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Historic Wintersburg Gets Support from City Board

Reporters walk through the Historic Wintersburg site in Huntington Beach in 2016.

Rafu Staff Report

HUNTINGTON BEACH — The Huntington Beach Historic Resources Board, during a public meeting at City Hall on Feb. 7, voted to support the preservation of the Historic Wintersburg site.

Once the hub of the Japanese American community in Orange County, Historic Wintersburg is located at Warner Avenue and Nichols Street. Now vacant and closed to the public, the surviving buildings include the 1910 Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission and the 1912 home of Charles Mitsuji and Yukiko Yajima Furuta, who ran a goldfish farm. The Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force and other groups have been working to preserve and develop the site as a historical and educational resource.

Republic Services, a waste management company, purchased the property from Rainbow Environmental Services in 2014. Vice President David Hauser told reporters in 2016 that the buildings wouldn’t be demolished as stakeholders, including a school adjacent to the property, worked toward a mutually beneficial plan.

Last month it was learned that Republic has made a deal to sell the property to Public Storage.

“We have been working in good faith with Republic Services to purchase the property, in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Trust for Public Land,” Mary Urashima of the task force said last month. “Republic Services has told us during these discussions that they are open to our purchase and have no plans to develop the property. They have now demonstrated they are a willing seller, but have not been dealing with the community preservation group in good faith.”

City Councilwoman Jill Hardy, a council liaison to the Historic Resources Board, commented last month, “The idea they would choose storage over a park setting when financially it would make no difference is really surprising.”

Republic has yet to respond to requests for comment and did not send a representative to the Historic Resources Board meeting.

Voting to send a letter to the City Council recommending preservation of the site were Historic Resources Board members Kathie Schey (chair), Ronald Knowles, Susan Nguyen, Joe Santiago, Duane Wentworth and David Wentworth Sr. Board member Charles Epting, who opposes preservation, was absent.

Speakers included Kanji Sahara, a member of JACL and Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, a board member of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition, and an advisor to the Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force.

“The Japanese immigrants hurriedly bought land on Warner Avenue because they saw the Alien Land Law coming,” he said. “The 1913 Alien Land Law stated Japanese immigrants could not buy land in California. California Attorney General Ulysses Webb was the co-author of the Alien Land Law …

“Even with this and other discriminatory laws, the Japanese immigrants loved America so they decided to stay here. In 1952, the California Supreme Court ruled that the 1913 Alien Land Law was unconstitutional. The fact that people of Japanese ancestry are prospering in Orange County today justifies the decision of the Japanese immigrants to stay in America.

“A small museum about this story in Historic Wintersburg Village will be a great teaching tool for Huntington Beach schoolchildren.”

Nancy Oda of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition shared a letter from fellow board member Marc Stirdivant, which read, in part: “The City of Huntington Beach can show true leadership by bringing Republic Services back to the table to work with the community in good faith to purchase of the property at fair market value. While Republic Services deserves a fair return on their investment, so do the people of Huntington Beach and Orange County deserve a lasting legacy that respects the community in which they live.”

Speaking for herself, Oda said, “I think that you want to leave a legacy for your children more than the popular image as Surf City.”

Steve Nagano, a member of the Little Tokyo Historical Society and a board member of the Historic Cultural Neighborhood Council in Los Angeles, said, “California once had over 40 Japantowns — Sacramento, Fresno, Reedley, etc. — which are now gone through such actions as eminent domain, forced evacuation during World War II, and the dispersement of the community, many of these forces working in concert to eliminate these Japantowns, of which three remain.

“We should all know that the history of a place almost always adds value to the place. Would that building in Philadelphia be in existence today had it not been where the Declaration of Independence was written? … The same applies to the Wintersburg site, not only to the Nikkei, Japanese, community, but for the City of Huntington Beach.

‘To preserve this site would enrich Huntington Beach, would serve as a beacon for many other cities and ethnicities, and contribute greatly to the concept that we are a nation of immigrants, a nation and cities built by immigrants and that we treasure and honor this legacy.”

Other speakers included ABC Unified School District board member H. Ernie Nishii and Phil Chinn, a member of the Orange County Historical Commission.

