HRB Designates Old Mission Hills Branch Library a Historic Resource

| October 12, 2020 | 0 Comments

By Barry Hager

On September 24, 2020, the City’s Historic Resources Board (HRB) voted to designate the old Mission Hills Branch Public Library, located at 925 W. Washington Street, as a historic resource. The board voted 9-1 in favor of designation, with more than one board member describing the building as a “slam dunk” for designation. 

This iconic Mid-Century Modern building has stood at the western gateway to Mission Hills for almost 60 years.  The branch library was designed by architect Robert A. Bradt, a student of pioneering modernist architect Mies van der Rohe, and built by R.J. Hortie between1960-1961. A spectacular example of Mid-Century Modern architecture, the building features a dramatic upswept shed roof, wide eaves, walls of floor-to-ceiling windows and a stacked brick façade forming a tower to the right of the roofline. Generations of Mission Hills residents, retirees and school children can recall hours spent in this bright, cheerful public library.  This branch library is the only Mid-Century Modern-style building located in the core business district of Mission Hills and represents an important part of the layers of Mission Hills history.

The building was vacated in 2019 when the new Mission Hills-Hillcrest branch library opened several blocks away.  Mission Hills Heritage (MHH), joined by the Mission Hills Town Council, have called on the City to preserve and adaptively reuse the old Mission Hills branch library.  A majority of those responding to a survey conducted by the Mission Hills Business Improvement District in 2018 favored saving the old branch library. Ignoring these wishes, the Mayor’s office has instead sought to massively over-develop the site, which would result in the complete loss of the old branch library.  To save the old branch library and encourage its adaptive reuse, MHH hired Ron May of Legacy 106, Inc. to prepare and file a nomination report with the City of San Diego that led to HRB’s recent vote.

Despite the community’s desire to save the building, the City’s Real Estate Assets Department, under the direction of the Mayor, issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) soliciting offers to develop this and several other sites for permanent supportive housing for the homeless. The RFP indicates that the site can be developed for between 14 to 28 housing units.  Any development in this range on the .19 acre site, which is only slightly larger than the average residential lot in Mission Hills, would necessary require the demolition of the existing building and constructing a very tall structure. However, it appears that no developer stepped forward to submit a proposal, possibly due to the severe site constraints with the small lot.

In addition to MHH’s nomination report, the City’s staff report also supported and recommended designation. The recent HRB meeting included some heated discussion.  One speaker inaccurately claimed that by seeking the historic designation, MHH was trying to prevent the future use of the site for permanent supportive housing for the homeless.  MHH has made it clear that is not opposed to permanent supportive housing at this site, but is instead opposed to any project that would demolish the building.  As HRB boardmember Pitman noted during the meeting, designation would not prevent the use of the building for housing, and adaptive reuse should be encouraged so that the building can to remain a strong part of the community.

It should also be noted that historic designation will not prevent all development on the site.  Applicable historic guidelines provide flexibility to allow historic structures to be incorporated into a development project, including allowing additions that do not remove the historic features of the building.  It is our hope that the old Mission Hills Branch Public Library will be adaptively reused for the benefit of the public for generations to come.

This iconic Mid-Century Modern building has stood at the western gateway to Mission Hills for almost 60 years.

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Category: Architecture, Business, Education, feature, Historical, Local News

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