process, a timeline for which has not yet been determined.