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Expanding Mission Hills’ Historic Value

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Preservation group seeks to enlarge historic district by 99 homes

Story and photos by Ann Jarmusch

When George W. Marston and Kate O. Sessions first left dusty boot prints across what is now one of San Diego’s loveliest echoes of Eden itself, Mission Hills was prickly with dry scrub and chaparral.
That was a century ago. Marston, a wealthy merchant and real estate investor, and Sessions, an enterprising nurserywoman and horticulturist, envisioned instead a well-to-do residential neighborhood laced with lovingly tended gardens and tree-lined streets.
Equipped with Arts & Crafts movement values that encouraged family life and healthful living connected to nature, Marston hired landscape architect George Cooke to design the vacant acres so it embraced its finger canyons and mostly veered away from the standard street grid.
Today, Mission Hills is not only lush and naturally beautiful. It boasts one of the city’s largest, mostly intact collections of historic homes from the early 20th century. Shingled Arts & Crafts cottages comingle with Spanish Revival haciendas. Mission Revival homes recall the Spanish Mission era, the namesake of the neighborhood.
Part of Mission Hills has been declared a historic district by the city of San Diego, thanks to extensive research by Allen Hazard, Janet O’Dea and their neighbors. With assistance from Legacy 106, they  researched eight or so nearby blocks and propose to expand the district by another 99 houses. The two compact areas are linked by the neighborhood’s grandest artery, Sunset Boulevard, but lie on opposite sides of it.
“There is so much detail that has been uncovered during the research that adds a whole new perspective to the development of the neighborhood we live in today,” said Deborah Quillan, a Mission Hills Heritage board member who recently organized a walking tour of what you might call the Mission Hills 99.
By that, Quillin meant the group went beyond architectural styles and details to also document the social and economic history of the blocks bounded by Hickory Street and Sunset Boulevard (on the north and south) and Witherby Street and St. James Place (west to east). Cobblestone walls, wavy window glass and who lived where and when are all noted in thick nomination papers submitted to the city’s Historical Resources Board.
Sessions, who founded what is now Mission Hills Nursery, lived in a house on Arden Way from 1916 to 1920. (The nursery is celebrating its centennial this year.) She had been buying land in Mission Hills since 1903 and successfully campaigned, with her friend Alice Rainwater, to extend an existing street car line so customers and newly minted residents could reach fledgling Mission Hills and her place of business.
Ten houses among the 99 have already been designated historic on their own merits. This concentration – one tenth of the homes in the proposed district spanning the years 1908 to 1942 – lends weight to the proposed expansion. The nomination, delayed in processing by city staff cuts, is expected to go before the city’s Historical Resources Board sometime next year.
Among San Diego’s other historic districts are the Gaslamp Quarter, Chinese/Asian Thematic Historic District, Greater Golden Hill and Sherman Heights. North Park and Kensington have nominated districts, which may also be reviewed in 2011.
Three levels of significance apply to buildings in a historic district. A structure may be nominated as a contributing, potentially contributing or non-contributing resource. Contributing buildings are intact or retain most of their original design and detail. Potential contributors could be readily restored to their original state. Non-contributors have been altered beyond simple restoration or built, in this case, after 1942.
Contributing houses, like the 10 already listed as city landmarks, are eligible for Mills Act Agreements, a voluntary program that reduces property taxes by 30 to 70 percent. This decrease in the tax base, which is good for a decade and transferable to a new owner, is meant to offset the restoration and maintenance costs of a hist oric property. A popular incentive, which is unique to California, the Mills Act is named for former state Sen. James R. Mills of Coronado, the preservationist and historian who carried the legislation in the 1970s.
As with an individual building declared historic for the public good, some protections apply to a historic district, to preserve its integrity, character and scale. But the intent is not to freeze the neighborhood in time.
“A historical district is not a static museum, but rather a living, changing neighborhood. There is room for private renewal and architectural creativity, within appropriate controls and standards,” according to Mission Hills Heritage and Save Our Heritage Organisation, the region’s largest preservation group.
Of course, historic preservation benefits the community at large by preserving aspects of our common heritage and fostering pride, but a recent study has shown tangible rewards for good stewards. Dr. Andrew Narwold, an economics professor at the University of San Diego and a Mission Hills Heritage member, calls it “the halo effect.” He researched property values in San Diego ZIP codes 92103 (which includes Mission Hills) and 92104 (North Park).
Narwold found that a home within 250 feet of a historic home saw a 3.8 percent increase in value. If the landmark home was between 250 and 500 feet away, the value of the first house went up 1.6 percent.
These gains add up. According to Narwold, the overall tax basis for the neighborhoods he examined increased $1.8 million for each historic home in the area.
Bruce Coons, Save Our Heritage Organisation’s executive director, monitors the San Diego County housing market and notes that historic landmarks hold their value even in a downturn such as the one we’re now experiencing.
Preservation is also a boon to cultural tourism and neighborhood identity, as the revitalized North Park and South Park have proven. Mission Hills’ residential neighborhoods remain charming and charismatic by keeping their historic character intact.
Expanding the Mission Hills Historic District by 99 houses isn’t all that Mission Hills Heritage has in mind to safeguard its special enclave. Members are already working on nomination papers for the Inspiration Point section, also abutting Sunset Boulevard, and probably won’t stop there.

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