FREMONT -- Like many of the historic buildings it is charged with preserving, the Historic Architectural Review Board has been saved just as it seemed headed for the wrecking ball. City staff had wanted to fold the board into the Planning Commission to save money and staffing resources, but the members of the review panel on Tuesday persuaded the City Council to spare it. The item was defeated by a 3-2 margin, with Mayor Bill Harrison and Councilman Raj Salwan casting the dissenting votes.
The volunteer board, known as HARB, meets monthly and reviews architectural design, landscaping and signs while deciding whether to designate historic resources and buildings.
"I'd like to keep HARB in place to take care some of these review processes," said Councilwoman Anu Natarajan, who joined council members Vinnie Bacon and Sue Chan on the majority vote.
The Fremont Register of Historic Resources lists about 150 properties, city officials said. The register includes Mission San Jose, one of 21 missions that Spanish Catholics founded statewide in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the former Leland Stanford Winery, which was founded in 1869 by the former California governor and Stanford University founder in what is now the Vineyards/Avalon neighborhood. A building on the city's historic resources register is protected from development plans that propose any physical changes to it unless HARB and the City Council approve them.
David Price, a HARB member since 2005, said the board has excelled in identifying specific details essential for a building to qualify for the city register. "Those are the decisions that maintain the historic characteristics of a neighborhood," he said Wednesday. "I don't think the Planning Commission would have the bandwidth to do that."
Besides, preserving a city's history isn't always quantified in terms of dollars and cents, Price said. "It's the value of pointing out to your children what came before them," he said. "It adds a lot of color to an otherwise black-and-white world."
Jeff Schwob, Fremont's community development director, said HARB was recommended for elimination because it met just 10 times since early 2010, and staffing resources -- already thin because of recent layoffs -- were stretched even thinner from sending the required public notices of the board's frequent meeting cancellations. City officials could not provide specific figures regarding what HARB costs the city "because our tracking system lumps all boards and commissions into one billing code," Schwob said. But he said the city pays "costs associated with recording the meetings (and) providing general staff support or legal support."
Some speakers, such as former HARB member Al Minard, told the council that the board's recent inactivity was tied to the economic collapse in 2008. The severe downturn led to a halt in commercial construction, causing developers to cease submitting plans for city review in the past few years. Today's percolating economy means the board's agenda will be increasingly filled, making now the worst time to eliminate it, he said.
"As the economy improves, there will be new development, and many historic structures will have to be reviewed," said Minard, a history aficionado who spoke to the council while dressed as Abraham Lincoln, complete with a chinstrap beard and top hat. "This board should be retained to preserve those important historic resources," he said.
Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.