Exposing SLO City politics from the inside out

July 14, 2020

James Papp


This should be the most boring article in the world. I work as a historian and architectural historian, which are evidence-based professions dealing with a lot of technical issues. But for five years, I volunteered on the periphery of SLO City politics, which at its most productive is evidence-based and at its worst drifts unmoored to facts or tries to blow facts out of the water.

I was a member of the Cultural Heritage Committee (CHC), the city’s preservation commission, and my fellow members elected me three times as chair. Last week, the city council fired me on a 5-0 vote. It made the papers, and most people probably asked, “Who?” and “What?” The interesting questions are “Why?” and “Why does it matter?”

Why is, as far as I can tell, because I got in the way of developers with awkward questions. Why it matters is that SLO City advisory bodies have no power apart from giving advice, but if that advice is pre-ordained by developer and council intimidation, it is completely worthless. It’s not about me or even about CHC, it’s about the system.

The Cultural Heritage Committee and SLO Development

Chairing the CHC isn’t a popularity contest; it’s a “get business done by the books” contest. Issues need to be decided fully and fairly so the city doesn’t get sued. (Full disclosure: an organization I helped found, SLAP!—San Luis Architectural Preservation!—is suing the city for an improperly decided issue that did not come to CHC.)

A preservation commission may sound genteel, but its main jobs are applying local, state, and federal regulations: in San Luis’s case, the city’s Historic Preservation Ordinance Guidelines, the California Environmental Quality Act, and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. It’s usual for us to get a 250-page agenda of proposals and reports that we have a week to process in our spare time, including site visits. Hearings commonly go on for three or four hours. After five years on the committee, I have a stack of agendas 2½  feet high.

You wouldn’t think such a commission would be a hotbed of controversy. Our members over recent years have consisted of historians, architectural historians, historic architects (architects who specialize in historic buildings), archaeologists, and urban planners, as well as non-specialist members of the public. But tens of millions of dollars of developments hang on our decisions. Soon after I became chair, the Community Development Director took me out for a scone and pressed on me the necessity of approving taller buildings downtown. I replied that I would follow the local, state and federal laws and guidelines as written. He seemed disappointed.

A large proportion of proposed developments are imaginary. I recently looked back at those we approved during my first year on the committee; five years on, only 20% of them have been built. Review gets blamed as a bottleneck for affordable housing in California. The biggest bottlenecks are developers’ poor planning and dodgy financing. Plus the fact that developers don’t like building affordable housing, because that’s where the money isn’t.

What I did to get fired

But let me cut to the chase. At our 27 April 2020 hearing the committee got an application to remove part of the Johnson Block from the Contributing List, the city’s second-tier landmark protection. It was eyebrow-raising—as the property at the corner of Chorro and Higuera streets had been owned for 159 years by the Johnson family, descendants of San Luis Obispo’s first mayor, whose wife Isabel Gomes de Johnson bought it in an apparent sweetheart deal for $5. Two years ago, the Johnson Block was sold, and it looked like the new owners wanted to tear part of it down. RRM, the local firm representing the owners, refused to say what the plan was.

When I sat down to read the historic resource evaluation (HRE) that RRM had commissioned from Bob Pavlik, the first crazy thing that struck me was that the Johnson Block, which consisted of a two-story office and commercial “tower” with one-story commercial wings extending along Higuera and Chorro, had three different levels of listing. The tower was Master Listed, the Higuera wing was Contributing Listed, and the Chorro wing wasn’t listed at all. No other building in San Luis is like this. I don’t know of any historic building in America like this.

Second, the HRE sounded a little like Sergeant Schultz: “I know nothing. Nothing.” It didn’t know when the building was built. The Higuera wing was probably later “infill.” It didn’t know if Johnson, a historically important figure, built it. It didn’t know who the architect was.

That sounded odd, so I delved into the online archives of the San Luis Obispo Tribune, and in a few minutes I discovered that the tower and both wings had been built together by C. H. Johnson in 1900 and that the architect was H. S. Laird. A few more hours of research came up with more than a score of buildings that Hilamon Spencer Laird designed in San Luis, Cambria, Arroyo Grande, Edna Valley, and Salinas. He was San Luis Obispo’s first solely practicing architect—not a builder who also did architecture—and though many of his structures from the 1870s and 1880s are lost, nine of them, from 1891 to 1909, are on the city’s Master List and two on the National Register of Historic Places.

