July 2018

By Tina Richards

A three-story 24-unit housing project located on the historic Killefer School site will go to the Orange City Council for final approval, following the planning commission’s nod, June 4.

While the development is a much smaller version of the original six-story student dormitory proposed to house Chapman University students, neighborhood opposition remains high. Residents of the Cypress Street community that surrounds the site note that a three-story edifice will destroy the character of the single-story streetscape, itself comprised of historic homes built from the early 1900s through the 1950s.

While the builder, Western States Housing, has agreed to renovate and preserve the Killefer buildings, located at 541 N.  Lemon Street, preservationists argue that the multi-story building will detract from the very structure its approvals will preserve.  

The price of preservation
“This is not a good fit,” Jeff Frankel, an Old Towne resident, told commissioners. “There are too many adverse impacts.” Richard Cruz, a Lemon Street resident, called the project “disastrous” to his single-story neighborhood.  

A long-time resident who lives near Killefer School noted that his community is itself historic, that his daughter is the fourth generation to live there. “A three-story building,” he said, “is not something that should be here.”

City historian Doug Westfall noted that there was more to preserving a noteworthy building than simply cleaning it up. “There won’t be any public access to it,” he said. “Other historic buildings have rooms that can be used by the community. I’d like to see it be available to people. As an historian, I’d also like to see it remain as an educational facility. That’s its significance to the community.”

The schoolhouse, built in 1931, was the first educational facility in California (maybe the nation) to be voluntarily desegregated in 1944. Killefer was shuttered more than two decades ago, and has been neglected ever since.

Strings attached
When the Orange Unified School District opted to sell the property and raze the building, the Old Towne Preservation Association got it listed on the National Register of Historic Places, meaning it must be preserved. OUSD’s high bidder backed out of the deal, leaving Western States to take it or leave it.

The developer originally planned to build housing for Chapman University students on the site; in exchange for city approvals, it agreed to restore the long-neglected schoolhouse.  The Orange Design Review Committee rejected the first four concepts, noting they were too large and they restricted views of the historic building. Along the way, the dormitory plan changed to “multi-family” housing. 

The plans approved by the design committee and the planning commission include six units within the restored Killefer building, and 18 in the new structure. While Western States calls them “multi-family units,” no one following the project believes they are anything other than dorm rooms.

Commissioner Daniel Correa pointed out that the floor plans consist of two very large bedrooms with no closets, two large bathrooms with three sinks, a small common area and a small kitchen. “These look like dormitories to me,” he said. “Why would each bathroom need three sinks? Looks like three students or more could share a bedroom. What,” he asked the builder, “did you change from the original plan?”

“Nothing,” Western States’ Lee Pomeroy replied.

The name game
“So,” Correa summarized, “these units are not for families, they’re student housing. You can paint a horse with black and white stripes, but it’s not a zebra, it’s still a horse. I think you’re asking us to approve a project that is deceitful.”

The “deceit,” as it were, may extend to parking and traffic. Western States will include 62 parking spaces, which is more than city code requires. The code, however, is based on family bedrooms per unit, not students per unit.

“City code hasn’t caught up with student housing,” Frankel said. “The traffic study used only 62 cars.”

“You could have up to 120 students living there,” Correa explained. “Students have cars, their friends have cars. There’s not enough parking. They’ll end up parking on the streets, and there’s not enough parking there now.”

Commissioner Ernie Glasgow asked about the traffic study, and was assured that (based on 62 cars) the streets would function at a level “C.”  Overall, the City of Orange’s streets are at level “D.”

A wink and a nod
Most Old Towne residents favor dorm rooms (by any other name) on the site because it will relieve their neighborhoods of homes converted to house Chapman students. No one, however, made that case at the planning commission meeting.

While Killefer’s immediate neighbors cited their objections to the project’s size, density, traffic, parking and influx of students, planning commissioners focused their discussion on the developer’s promise to renovate the school building.

“Orange is about historic resources,” Commissioner Adrienne Gladson said.  “I support the project because it restores the school.”

“Something needs to be done with the building,” Doug Willits agreed.  “You may not love the project, but something has to be done, or we’re going to lose that building.”

Glasgow admitted that it was a tough decision, but he “hates to see the degradation of the property.”

“We have a moral obligation,” Correa insisted, “to not allow deceit to enter the community. It’s a dorm, and that’s deceit.”

The commission voted, 3-1, to recommend approval of the project, with the stipulation that Killefer is restored before construction begins. Correa was opposed. Commissioner Dave Simpson was absent.

Historic building restoration rests on

housing approvals