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Monterey Defends Efforts on Cannery Row

Dispute: Civic leaders say site's placement on national list of endangered historic places is a slap in the face to the city, ignoring the millions of dollars it has spent toward preservation.

June 17, 1998|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Monterey's historic Cannery Row has been named one of the 11 most "endangered" places in the nation--a designation that has gotten civic leaders more roiled than so many sardines in a net.

They're not angry that the old waterfront is considered both historic and endangered--but furious that they've been made to feel responsible for floundering efforts to preserve it.

"I am not concerned we're on their list of endangered places, because the listing will assist the city's ongoing efforts to preserve and interpret [the history of] Cannery Row," said Monterey City Manager Fred Meurer.

"But I'm offended that the designation in no way acknowledges the tens of millions of dollars that the city of Monterey, population 32,000, has directly invested in Cannery Row to help preserve it."

The designation came from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a private, nonprofit organization that, for each of the past 10 years, has identified the 11 places in the United States it considers endangered.

These are the same folks who listed as endangered the last of the original McDonald's, the one in Downey that was headed for closure in 1994, and who boast that none of the sites listed over the years has yet been lost.

On Monday, the organization named its 11 newest sites. Among them are a Civil War battlefield, the old Mapes Hotel in Reno, all 222 county courthouses in Texas, an old paper mill town in Maine, and Cannery Row, which has been a destination for millions of tourists after being immortalized by John Steinbeck's novel of the same name.

"With its world-class aquarium and a number of cannery structures still remaining, visitors can learn about how the riches of the sea spurred the economic and social development of this coastal town," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust. "If steps aren't taken now to ensure the survival of the physical links to historic Cannery Row, future generations will miss out on this rich, wonderful experience and an important part of our history."

The mile-long, three-block-wide waterfront district sprung out of an 1850s Chinese fishing village, but deteriorated in the mid-1940s. By 1973, all the sardine canneries had closed, and today, only half of the two dozen cannery buildings of the 1940s still stand--several of them dramatically altered.

And this past year, one more landmark building--a warehouse for the San Xavier Cannery building--was demolished after it was deemed a public safety hazard, and now memories of it will have to be relived through the 1952 film "Clash by Night," starring Marilyn Monroe as a cannery worker.

For years, Monterey officials have mapped strategies to preserve Cannery Row as a tourist destination with retail stores, arts and crafts outlets and funky eateries, but have struggled with property owners in winning support.

Neal Hotelling, a Monterey history buff and executive with the nearby Pebble Beach Co., knew that the National Trust casts its net every year for "endangered" candidates, and nominated Cannery Row.

He contends that despite various City Hall plans and promises, not enough was being done to preserve the district.

"The current document under which Cannery Row is supposed to be developed specifically says that the city shall identify and designate historic buildings, and preserve them in their existing locations," he said.

But it doesn't seem to be happening, he said. "I hope that the National Trust designation will make it very clear to city leaders that Cannery Row is a national heritage issue, not just a local issue, so they will accelerate their efforts."

The National Trust's announcement listed the various city programs to preserve Cannery Row but concluded that "the city has largely ignored its own plan."

City officials responded with their own news releases Tuesday, noting the millions that have been spent preserving the waterfront, including $1 million to ensure that a $9-million public garage "was consistent with the Cannery Row plan and had the look of a Cannery Row structure."

The city has preserved Cannery shacks, purchased Ed Ricketts' Lab--"Doc's Lab" of Steinbeck fame, hired local artists to paint historical murals, provided space for a Cannery Row museum and placed a moratorium on Cannery Row demolitions, officials noted.

Still pending is a property inventory to determine how to best maintain the row's historical flavor, officials said.

"Their announcement very directly attacked the city and gave no credit to the City Council for all that it has done," said Meurer, the city manager.

Ted Balestreri, whose Cannery Row Co. owns most of the historic waterfront district, said he was feeling contradictory emotions over the designation.

He said that if his company had not bought the property two decades ago for retail development, there would be nothing left to save, period. "I'm surprised and insulted and flattered all at the same time," he said. "What does 'endangered' mean? The city should be given an award for the restoration it's done."

Mayor Dan Albert said the city feels a bit blindsided by the National Trust's designation.

"We got a notice last Friday that they were going to announce this on Monday," he said. "We are really upset with the process. This came as a complete shock to us."

There really isn't much of a process to be upset over, said Elizabeth Goldstein, director of the trust's Western regional office in San Francisco.

"We get more than 100 nominations any given year," she said. "We look at each one individually. To be on the list of 11 should not be taken as an insult, but as a wake-up call that this resource is incredibly important and that by naming it, it is our intention to raise its profile to the national level, so that all persons who value it as a resource can work together to save it."

Said Goldstein: "McDonald's wasn't thrilled, either, when we listed the McDonald's in Downey, but they couldn't be happier now."

The old McDonald's reopened in 1996.

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