Killefer development/ restoration plan derailed

Killefer historic schoolhouse

By Tina Richards

Western States Housing, the developer that received Orange City Council approval to renovate the historic Killefer Schoolhouse and install 24 housing units on the property, backed out of the deal with Orange Unified School District, the property owner.

Shortly after the city council approved the project that rests in the heart of the Cyprus Barrio, a resident of that neighborhood filed a lawsuit claiming a new Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was required, as the final project was dramatically different from the original proposal that had been studied for environmental considerations three years ago.

When the district first put the 1.5-acre property out for bid, it was understood that the schoolhouse would be demolished. The Olson Company bought the property with the intention to build townhomes. The Old Towne Preservation Association, recognizing the historic value of the structure, sought to have it listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and succeeded in doing so in 2014. The building is not only a monument to Spanish Colonial architecture, it is the site of the first public school voluntarily desegregated long before legislation required it.

Try, try again
With the Killefer Schoolhouse protected from demolition by its historic status, Olson Company walked away and the second highest bidder, Western States, stepped in. That builder subsequently went through several design iterations and extended escrow three times.  Western States’ original six-story plan with 224 units for Chapman University students shrank to three stories with 80 units in 2015; 62 units in 2016; and 24 units earlier this year. In return for city approvals, Western States agreed to renovate the schoolhouse and create a “history walk” to commemorate its significance.

The community’s reaction was mixed. Many residents believed adding housing on the property was a fair trade for the building’s restoration. Others did not, noting that a three-story structure was inappropriate for the neighborhood, and that grant money was available elsewhere for historic preservation. 

The EIR lawsuit signaled the end for Western States. Even if the builder eventually prevailed, it would take months (or more) to wend its way through the courts. With escrow about to close, and no more extensions to be had, the primary investor said “enough.”

No can do
Orange Unified has been criticized for selling its surplus Killefer property to a developer and not attempting to preserve the property. OUSD is, however, prohibited by law from spending taxpayer money on historic preservation. It cannot allocate a portion of its budget to restore the schoolhouse, apply for grant money for that purpose, or hire a consultant to do so. With Western States walking away, the district is now, according to an OUSD source, “back to square one.”  

The OUSD Board of Trustees may choose to try selling the property again, meaning the bid package has to be recreated (acknowledging the permanence of the schoolhouse), and the process started from scratch. 

It might be willing, however, to give someone else time to pursue grant money. There have been exploratory conversations, but it’s too early to predict what might happen.

December 2018