Fresno City's new Historic Preservation Specialist addresses one of Fresno's oldest neighborhoods

L Street Historic District may be in the works after the Historic Preservation Commission approves new survey.

One of Fresno City Hall’s newest employees tackled right out of the chute a thorny issue in one of Fresno’s oldest neighborhoods.

The result: Status quo for the neighborhood and a strong debut for Laura van Onna, City Hall’s historic preservation specialist.


The Historic Preservation Commission met on Monday to debate, among several things, whether to recommend to the City Council that Downtown’s L Street neighborhood be officially designated a historic district.

In the end, the commission voted 6-1 to approve the findings of a survey on the question. The survey, written by van Onna, said the L Street area is delightful in many respects but doesn’t retain the historical juice (“integrity” is the more academic word) to qualify as a historic district.

Commissioner Don Simmons voted no, but gave no reason.

The L Street neighborhood is one of a handful of identifiable geographical areas in the Downtown triangle roughly bordered by Highway 99, Highway 41 and Divisadero Street. For example, you’ve got the Fulton Corridor (formerly Fulton Mall), the South Stadium area, Chinatown and Uptown (or the Cultural Arts District).

The L Street neighborhood is sandwiched between Uptown and the Lowell neighborhood. The L Street neighborhood’s triangular borders are roughly (very roughly) Van Ness on the west, Divisadero on the north and east, and Stanislaus Street on the east and south.

I say “very roughly” because the actual borders of the potential L Street Historic District had a lot of zigs and zags. But I’m sure you get the picture.

The L Street area includes, obviously, a piece of L Street. The Marjaree Mason Center and the First Presbyterian Church on M Street are part of the L Street area. So, too, is Fresno’s beloved “Alamo House” at L and Amador Street.

Van Onna’s survey, requested by the commission in January, is the fourth such research project in the last 40 years. We periodically recognize that the L Street area, its roots dating back to the 19th century, merits special recognition and tender care. We never find the political will to deliver.

The L Street area of the 21st century has a fair number of marvelous old houses. Much of the area is parking lots and small commercial buildings of a conventional character.

Van Onna in her report’s conclusion put a stake through the idea of an L Street Historic District:

“The blocks within the survey area that do consist of at least a majority of properties that retain integrity and could contribute to a potential L Street Historic District are not located adjacent to each other and do not create a geographically definable area. Despite the fact that the subject survey area, or a portion thereof, was once a historically definable and significant residential neighborhood, the present area lacks significant concentration, linkage and continuity. It is important to document the area’s history, and to recognize the properties that still represent that significant development – which are already on the Local Register of Historic Resources. But, the remains of a cohesive district are not identifiable.”

Why would the Historic Commission take up this issue in 2018 when three previous surveys pretty much came to the same conclusion as van Onna? If the commissioners revealed that motivation on Monday, I missed it.

Two officials from Granville Homes sat quietly in the audience during the hearing, then left just as quietly after the vote. Granville has done a lot of projects in parts of Downtown north of Stanislaus. One of the more noteworthy Granville projects was Crichton Place (townhomes) on L Street between Amador and San Joaquin Street. To say there was a lot of controversy over the construction of Crichton Place and its impact on Fresno’s historical built environment is an understatement.

Van Onna handled the hearing with style and grace. It’s not precise to say she succeeds Karana Hattersley-Drayton. Van Onna’s title is historic preservation specialist. Hattersley-Drayton, who left city employment in January 2017, was Fresno’s historic preservation project manager. I’m guessing there’s a significant difference between the two positions when it comes to duties and legal authority.

What counts here is that we welcome van Onna to Fresno and The Valley.

A friendly tip to the wise, Laura: Fresnans at City Hall hearings value a firm, clear, easily heard voice from their public officials.

1 comment
  1. George, the question of whether the L Street neighborhood should be a historic district was one the Commission wanted addressed a long time ago. Especially after One By One Leadership failed and its properties essentially abandoned. Several properties were burned down and more were demolished by neglect. Happily the Helm house was saved-barely.

    Granville’s big development on the east side of L has not been a good neighbor. When the commission was discussing a proposed apartment building across the street, it was revealed the siding was fading and the windows weren’t working that great-Granville cited that in support of a design for the apartments that resembled one for a Motel 6 or Red Roof Inn. Developer representatives were distressed when the commission didn’t concur with them.

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