Mission Hills’ Beloved Little Red Bungalow Demolished

| November 6, 2023 | 0 Comments

By Mission Hills Heritage

Despite a heroic effort by Mission Hills residents, the Craftsman bungalow located on the corner of Goldfinch Street and Fort Stockton Drive and affectionately known as the “Little Red Bungalow,” fell under the wrecking ball on October 5, 2023.  The demolition brought to a sad end the community’s concerted effort, backed by Mission Hills Heritage and SOHO, to save the bungalow on site and to encourage its adaptive reuse as part of a proposed project.

The iconic Craftsman bungalow was designed by Master Architect William H. Wheeler early in his career and built by the firm of McFadden and Buxton in 1912 as part of a small enclave of bungalows for Perry D. Griswold and his wife Olive.  One of San Diego’s rare one-story duplex bungalows, it featured two full Craftsman porches, two clinker brick chimneys, decorative beams, and a low-pitched, wide roof.  Located just one block from the streetcar line, it was built in the run-up to the city’s Panama-California Exposition at Balboa Park.

The surrounding blocks were originally mostly residential, but the uses changed over the years.  Shortly after World War II the Little Red Bungalow was converted from residential use to commercial, first as the Mission Hills Pet Shop from about 1946 until 1995, then as the boutique store Maison en Provence (also known as the Little French Store) from 1996 until 2021.  Over the years, the community developed a strong attachment to the property, as surrounding smaller homes were demolished for apartments and condo buildings or significantly altered for commercial use.  Except for minor alterations, the Little Red Bungalow remained remarkably unaltered on the prominent corner at the eastern gateway to the Mission Hills neighborhood.

When the proprietors of the French Store retired in 2021, the owner of the building sold the property and an adjoining building to an LLC headed by a Los Angeles-based developer involved in large projects in Los Angeles and San Diego.  The first indication that the developer did not share the community’s affection for the building occurred when the developer submitted a historic evaluation report to the City of San Diego in October 2021.  While the report indicated that the bungalow qualified for historic designation, appended to the report was a study by a development industry analyst that concluded that the building could not be saved as part of the developer’s planned project.

After the Mission Hills community became aware of the report, a petition to the city to save the bungalow generated over 1100 signatures.  The developer doubled down with a second evaluation submitted in March 2023 prepared by a different consultant that reached the opposite conclusion—that the bungalow did not qualify for designation under any criteria.  The second evaluation emphasized the deteriorating condition of the building—even though condition is not relevant to any criteria for historic designation.  Mission Hills Heritage and SOHO submitted rebuttal comments to city staff.  With conflicting information in hand, instead of forwarding the property to the full Historical Resources Board (HRB) for determination, as is typical practice, city staff made a ministerial decision that the property was not eligible for designation. 

Mission Hills Heritage opposed the ministerial decision and hired IS Architecture to prepare and submit a third historical evaluation report and nominate the bungalow for historical designation.  MHH’s report concluded that the bungalow qualified for designation under three HRB criteria.  City staff was required to forward the nomination to the full HRB for hearing, but staff also issued a report to the HRB recommending no designation. 

The HRB heard the matter on September 28, 2023, beginning shortly after 1:00 pm.  Mission Hills residents packed the hearing room, concerned for the fate of the Little Red Bungalow.  Several irregularities ensued.  While the bungalow was listed first on the agenda, ahead of four other items, the board decided to move it to last, even though two board members indicated they would need to leave the meeting early.  After the other matters were heard and after a longer than planned recess, the board finally took up the item at about 3:15 pm.  Public testimony was shortened from three minutes to one minute per person due to the meeting’s time constraints.  This decision compressed the organized, pro-designation presentations by IS Architecture and Mission Hills Heritage, while the developer’s presentation finished with time to spare.  Nevertheless, numerous community members spoke passionately about saving the Little Red Bungalow.

Earlier, the HRB chairman recused himself due to a conflict and left the meeting.  Another board member left the meeting after board discussion but before voting began. The two departures and another absence reduced the number of members present to eight.

A board member moved to adopt the staff report recommendation not to designate the property. When one board member voted against the motion, an individual within the developer’s team in the audience was observed wildly gesticulating with hand signals towards the board. The vice chair called a recess, and the same person approached the meeting table and engaged in private discussions with staff and some of the board members—a possible violation of the Brown Act.

When the meeting resumed, the motion not to designate failed by a vote of three in favor, five against. A board member then moved to designate the bungalow. The vote was five in favor, three against. But because the HRB rules require a minimum of six votes to designate a property historic —regardless of the number of board members present — the motion failed by one vote. The meeting ended around 5:20 pm without designating the bungalow.

The next day, MHH filed an appeal of the HRB decision with the City Clerk, citing as grounds the irregularities that took place at the meeting. But city staff interpreted its ordinances to not allow appeal of a failure to designate, rejecting our appeal out of hand without setting a hearing before the City Council. City staff then issued a demolition permit to the developer/owner of the bungalow.

The developer demolished the bungalow and two adjacent buildings one week after the HRB hearing. Community members held a rally next to the empty lot the following Saturday to express their shock and anger at the outcome of the city’s process, and the loss of a landmark building that helped define community character and a sense of place for generations of Mission Hills residents.

While some people argue that historic preservation stands in the way of development and new housing, others recognize the opportunity to incorporate historic resources into new projects to make projects better. This strategy, which preserves our collective heritage, has been successfully employed repeatedly in San Diego and nationwide.

Adaptively reusing historic buildings is also an important goal for sustainable development, as recognized in San Diego’s own General Plan and the Uptown Community Plan. The Little Red Bungalow could have been incorporated into the project that will encompass the adjoining properties and adaptively reused for the benefit of the community and future users.

Instead, the developer hauled it to the landfill.

Maison en Provence photo is courtesy of Marielle and Pascal Giai.


Category: feature, Government, Historical, Housing, Life Style, Local News, Nonprofit, Sustainability

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