Bob’s evaluation was certain about two things. One was that the Higuera Street wing of shops was mere “commercial vernacular.” The “Illustrated Handbook of Vernacular Architecture” defines vernacular as “a building designed by an amateur … guided by a series of conventions built up in his locality, paying little attention to what may be fashionable,” with “aesthetic considerations … being quite minimal. Local materials would be used as a matter of course.”

But the Johnson Block was designed by a professional architect to look like a Northern Italian castle, with a tower and curtain walls, crenellation and machicolation, faced by pressed brick imported from San Francisco or LA. It’s also the oldest surviving structure designed for our Fire Proof Building District (a reform after the Great Chico Fire), with fireproof load-bearing walls separating the shops and terminating externally in beautiful Tuscan pilasters. It’s a remarkably sophisticated building, and Laird designed two others at the same intersection—the County Bank (now Fanny Wrappers) and the Warden Junior Building (Bath and Body Works)—a rare and perhaps unique feat. The great thing about this controversy has been getting so many people to notice and appreciate the Johnson Block and Laird’s other buildings.

The HRE was certain of another thing: that the facade of the Higuera wing was replaced in 2008 through 2009. Easy to think that—unless you talked to Pierre Rademaker and Tim Ronda, who oversaw the project. The whole of the Warden Block had been covered with modern stucco in the 1940s, and no one was sure what was underneath. But when Pierre and Tim took the stucco off the Higuera wing, the original walls and pilasters were there. They restored these and reconstructed the missing crenellated parapet. They did this to the 10 Secretary of the Interior Standards for Restoration, the highest standards in the land, which allow a building to be adaptively reused but still retain its historic authenticity.

This application was beginning to look like Wile E. Coyote running over a cliff. All the evidence for delisting had vanished, but RRM was still insisting on delisting as the outcome. At a certain point you expect them to hold up a sign saying “Oops” and plunge into the canyon.

The benchmarks for listing a building are historic and architectural significance and the physical integrity to convey that significance. San Luis Obispo uses 15 standards of significance and seven aspects of integrity. In more than four hours, over our April 27 and May 18 hearings, we individually weighed all 22 of these, and the committee recommended to the city council that the remaining three shopfronts of the Higuera wing of the Johnson Block are historically and architecturally significant, have the integrity to convey their significance and should not be removed from Contributing Listing.

Johnson Block in 1904

Why they said I got fired

All dull and technical till politics enters the picture. Andy Pease—with Carlyn Christanson one of the two council liaisons for the Cultural Heritage Committee—emailed me three days after the April 27 hearing to say, “I tuned in for a little bit – seemed to be going well” (it was our first online hearing). Then I heard from city staff that Scott Martin, who had represented the application for RRM, had filed a formal complaint against me that I hadn’t given him and Bob enough time to speak.

Staff informed the city attorney that I had given them the time I had been instructed to give them and then let them go on as long as they needed or wanted after that. I heard no more and thought no more about it. Scott had filed a formal complaint against me before, and the assistant city attorney of the time characterized it this way (to my recollection): “He said you had behaved like an asshole, and we listened to the tape and told him he behaved like an asshole.”

At the May hearing, based on all the new information I had provided, city staff had withdrawn their previous endorsement of RRM’s delisting application. RRM nonetheless presented the application again, and the committee also voted against it.

It was only after this second hearing that the city clerk told me that Andy and Carlyn wanted to meet with me. Eventually Andy and the city attorney met with me on June 25, and suddenly the April hearing hadn’t been “going well” after all. Andy told me four words I had used—“shocking,” “bizarre,” “dangerous,” and “nuts”—had strayed from adjudication to advocacy and demanded my resignation.

