New efforts to save our National Treasure
EL PAT’S FORUM
by ELIZABETH PATTERSON
August 3, 2022
One woman is responsible for listing most of the historic structures in the Historic Arsenal of Benicia. Ms. Wold, a graduate of University of California at Berkeley (UCB), recognized that the city leaders in 1965 were focused on surviving the Army’s closure of the Arsenal and loss of jobs and business. Therefore Ms. Wold filled out the forms – around 90 – and got the historic structures listed. State Parks and Recreation was interested in establishing a State Park for the mostly early portion of barracks, garrison, officer quarters, infirmary and enclave of Civil War Era buildings. President Lincoln commissioned the garrison and barracks – about 120 acres – to ensure Union presence to prevent Confederate efforts to make California a slave state. Think about that.
But the city leaders showed little interest in the history and even did a land swap that put many historic structures at risk. Witness the demolition of the 1860s Foundry and Pacific Mail Steamship company office building just three years ago. While Mayor I used my office as a bully pulpit for saving or at least respecting these structures as the last tangible evidence of the first industrial site in California. It was a struggle. At least the city was able to negotiate a settlement price with Amports that will help preserve other historic structures. But none on the list are the first industrial buildings. Gone. Part of the settlement was to develop a “demolition by neglect ordinance” – an ordinance to prevent intentional or neglect and then seek a demolition permit to tear down. I don’t have the exact numbers but we are talking about more than 20 or so historic structures demolished by this strategy.
The city brushed off the State’s proposal for a State Park and embarked on permitting industrial and commercial development with no master plan, limited infrastructure improvement and legacy problems of pollution that range from monitoring to major cleanup or mitigation – in 2003 dollars about $50 million that ultimately was reimbursed to the developers by the Army. Yep. The United States Army left stuff that could be catastrophic. Some areas can never be safe and that is why we have a few open spaces with trails and not homes.
In the early 2000s there was a “McMansion”* proposal of 16 large, expensive homes for the Historic District C – between the Commanding Officers’ Quarters and Jefferson Mansion and the open space and parade grounds. The city council certified a report that declared there was no environmental impact and approved the project. No impact to the President Lincoln commissioned Arsenal. No impact to the historic parade ground and oak trees planted like sentinel soldiers to guard the Civil War enclave. A large and passionate group organized, sued the city for failure to asses the impacts and also gathered signatures for a referendum on the city council approval. The applicant and city settled with us and we put the money toward beginning restoration of the Commanding Officers’ Quarters where Arts Benicia is now.
The Secretary of the Interior and the State Office of Historic Preservation have written in the past that too many new structures will impact the historic integrity of the district. It may be removed from the National Register. President Lincoln’s commissioned Arsenal – removed from the National listing because the city leaders acquiesce to misguided state legislation that the city interprets in a manner that favors the applicants.
Here are the links to the appeals filed by Benicia Arsenal Park Task Force and Benicia Arsenal Defense.
*In suburban communities, McMansion is a pejorative term for a large “mass-produced” dwelling marketed to the upper middle class.
P.S The first link is one appeal and the second link is the other appeal – just can’t make a link work for two documents. I hope you read them. They are short.
See earlier on BenIndy: