Ed Dietl inspects the China House in Rancho Cucamonga. The historic structure is slated for demolition because its been designated an unsafe dangerous
Ed Dietl inspects the China House in Rancho Cucamonga. The historic structure is slated for demolition because its been designated an unsafe dangerous building subject to collapse. Regional Chinese American heritage groups are working to save the structure from demolition. (Photo by Neil Nisperos, Staff)

RANCHO CUCAMONGA--The National Trust for Historic Preservation has joined regional efforts to prevent the demolition of the Rancho Cucamonga China House -- which advocates say is the last remaining structure of a Chinatown in the Inland Empire.

The city has red-tagged the building as dangerously unsafe for the public, and the Cucamonga Valley Water District, which owns the building, was given a 60-day period, ending on Feb. 14, to demolish the building.

Without funds to fix the condition, the water district approved plans to demolish the building and use some of the original brick work for a monument to honor the Chinese laborers who had lived in or near the building in the early 20th century.

Located on the southwest corner of Klusman Avenue and San Bernardino Road, the red clay brick building was built in 1919 on the site of a once-thriving Chinatown. Designated as a historic landmark in 1985, the house has become a focal point of interest for Chinese American heritage groups who say preservation of the structure from demolition would be a better way to honor the history of Chinese laborers who were instrumental in the development of the Inland Empire as an agricultural center.

The groups are asking the city to delay the abatement order, and have asked the water district to consider rescinding its demolition plan. They are working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit based in Washington D.C., in the effort to save the structure.

Rick Eng, a board member with the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, said he and other heritage group leaders have been discussing outreach to companies for sponsorship of efforts to save China House.

According to Brian Turner, an attorney for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, under the California Environmental Quality Act, "an historic resource such as the China House cannot be approved for a discretionary demolition without preparation of an Environmental Impact Report.

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Turner sent a letter to the city, inquiring about whether CEQA compliance occurred or was applicable in this case.

"I think this is going to become more clear," he said. "The purpose of our letter is to provide the public some clarity on why the red tag order was issued without a CEQA review."

CEQA applies to certain activities of state and local public agencies when they undertake a "project," according to the California Natural Resources Agency.

A "project," according to state law, is an "activity undertaken by a public agency or a private activity which must receive some discretionary approval (meaning that the agency has the authority to deny the requested permit or approval) from a government agency which may cause either a direct physical change in the environment or a reasonably foreseeable indirect change in the environment."

"Though we are unaware of why no EIR was prepared for this project, we request the city to make its CEQA determination publically available given the widespread interest in the site's preservation," according to the letter from Turner.

Jeff Bloom, deputy city manager for economic and community development, said the city is currently reviewing the letter, which is dated from Jan. 14.

"I think we're cognizant of CEQA at the city, but we're dealing with a building that has been determined to be a dangerous building," Bloom said "Right now, we're just reviewing the letter. I don't know if what they've presented (in the letter) is factual or not."

Turner said his group has yet to receive a response from the city.

"We don't want to make any allegations," Turner said. "We're not saying the city has violated any law. We're inquiring as to what the process was and the dialogue at this point has been very civil. As advocates, we're expressing our concern that this is a very significant building that may be lost. Ordinarily, there's a legal process to protect it."

Members of Chinese heritage groups, led in part by Eugene Moy of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, said they will attend the City Council meeting tonight in order to reiterate questions and concerns raised in the letter. They are also in communication with city and water district staff over the issue and concerns. 

"I don't know all the nuances of CEQA law but I would think that if a demolition of a historic building does not automatically trigger a CEQA review, then it should in my feeling," Moy said.

Rancho Cucamonga Building and Safety Inspector Trang Huynh said his department has yet to receive applications for a demolition permit from the water district. The abatement order from Huynh directs that the water district "shall obtain" demolition permits from the city.

The structure currently fails to meet building code requirements and Huynh said the unstable structure may collapse during high wind or an earthquake. The building has been defined by the city as "dangerous" to the public.

Randall Reed, a Cucamonga Valley Water District board director, said he's recommended water district staff request the city of Rancho Cucamonga extend their abatement timeframe in order to provide more time for concerned parties discuss concerns and options.

"I can't imagine the city not pushing back the date," Reed said. "We just want to do the right thing. I don't think 30 days or 60 days more is going to make it any less unsafe. The building has been there for many years, so what's 30 more days."

The Rancho Cucamonga Fire District, in August had also submitted a letter of interest to purchase the parcel from the water district in order to relocate its aging fire station, located across the street on San Bernardino Road. The fire district is also eyeing another potential location on a parcel further west on San Bernardino Road.

Negotiations or discussions with the water district, regarding Fire District interest in relocating its San Bernardino Road station, have yet to take place, said Fire Department Chief Mike Bell.

Chinese laborers who worked on the ranches, vineyards and dug water tunnels in the region, had also lived in Chinatowns in other nearby inland areas such as Riverside, Colton and San Bernardino, though the buildings were demolished years ago.

City and water district officials say there are no public funds to spare for any renovation, rebuilding or relocation of the building, and such efforts would be costly.

Should the water district decide on another course of action within the abatement period, possibly by deciding to stabilize the building, such a remediation effort could lead to the delay of the demolition, Bloom said.

Bloom said, however, that this potential course would still mean the expenditure of public funds, and no guarantee of success with finding private funds to preserve and maintain the building.

"When there's a situation like this, there's a lot of different options as far as giving a future life to historic places," Turner said. "That may mean a transfer of ownership to an interested public group. It could mean seeking grant funds. We want to give the benefit of the doubt to a historic place, rather than make a rash decision to demolish."

neil.nisperos@inlandnewspapers.com, 909-483-9356

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