Mission Hills Heritage Seeks Pathway for Local Designation of National Register Historic Districts
By: Barry Hager
Historic districts are the most effective way to protect the architecture and history of vintage neighborhoods. To encourage the establishment of historic districts, Mission Hills Heritage (MHH) recently introduced a proposal to ease the pathway for local designation of National Register Historical Districts.
As background, over the years the City of San Diego has adopted historic surveys that map out potential historical districts in neighborhoods throughout the city. Before about 2015, community groups were able to work in consultation with city staff to process these districts to bring them to fruition. However, city staff stopped working with resident groups around 2015 when it took the processing of historic districts “in house.” Unfortunately, due to budget constraints, the City has processed very few historic districts since 2015 and the program is essentially dormant.
Around 2009, Mission Hills residents and MHH began work on the Inspiration Heights historic district in consultation with staff, but the project stalled for the reasons stated above. About three years ago, MHH decided to take Inspiration Heights on a different path: nominating it first to the National Register of Historic Places, then circling back for local designation for what should have been a simplified procedure. Local designation unlocks incentives for historic preservation, such as the availability of the Mills Act program. Staff confirmed in a memo dated February 3, 2021 that a simplified path existed from the National Register to the Local Register, as least for individual resources. In a nutshell, no additional analysis is required once historic designation occurs at the national or state level.
After a year’s work, Inspiration Heights was successfully listed on the National Register in December 2021, the first such residential historic district in the City of San Diego. The next month, in January 2022, MHH submitted the National Register nomination report to Staff and requested that the district be designated locally, and that the matter be timely set for hearing with the local Historic Resources Board (HRB).
Since then, city staff has not brought the nomination forward. Earlier this year, MHH was informed that staff believed that no streamlined process existed for the listing of National Register districts on the local register and that all the steps necessary to establish a new district would be required, including polling of residents, workshops for residents, HRB subcommittee meetings and, finally, noticing and two meetings of the full HRB.
These exhaustive steps are not only unnecessary, after the vetting that occurs for the National Register, but also inconsistent with the HRB’s past practices, its own internal memorandum, and applicable guidelines. Also, these steps would be a waste of tax dollars for city staff time, as the steps required to establish the historic district would have already been carried out by the California Office of Historic Preservation. Despite these indications that a simplified process for listing National Register districts on the local register exists, MHH was informed that the HRB’s policies and rules would need to be amended to provide for a more simplified streamlined process but that no such amendment would be made any time soon.
In the spirit of aiding City staff, given the backlog of historic districts and the need to provide greater certainty for future development by settling the question of significance proactively, MHH drafted the necessary proposed amendments to the applicable rules for the HRB’s consideration. The San Diego Municipal Code expressly gives the HRB the authority to amend its own policies and rules and there have been numerous amendments over the years. MHH’s proposed amendments would not make listing of a National Register district on the local register automatic, but rather retains the HRB’s discretionary role in the process. At the same time, these amendments create an efficient and simplified procedure.
MHH discussed this proposal with several different groups and has the support of ten local historical societies and advocacy groups, including the Talmadge Historical Society, the La Jolla Historical Society and SOHO.
On July 31st MHH submitted a letter to city staff and the HRB with the proposed amendments and on August 24th MHH presented the proposal during the HRB’s monthly meeting. We are hopeful that the HRB will take up this matter soon and process these simple amendments in order to remove the roadblock that is preventing so many older San Diego neighborhoods from enacting the historic districts that will protect their historic resources. A copy of this letter and all attachments can be accessed and downloaded selecting the link below:
 These rules include HRB Policy 4.1 (the Procedure on Establishing Historic Districts) and the HRB Procedures.