Huntington Beach Planning Commission to Discuss Wintersburg Preservation

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A cheerful Sunday school class at the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission, circa 1930. (Photo courtesy of CSU Fullerton’s Center for Oral and Public History).

Rafu Staff Report

HUNTINGTON BEACH — The Huntington Beach Planning Commission is scheduled to vote on an environmental impact report that supports the demolition of historic buildings on the Wintersburg site at Warner Avenue and Nichols Lane to make way for a future commercial project.

The meeting, postponed from an earlier date, will be held on Tuesday, Aug. 13, at 7 p.m. at the City Council Chambers at Huntington Beach City Hall, 2000 Main St. (at Yorktown Avenue). As the site is of major significance to local Japanese American history, advocates are inviting the community to attend. Dozens of individuals and organizations have written to the commission in favor of preservation.

A former Wintersburg resident, Tadashi Kowta, is among those planning to address the commission.

Mary Adams Urashima, chair of the Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force, told The Rafu Shimpo, “The Planning Commission will either certify or declare inadequate the draft Environmental Impact Report. If they certify, that, in essence, approves the project and the demolition application. This does not go to the City Council unless it is appealed. We anticipate it may be appealed, either way, and proceed to the City Council. However, we cannot be certain until the planning commission makes their decision.

“If certified, we have one year to raise funds to move the buildings before they are demolished. The optimum is to preserve the buildings on the property and restore them as a historical feature. No other city has a historic property like this, and it should be saved.

“The Furuta goldfish and flower farm and the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission complex … represent a glimpse into California’s Japanese pioneer life. Most other Japanese historical sites that are preserved or in the process of restoration are confinement centers. Very few sites represent the daily lives of Japanese immigrants. Historic Wintersburg captures a rare moment in time and once lost, can never be replaced.

“We will need help to fund preservation and restoration, and guidance to do it correctly.  We have to hold out hope that we can save this remarkable place and that there are organizations and agencies who can partner with us.

“I want to express deep appreciation for all the individuals and organizations who are coming forward to support the preservation effort. I have met such wonderful people with a similar interest in this history, and learned so much from all of them. Their accomplishments are an inspiration.”

Urashima pointed out that the property was first recommended as eligible for the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 as part of Scientific Resources Survey Inc.’s cultural resources survey report for the Warner Avenue improvements. 

According to that report, Historic Wintersburg is the only remaining, extant pre-1913 Alien Land Law property in Orange County; home to the oldest Japanese mission in Orange County, and likely Southern California; and home to the first and only mission to ordain Japanese ministers in early 1900s Orange County.

Earlier this year, a Planning and Building Department staff report gave this summary: “Charles Mitsuji Furuta relocated from Japan in 1900 and purchased the subject property. He then donated a portion of the land for construction of a church and pastor’s house in 1910 for the Japanese Presbyterian Mission of Wintersburg. In 1912, the first house was build for his family.

“In 1934, the second church located on the corner was constructed. In 1947, another house was built on the property for the Furuta family. The Furuta family farmed on the property and also raised goldfish and water lilies. The site was used by the Japanese Presbyterian Church until 1965. Subsequently the church buildings were used by various congregations until 1997. Since then the church buildings have been vacant.

“In 2002, a proposal to develop a multi-family residential development on the subject site was submitted. Because of concerns with the property being across the street from the Rainbow transfer station, the proposed residential development was withdrawn. In 2004, Rainbow purchased the subject property to prevent it from being developed for residential purposes.

“In 2008, Rainbow submitted an application for the construction of a commercial building and recreational vehicle/boat storage facility on the subject site … However, due to the downturn in the economy the project was withdrawn. No new development is proposed at this time.”

The staff report acknowledges that the loss of historic resources would be “significant and unavoidable” even if the EIR’s proposed mitigation measures are carried out. One measure “requires photography and recordation of the four historic resources prior to demolition or relocation.” The other “requires the applicant to offer the buildings for relocation off-site for a period not less than one year following project approval and contribute money towards the relocation in an amount equal to the cost of demolition based on an estimate from a licensed contractor.”

The EIR includes alternatives, such as keeping the buildings on-site and renovating them for commercial or industrial uses, but the staff report found that “the small size and internal configurations of the four buildings would constrain commercial activities and make them difficult to lease. In addition, restoration and reservation of the four buildings … would be an expensive process that is estimated to take 19 years of lease payments to pay for.”

Despite public comments that the analysis of archaeological impacts was inadequate, the staff concluded that the EIR “adequately analyzes the potential environmental impacts associated with the proposed project, evaluates project alternatives, and identifies mitigation measures to lessen the project’s impacts consistent with General Plan policies.”

Statements of Support

Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) wrote in a letter to Mark Bixby, chair of the commission, “The Planning Commission’s leadership in preserving these structures will provide cultural and historic benefits to Huntington Beach, the community, and the state at large … While the area has modernized, these sites represent faith, old California, agriculture, and a part of Japanese American history.”

Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose) said in a letter to the City Council, “The buildings in Historic Wintersburg are a testament to and the living proof of the pioneering spirit of the Issei, as well as the enduring immigrant spirit … So often we turn to books to learn history. However, a standing structure is a rare tactile and physical representation of a generation’s history, its community and culture.”

Before the end of his tenure on the Los Angeles Board of Public Works, Warren Furutani told the City Council, “It would be a shame to lose these historical landmarks to commercial development … I join with the many other supporters in imploring the council and its Planning Commission to not grant any zoning changes that will facilitate the demolition of the Wintersburg village until a reasonable accommodation can be worked out.”

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Pasadena), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, Rep. Mark Takano (D-Riverside), State Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) and State Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) also announced their support.

UCLA Professor Lane Hirabayashi, holder of the George and Sakaye Aratani Chair on the Japanese American Incarceration, Redress and Community, said, “With the preservation of this material base, students and the public and large could be instructed as to the small businesses, including farming, that the Issei and older Nisei developed in the area before the war, and thus the contributions of this ethnic minority to the economy of Orange County and to Southern California.

“Moreover, what is so striking, beyond the presence of the actual buildings themselves, along with the historical accounts and photographs of the site, is the fact that this complex also represents the Japanese Christian presence in Wintersburg … From an historical point of view, I can think of no other site in Southern California that bears as much significance, in terms of being a vehicle to demonstrate the solid Christian dimension to the early Issei experience in the American West.”

Michelle Magalong, chair of the Steering Committee of Asian and Pacific Islanders in Historic Preservation, wrote, “We believe the draft Environmental Impact Report inadequate, as it does not fully analyze the alternatives for historic preservation or adaptive reuse. This determination is narrow in scope and further detailed study of the site is needed …”

Michael Okamura, president of the Little Tokyo Historical Society, wrote, “Little Tokyo will be observing its 130th-year anniversary in 2014 and we are very proud of the fact that there are several structures and a living tree that have been designated a Historic-Cultural Monument by the City of Los Angeles. Four of the six remaining structures on the Wintersburg site are considered eligible for the National Register for Historic Places,  which would be a significant honor for Huntington Beach and Orange County.

“Also, one of our active LTHS members, Tadashi Kowta, age 90, lived in the still-standing Manse during his childhood since his father, Rev. Sohei Kowta, was the pastor of the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian church until 1942.”

Kerry Cababa, co-chair of the Manzanar Committee, wrote, “These buildings represent the Issei farmer trying to buy land before the 1913 Alien Land Law went into effect. These buildings represent the Issei farmer and his whole family working in the fields in search of the American Dream. These buildings represent where the Furuta family returned after their incarceration in Poston, Ariz. during WWII.

“Huntington Beach has this site, which as a designated historic site can tell the story of the Japanese people of a hundred years ago. The Planning Commission should seize this rare and unparalleled opportunity to remember the contributions of this group of immigrants to the agricultural success of Orange County and indeed, of Southern California.”

Priscilla Ouchida, national executive director of JACL, wrote, “As a result of the passage of the 1913 Alien Land Act, physical structures that represent the early history of Japanese American immigrants are scarce … Structures that have been preserved are associated with the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans …

“Places and stories are critical to efforts to counter discrimination and defamation. The location of the structures near a large urban population adds importance to the buildings because their accessibility and potential as a learning center.”

Another letter of support was sent by Stephanie Nitahara, regional director of JACL’s Pacific Southwest District.

Ellen Endo, convener and founding member of Friends of Heart Mountain, wrote, “As an historical site, Wintersburg is rich in the stories, memories and spirit of those who lived, worked and worshipped within its boundaries. This five-acre property not only embodies lessons from the past, but also our hope for the future.”

Other supporters include:

Individuals  — Archaeologists Douglas McIntosh and Beth Padon; Jean-Paul deGuzman, Historic Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition; Judy Lee, Save Our Chinatown Committee, Riverside; Ryan Yokota, Ph.D. candidate in history at University of Chicago; Donna Graves, Preserving California’s Japantowns; Greg Kimura, CEO of the Japanese American National Museum; Richard Katsuda, Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress.

Organizations — California-Nevada Barn Alliance; Huntington Beach Historical Society; Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California; OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates; Orange County Historical Commission.

For more information, go online to http://historicwintersburg.blogspot.com/.

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  1. UPDATE AUGUST 13: The Huntington Beach Planning Commission voted 4 -3 to certify the draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR). The Commission then voted 5 – 2 to approve the General Plan Amendment and re-zoning of Historic Wintersburg property to commercial / industrial.

    The vote failed 4 – 3 on the “Statement of Overriding Consideration” (the action that would allow demolition). While complicated and specific to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) which governs the environmental review process, the actions taken essentially re-zone the property, but prevent demolition at this time.

    It is anticipated that the property owner will appeal this to the Huntington Beach City Council. We will update when more information is available.

    Thank you again to all the supporters who came forward to speak. We will continue our effort to save Historic Wintersburg! ~Mary Urashima

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