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By David M. Sanders, Dana Point

After reading Andrea Swayne’s piece, “Building Character” in the Jan. 9-15 issue of the Dana Point Times, I couldn’t help but sit down and consider the opportunity it laid on the table.

As an architect who has been a Dana Point resident for over three decades, the one thing I always relished about Dana Point was the remarkable degree of freedom it gave to designers. This freedom is incredibly unique in a coastal community. Dana Point has been an island of artistic libertarianism in a viper’s den of architectural totalitarianism for as long as I can remember, and personally, I’d be sad to see that change.

Obviously, in historical terms, Dana Point has positioned its “style” as a sort of quasi-Cape Cod groove, which is fine, as far as it applies to certain sites and areas of the city. However, once you leave the specific planned areas, you see Dana Point’s real character—a huge variety of styles and individual visions of architecture. Take a look at it! You have the recently completed pedestrian overpass at the south end of town in the Spanish Colonial style only a short walk away from the Organic Modernist landmark that is the Chart House Restaurant.

Our two closest neighbors, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano, are perfect examples of what I call “architectural despotism.” While San Juan Capistrano has a bit more credibility for its attitude in light of its long history (dating back to Spanish colonization in the 18th century), San Clemente’s is laughable in my view, dating back to the vision of a property developer in the early 20th century.

To paraphrase Henry Ford, in vast swathes of San Clemente, “You can build anything you like, as long as it has a red tile roof, white plaster and wood windows.” Since childhood, I always felt that attitude was utterly antithetical to the American ideal. I’d sure be disappointed to see that happen to Dana Point. As a property owner, I find it positively offensive.

If you want to dictate aesthetic values on a piece of property I’ve bought and paid for, that brings us right down to the level of statist organs like the old Soviet Union and China. I don’t think that was Franklin or Jefferson’s vision of the United States. Rather, their vision was to create a society of individuals free to pursue their own desires as long as they didn’t infringe on their neighbors’ rights or property. The argument that putting, for instance, a Modernist building next to someone else’s Spanish Colonial Revival villa will detract from its value is a threadbare, tenuous argument. Any realtor will tell you that good location, practical zoning standards and quality schools take the lead in property valuation; architectural style of the neighboring buildings is of almost zero relevance.

If I were made “king for a day,” I’d like to see something unique happen with Dana Point. I’d like to see it embrace an attitude of encouraging good architecture, period; no matter the textbook “style” being expressed. As such, any future planning documents would need to contain standards embracing several architectural styles, and even hybrids of those styles.

As a professional in the field, I enjoy experiencing a wide range of styles from the classical to the modern; my only requirements to declare them “good” is that they be well-designed, well-constructed and compliant with the zoning standards. Dana Point already has mechanisms in place to insure those qualities, and has maintained a knowledgeable, competent staff of community development personnel to uphold the standards.

If a planning document had to be created, it should provide examples and guidelines for all of California’s imported styles, such as Spanish Colonial, Cape Cod and Mediterranean (to name just a few) as well as its indigenous, vernacular styles such as the 1930s through 1960s wood-clad, heavily-glazed “beach cottage,” Rudolph Schindler’s “California modernism,” and the Arts and Crafts-era “bungalow” style (a.k.a. Craftsman style); again, naming just a few.

In a discussion I once had a few years ago with a colleague, designer Geoff Sumich, he said something that stuck with me, “I like a neighborhood that’s a mosaic of architectural styles that has something for everyone.” Cities that try to establish an over-arching “theme” always wind up turning into stale, unimaginative Potemkin villages of provincialism and peevishness.

So, Dana Point citizens, you are the keepers of something singularly unique in today’s world; namely, freedom. Don’t throw that away in the face of prevailing fashion. Occasionally, buildings will be constructed that may offend some of our individual ideals of aesthetic “rightness,” but be mindful that the restrictions you impose on others can be quickly turned on yourself, with remarkably injurious consequences. Additionally, those structures don’t last forever and will be replaced in due time (typical wood-frame buildings are designed to last about 80 to 100 years, before requiring major remodeling or outright replacement, and those whose architecture have stood the test of time invariably become protected as “historic” structures). Don’t let our fair city become a cookie-cutter, centrally-planned tyranny of taste as has happened to other coastal cities around the nation. Please, Dana Point, don’t become “ordinary.”


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