I pointed out that in a group of adjudicators, individual members advocate for a particular position, but because city advisory bodies follow sunshine laws, people watch and record our advocacy within the group, unlike a private judicial panel. I said the four words were reasonable within the context: that what I found (quoting from the transcript) “most … shocking about this proposal” was the notion that Restoration to Secretary of the Interior Standards damages the resource’s integrity, that it was given as “a justification for delisting is just bizarre,” that “it is highly dangerous to the historic fabric of this city” where people have restored buildings to SOI Standards, and to throw that restoration out because you suddenly want to do something new with the building is “just plain nuts.”

I refused to resign for doing my job.

Andy also complained about my response to another architectural historian’s report for a TenOver Studio project, whose data I agreed with but conclusion I disagreed with. Andy, an architect whose firm works extensively TenOver, is recused from dealing with it because of conflicts of interest. She also worked for RRM till 2004, but this is not considered a current conflict.

I would not be surprised if RRM wanted to execute the messenger for the message on the Johnson Block, and that having failed in a formal complaint through the staff instead went back-channel to council members. I will be surprised if my California Public Records Act request, sent over two weeks ago for emails concerning this matter, ever gets fulfilled so I can answer this question.

I waited for the following Tuesday, June 30, when the council would publish its actual charges against me, which I suspected would change. They did. Suddenly it wasn’t four words you can’t say on the CHC, but “At various times over the past 18 months, especially over the past several months, the Council Subcommittee Liaisons have met with Mr. Papp regarding concerns about adversarial interactions during Cultural Heritage Committee meetings. There has been insufficient or little noticeable change in subsequent interactions, so council liaisons requested his resignation.”

I immediately emailed the city manager and city attorney that this was an “an elaborate and demonstrable falsehood;” detailed the dates, times, and subject matter of my 6 meetings with council liaisons in the previous 18 months, none of them about my “adversarial interactions” (though one was about Carlyn’s); and pointed out that in “the past several months” no one had had any meetings at all because we were all under lockdown.

Advisory body members serve at the pleasure of council, so the council didn’t have to go through an HR process to get rid of me. Hence, to so obviously fabricate an HR process that never existed seems not just profoundly dishonest but profoundly stupid.

Within two hours of the city attorney reading my email (which was two days after I sent it), this bogus disciplinary trail was withdrawn and replaced with: “At various times over his tenure, the Council Subcommittee Liaisons and staff have met or informally discussed with Mr. Papp concerns about interactions during Cultural Heritage Committee meetings. As provided by Council Liaisons Christianson and Pease: ‘Although some individuals may be comfortable with Mr. Papp’s style of communication, we feel that Mr. Papp’s questioning and deliberations during meetings do not consistently promote positive relationships for the general public, staff, applicants, and other committee members and may be limiting full public participation and discourse.’”

Which is an accusation not only free of evidence but impervious to evidence. It’s like being prosecuted by a bowl of Jello.

The statutory basis for this accusation was presented in the same charge as “Tips for Being an Effective Advisory Body Members,” which include “communicating honestly” (which I did), proposing ideas “to the group as a whole” (which I did) and a “public meeting should not be used to express … disagreement” (which is ridiculous).

Curiously, week before I was asked to resign, I had submitted a complaint against council members Erica Stewart and Aaron Gomez for personal attacks against me during a June 2 appeal hearing, based on violations of six parts of the council’s Code of Civility. The city attorney didn’t weigh any of my charges, just said the Code of Civility doesn’t have an enforcement mechanism. Apparently “Tips for Effective Advisory Body Members” does. That, or council won’t apply to themselves the same rules they apply to everyone else.

What sixty people said

More than sixty letters were sent to council before its July 7 hearing, at least 45 against firing me and 16 in favor. Ten of the latter were from developers and their architects, half of them from RRM and TenOver. Two used the exact same language—“He routinely stretches the scope of the CHC beyond their purview”—and others expressed the same idea. (Going outside the historic preservation purview of CHC would be useless, as the Architectural Review Commission, Planning Commission, and City Council wouldn’t listen to us. I think what this means is developers believe we shouldn’t have a purview. )

One architect wrote, “It is not his job to dispute another historian’s opinions.” (That is precisely the CHC’s job, because the other historian is working for the developer, and the CHC provides independent oversight for the city.) Another wrote, “Mr. Papp’s expertise as an  architectural historian should not be wielded as a cudgel.” (I think this means CHC members are not to—as the council would put it—express disagreement with the developer’s architectural historian.)