Krista Nicholds, president, and Alan Hess, chair, of Preserve Orange County wrote in a Feb. 6 letter to the Historic Resources Board, “We stand with the National Park Service, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the City of Huntington Beach’s own Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force in support of the conservation and restoration of Historic Wintersburg, a rare, tangible gem of Japanese American history.

“We’re consequently very alarmed about the recent announcement of a pending sale of the site to a storage company, and we applaud the Historic Resources Board for calling a special meeting on the matter.

“In your capacity as advisors to the Huntington Beach City Council, you have a unique and important opportunity to influence the city’s next steps in this matter. The city has within its power to use eminent domain to protect this historic site for the permanent benefit of the public. It may also maintain existing zoning and facilitate a purchase and sale agreement between Republic Services and the Trust for Public Lands.

“We therefore suggest to the Historic Resources Board that it make the following recommendations to the City Council:

“- That it meet with Republic Services and Public Storage to determine the potential impact of the proposed sale on Historic Wintersburg;

“- That it take action to acquire Historic Wintersburg for the benefit of the public; and

“- That it request assistance from the Trust for Public Lands and the National Trust for Historic Preservation to protect Historic Wintersburg from adverse changes.”

Rick Noguchi, chief operating officer of the Japanese American National Museum, wrote in a Jan. 30 letter to the Huntington Beach City Council, “We are distressed to learn that the property is slated for sale to Public Storage for development, and express concern that such development would cause the destruction of significant and rare historic resources eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

“Historic Wintersburg has been vetted by the National Park Service, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Trust for Public Land. The preservation effort has been supported by organizations from around the country and has received both national and international media coverage.

“Historic Wintersburg is a National Treasure historic site representing Japanese pioneer history, Japanese American history, and important chapters in our country’s national history.

“The land was purchased prior to California’s Alien Land Law of 1913, after which Japanese were prohibited from owning property. The fact that everyone associated with Historic Wintersburg was forcibly removed from California and incarcerated in America’s concentration camps during World War II, due solely to their ancestry, makes this a place to learn about civil liberties. The lessons it can help teach are extremely relevant in our world today.

“This is one of the last Japanese pioneer historic places in Orange County and a rare historic property for California. Please don’t allow this property to be transformed into a commercial venture that disrespects important history that should be preserved for generations to come.”

Christina Morris, Southern California field director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said in a statement on Feb. 16, “From immigration in the late 19th century to the return from incarceration following World War II, Historic Wintersburg is one of only a few remaining physical links to the early Japanese American experience in California, and an irreplaceable site of conscience for the rest of the nation.

“Beyond the lessons it offers to future generations, the preservation and reuse of the Wintersburg site presents an opportunity to meet some of the most pressing needs of the surrounding neighborhood, including public green space and community space.

“Considering the array of financing tools and partnerships available to Historic Wintersburg stakeholders — in addition to Republic’s previous public commitment not to demolish any of the historic structures — the National Trust and our local partners look forward to resuming the conversation with Republic Services on the responsible and sustainable stewardship of this nationally significant site.”

The Manzanar Committee, which first announced its support of Historic Wintersburg in 2013, reacted to the latest development on Feb. 15. “The Manzanar Committee is shocked and dismayed that, despite previous assurances, Republic Services has moved to sell Historic Wintersburg, a site of conscience and important landmarks, to Public Storage,” said Co-Chair Bruce Embrey. “Despite its significance to the local community, the Japanese American community, and our nation, it appears these companies have placed their narrow interests above all else.

“We call on the Huntington Beach City Council to listen to its constituents, and concerned parties from around the state, and work to preserve the site. Preserving the site, rather than building a public storage facility, should be an easy choice, with the site being right next to a school — the educational value for the entire community alone outweighs the alleged need for a storage facility.

“The City of Huntington Beach should intervene to promote the public good above the narrow interests of two corporations.

“Our experience with establishing the Manzanar National Historic Site demonstrates the overwhelming positive impact preserving our nation’s history can have. The economic, social, and cultural benefits to the Owens Valley are tremendously positive, bringing economic development and jobs.

“The Manzanar Committee urges everyone to continue to support Historic Wintersburg, and work to ensure that this historic landmark is preserved and protected. The Huntington Beach City Council should act accordingly, and without delay.”

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