September 2018

By Tina Richards

One of Orange’s arguably most culturally significant buildings is set for a long-overdue restoration, not at the hands of an historical society or respectful community, but by a developer who wants to build student housing on the site.

Granted, Western States Housing has promised that the restoration work will follow national standards for historic buildings, but it won’t be accessible to the public when completed, and those familiar with historic restoration wonder if the $2 million the builder has committed to the project will be enough.

The Killefer Schoolhouse, built in 1931 in the Spanish Colonial style, is not only architecturally significant, it was the first school in California to be voluntarily desegregated, teaching Mexican and Caucasian children in the same classroom three years before the courts required it.

Use it or lose it
The Orange City Council approved Western States’ 24-unit student housing and Killefer restoration plan, Aug. 14, despite pleas to reject the development from residents who live near the property.  The council had little choice. Although the city’s general plan designates the property for “institutional” use, the project falls within the area’s existing multi-family zoning. Its three-story height, at 31 feet, is within code, and its 62 on-site parking spaces exceed the city’s requirements. Had the city denied the project, the schoolhouse would continue to deteriorate as it waited for a white knight to save it.

Despite Killefer’s historic value, no one else had come up with a realistic plan for the building’s future or the financing needed to restore it. The city council’s unanimous approval of the development was set in motion seven years ago.

Owned by the Orange Unified School District, and unused and neglected since 2004, OUSD declared it surplus in 2011 and put the property up for sale in 2014.  The district, anxious to convince voters to pass a school bond measure, put four of its properties out for bid around that time to show constituents that it was using its own resources to strengthen its financial position before asking taxpayers for construction funding.

Preserved but not protected
The 1.7-acre Killefer property was one of two ultimately sold. When the Old Towne Preservation Association learned that the historic site might be demolished to accommodate housing, it jumped through the hoops needed to have Killefer placed on the National Register of Historic Places. That designation, secured in 2015, protected the structure, requiring prospective developers to work around it. OUSD’s original buyer subsequently backed out, leaving the second highest bidder, Western States, to purchase it.

With the building safely harbored within the National Register, the effort to preserve its cultural legacy petered out. Grassroots attempts to find funding for preservation and restoration of the timeworn building led nowhere. “There is state funding available for historic restoration,” Orange historian Doug Westfall, reported, “but you have to apply for it.” No one did.

It took Western States four tries and three years to develop a project that the city would approve. Its original six-story, 224-unit dormitory for Chapman students shrank into a three-story, 24-unit “apartment” building, available to anyone, but targeted to students. In exchange for project approvals, the builder agreed to renovate the schoolhouse, create a “history walk,” and set aside the entry portal as a museum.

A lasting legacy?
“This project is important to us because it is important to the community,” Western States’ Leeson Pomeroy said. “The more we worked on this project over the years, the more we recognized that we had an opportunity to preserve and restore an historic structure, develop an appropriate adaptive use for that building, and create a special sense of place for Chapman students.  It will be more than just your standard student housing, but something these students will be able to bring their kids to a generation from now, and talk about how they lived in this historic former schoolhouse when they went to college.  So the history of one of the first desegregated schools in California will be remembered in perpetuity.” 

Many residents of Old Towne like the project because if offers a student housing alternative that isn’t the rental property next door to them. The city likes it because it preserves the building and provides needed student housing. Orange Unified likes it because it will collect $5 million from Western States.

Residents of the Cypress Barrio, which surrounds the project site, hate it. Homeowners who have lived there for decades, the president of the Barrio Association, a landlord who owns rental units in the area, all cited the negative impacts of traffic congestion, inadequate parking and the inappropriate three-story student housing on their family-friendly, largely single-story neighborhood.

A foregone conclusion
“This is a dilemma,” Councilwoman Kim Nichols noted.  “The property was owned by a school district that determined it to be surplus. It was purchased by this company, and we have to follow the rules that are before us. The existing codes guide this project, and it complies with all of them. We can’t control who purchases it.  That was the school district’s call, based on dollars and cents.”

“In a perfect world,” Mayor Pro Tem Mark Murphy added, “the school district would have found an adaptive reuse and kept it up. They don’t have a great track record of that. They determined that it is excess. That was sad, but the bidding process started.”

“I see this as an opportunity to preserve the school,” Mayor Tita Smith said. “OTPA put it on the National Register. I didn’t see a fundraiser going on to preserve it. And that costs a lot of money.  Here’s a developer who stepped up. This much investment will enhance the neighborhood.”

“This project was done in good faith,” Councilman Mike Alvarez summarized. “There were lots of revisions. If you want to spend $2 million to restore that building, I appreciate that.  I’m glad it’s your $2 million and not mine.”

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An architect's model depicts Killefer site development plan.  School building is at top; apartments at left.

Orange Council approves Killefer School site development in order to save the historic structure