Several architects said I bullied fellow committee members. None of my fellow committee members, past or present, wrote in to complain about this, and the frequency with which they have voted against me seems to show their imperviousness to bullying.

None of the architects and developers gave any specific evidence, though there was plenty of personal invective: “abusive,” “intolerant,” “unreasonable,” “rude,” “demeaning,” “disrespectful.” (A fellow committee member, in contrast, summed it up this way: “You can be a bit intense when pursuing a line of questioning, especially when the questioning seems to be a set-up to get others to agree with your position.”) A few more letters were from people who harbor interesting old grudges against me but had never had any business before the CHC.

Those who supported me included many people who actually had appeared before the CHC, including the chair and board vice-president of the yak titu titu yak tiłhini–Northern Chumash Tribe and more than a dozen people who have served on the city council and on advisory bodies as members or chairs, including several who had served on the CHC with me. There have been two occasions in the past five years where city council members met with me to criticize my treatment of individuals, in 2016 and 2017. Both those individuals wrote to support me. If you read the letters, it becomes clear that this was not about promoting positive relationships with the general public, staff and other committee members or with private applicants but only with developers.

The best letter was from Allen Root, current chair of the Architectural Review Commission, who is kind, experienced and wise, and I’ll give him the last word:

“I have known James for several years. I’ve actually stood toe to toe with him on the sidewalk on Nipomo while yelling at each other as City staff and developer reps looked on. … James can be prickly at times and does not recognize boundaries like many of us do. He’s also wicked smart and has a deep and detailed knowledge of history and historical architecture. … If you are intent on firing him, my strong recommendation is that you do so in a more transparent fashion. … I’m halfway through my fourth term on the ARC, and I can say from personal experience and observation that there is a growing tide of discontent with developers in general, and the City’s process in dealing with development as well. The optics on the firing of James Papp are really bad, do the right thing and make this a more transparent process.”

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I would like to ask the author if he considers himself to be a “vernacular” historian and architectural historian, or does he hold degrees in these two areas?

Allen Root is one that pushed John Ashbaugh’s hideous sleep-terror notion of “art” stuck in the former fountain where Higuera and Marsh converge. Papp would have been wise to leave those comments out from a credibility standpoint.

Is there a possibility of you running for mayor or city council? The governing bodies of the city and county need to be full of people who are not in the corrupt pockets of greedy developers who could easily ruin our great city and region.

Long read and gets into the weeds a bit too much, but interesting take nonetheless. I’m probably not your favorite fan, but you certainly appear to be on the right side of this situation. I shudder to think about living in what is arguably one of the more beautiful cities I’ve known. It’s the politics and underpinnings like you’ve mentioned here that keeps me away. Truly, good luck in your endeavor – certainly the city of SLO could use a change.

Agreed, a long read and I informative but if this lengthy thesis is any indication of what Dr. papp was like to work with it makes one wonder…

In any event, I concede, I wasn’t there and there are always at least two sides to every issue.

It was a long read, but worth it. Reads like a published novel or polished deposition. An elegant defense of your position and a thorough presentation of interactions, albeit from your viewpoint. Thank you for your endless hours of research and service; people who’ve not suffered endless meetings as an appointed and uncompensated planning or other commissioner may have no idea of how much reading and prep and SWEAT goes into it, and I speak from two decades of out-of-county experience. Not to mention your own credentials and experience which SLO was fortunate to have applied to your task.

So again, thank you for your service. Concerning your specific performance, I’m a doze-the-planet property rights cretin so policy-wise we do not see eye to eye one bit, believe me, but I admire both your energy and your dedication to responsibly opposing extremists of my ilk. Healthy combative debate. I own nothing in SLO City and never would even invest nor LLC there, however it sounds like you deserve support and encouragement unseating a SLO Council member. Good luck.

“I’m a doze-the-planet property rights cretin”

You must in live in Santa Maria. Plenty of that foolishness going on there, to what end, I have no idea.

I will be contributing to his campaign, we must get rid of the fools in charge here.

That was actually very interesting reading and gave me a lot of insight.

“The biggest bottlenecks are developers’ poor planning and dodgy financing.”