Is an aging building on a site where El Cerrito wants to build a mixed-use senior housing development an asset to the city or an impediment to development?
The El Cerrito Historical Society for months has made no secret that it considers the small building on the Tradeway property significant to the story of the area.
So members “were quite disappointed,” as the society noted in an email last week, when the structure, the last remnant in El Cerrito of the area’s once flourishing Japanese-American flower growing industry, was portrayed at an Oct. 4 workshop as an unexpected obstacle to the effort to plans for affordable senior housing.
The building, originally the sales office for an out-of-town quarry, went on to serve for many years as the Contra Costa Florist shop, a local business related to the family flower growers who established large complexes of greenhouses around San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito and Richmond.
It later was the offices of the El Cerrito Chamber of Commerce.
The history of the local flower-growing industry is considered significant by the National Park Service in telling the story of the World War II home front effort and the Miraflores project, a Richmond housing development where the last standing nursery is now being developed for housing, is preserving some key structures in acknowledgement of that history.
At the same time, as the Times reported, developer Eden Housing maintains that the florist building is out-of-code and would require some investment, and the says retaining it would reduce the number of residential units.
Historical Society Board member Tom Panas made his feelings known in this letter to Katie Lamont, associate director of development at Hayward-based Eden Housing:
It was nice to see you Wednesday night and I appreciate all the effort that Eden has put into the Tradeway Redevelopment Project. I want to give you my view on the meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday evening.
I was unhappy to hear Eden Housing say on Tuesday evening that they were surprised to discover that there might be a Historic Resource on this site. The Historical Society has been trumpeting this loudly for years and it would have been impossible for Eden to not be aware of this before proposing on this project, as well as before completing the Exclusive Negotiating Rights Agreement. Yet now everyone in town thinks that a totally unexpected “discovery” has been made and thrown a wrench into the works. I feel this was disingenuous at best.
The plans that Eden presented were good and you received appropriate accolades on them. But the plans also had the distinct last-minute flavor of “Heavens to Betsy, there may be a Historic Resource on this site, now we’ve got go shoehorn it into the design somehow.” That’s in contrast to what I suggested in the attachment to my note to Eden and the City on April 21st, i.e. that “if Eden Housing’s architects have imagination, they should be able to see the building not as an impediment to be removed, but as an inspiration whose aesthetics could be echoed in the rest of the street-facing design.”
But now Eden has publicly presented to the community and to the Design Review Board that the potential Historic Resource is “a problem that reduces the possible unit count” instead of presenting a design that is inspired by it. So is it a surprise that the Design Review Board suggested wiping out this “design element”? One can’t help but wonder if that was the intention. Now of course their comments will go to the Planning Commission (that will be another agonizing night for me, it’s so painful getting up there and criticizing what others have done).
I have to confess that it’s not clear to me why we are continuing to treat our local Japanese-American community in such an egregiously dismissive manner; it’s as if we never learn anything. Without going on too long:
- We discriminated against the Japanese-American community for years.
- We illegally forced US citizens out of their nurseries in El Cerrito during World War II, with the US government, after decades of stonewalling, finally admitting last year that it had lied to the public and the US Supreme Court and withheld evidence that would have prevented these US citizens from being forced into internment camps.
- We treated these US citizens like dirt when they were allowed to return home from internment camp, greeting them with hate-filled signs on and around their property.
- After the these US citizens came home after the war and finished rebuilding their nurseries, which of course had been completely vandalized during the War, our wonderful State announced it was going to build a freeway through their just-rebuilt nurseries.
- Now we are laying the groundwork to compromise the last remnant of the once thriving Japanese nursery industry that existed in El Cerrito; a site that is also a testament to our only example of white US citizens who carefully sheltered a Japanese business during World War II rather than destroying it.
In the words of the National Park Service, “The internment of Japanese American people during World War II is a significant historic theme of national importance.” Yet we’re abusing the Japanese community again, this time with the rationale that the greater good is affordable senior housing. When I say “we” are abusing them, I am including yours truly and the rest of the Historical Society. We are perhaps just as complicit as anyone else, or possibly more so, if we are unsuccessful in communicating to our elected officials and others the importance of respecting and honoring El Cerrito’s historically- and culturally-significant Japanese community. If I and others fail in our efforts to communicate why this building should be retained, rehabilitated, and honored, this site will represent yet another dismal addition to the list above.
Panas was honored with a Richmond Historic Preservation Award in 2010 for the acclaimed for the exhibition and book he curated for the society.
It should be noted that preservation efforts at the Miraflores procject met with considerable resistance as well.