After spending more than two years in bureaucratic limbo, a plan by the Catholic Diocese of San Diego to construct a building on the site of Mission San Diego de Alcala--considered by many experts to be the most important historic site in San Diego--is once again the object of controversy.
With the submission late last year of a report detailing the findings of the University of San Diego's 18-year excavation of the site to the city's Historical Site Board, the diocese thought it had overcome the last obstacle in its lengthy struggle to obtain the permits necessary to construct a multipurpose parish center on the site of the first mission to be established in California by Father Junipero Serra.
But more than a dozen archeologists, historians and anthropologists who have reviewed the report for the Historical Site Board say that it raises more questions than it answers, prompting the board to recommend that the Planning Department not grant the diocese a building permit until the report is substantially revised.
After considering the expert testimony, the Historical Site Board--which can make recommendations to the council but has no formal authority--had two main concerns, according to its secretary Ron Buckley: that the ruins of the adobe church built on the site in 1781 might lie under the proposed site and would be destroyed without being studied; and that a cemetery that might lie on the site, where 13 graves have already been found, would be disturbed by the construction.
The USD report states that the adobe building and the mission graveyard are not located on the proposed construction site, but experts who reviewed the report say that these points are not substantiated.
In a letter to the Historical Site Board, Raymond Starr, a San Diego State University history professor who specializes in the California Mission system, wrote: "In general, the report is so poorly presented and so incomplete that it raises a number of questions about the completeness of the work done on the site in question. In fact, it becomes one of the best arguments around for the need for additional work at the site before it can be said the site has been exhausted and thus can--from an archeologist's point of view--be destroyed."
Brad Bartel, a professor of anthropology and associate dean of the graduate school at SDSU who is heading the current excavation of the Presidio, said the fact that the report was written by students and faculty in USD's historic site archeology program does not meet professional standards and is itself a reason to block construction on the site.
"Even if they say 'there's nothing there, go ahead and build the building,' how can you trust it?" Bartel asked.
Msgr. Brent I. Eagan said that students at USD would be revising the report as the Historic Site Board requested, but that the diocese has not considered finding an alternate location for the building.
"This is a site where we've allowed the digging and reporting to be done," Eagan said. "That (the excavation has already been done) seems to me to be a logical reason to build there. I don't see the point in choosing another (mission) site that hasn't been explored . . . There were some burials in that area but they've all been removed. We know where the graveyard is and it's not on that site."
But, if the USD team found the graveyard at another location it did not say so in its report, another flaw cited by its critics.
Donald Worley, the attorney who is representing the diocese, said that while the USD team had been asked to provide additional information about the excavation as an act of good will, the Historical Site Board's concerns do not provide the city with legal grounds for denying the diocese its building permits.
"Our position is that we're entitled to the permits regardless but may consider a delay (by the diocese) in requesting those permits as an act of good faith," Worley said.
Under current law, the Historical Site Board can vote to recommend that the Planning Department not grant permission for demolition or construction on a historic site.
If the Planning Department grants permission, then the board can appeal directly to the City Council, which can vote to impose a 180-day delay--and then a 180-day extension--on the proposed project. The city can use that yearlong period to negotiate with the property's owners or to try to gain control of the property by purchasing or condemning it.
The City Council used those delays to prevent the diocese from starting construction in 1985, after the site board complained that the original plans they had approved had changed.
Worley says that now the city's time has run out.
Deputy City Attorney Allisyn Thomas said the city's current plan is to negotiate a development agreement for the property that would simultaneously allay the concerns of preservationists and allow the diocese to move forward with construction.