CARMEL VALLEY — An effort to have a Carmel Valley shopping center deemed a historic resource collapsed Tuesday on a split vote following some terse exchanges among Monterey County elected officials.
At issue is the Mid Valley Shopping Center off Carmel Valley Road, where the owner, Russell Stanley, wants to upgrade design features of the 68,000-square-foot retail center. The effort to have it designated as a local historic resource was championed by neighbors and members of the Carmel Valley Association who are opposed to any design changes.
Craig Spencer, the chief planner for the county Housing and Community Development Department, presented to supervisors a detailed report of the issues surrounding the effort to designate it a historic resource, including findings by architectural experts from both sides of the debate.
A designation of a local historic resource would have severely limited the kinds of upgrades Stanley envisions. The debate was launched when Stanley began to change the paint colors of the center in 2019.
Stanley brought several experts in architectural design to speak in front of supervisors, as well as his attorney, Salinas-based Anthony Lombardo. Lombardo’s points focused on showing the center’s architect, Olof Dahlstrand, was not considered a “master architect,” a designation necessary for the shopping center to be considered a historic resource.
Opponents of the design changes have argued that Dahlstrand deserved such laurels. But Lombardo, who specializes in land-use law, argued that while Dahlstrand was a decent architect, he should not be considered a “master” because he was so heavily influenced by the iconic work of Frank Lloyd Wright that his designs were little more than copies of Wright’s work.
To elaborate on that point, Henry Ruhnke, a principal with Wald, Ruhnke and Dost Architects in Monterey, showed supervisors a series of side-by-side images of Dahlstrand’s and Wright’s work with what appeared to be clear similarities. Ruhnke said Dahlstrand’s designs were “complete duplications” and “replicas” of Wright’s.
Barbara Lambrecht, the principal of Pasadena-based Modern Resources and a published author and expert on restoration of historic architectural design, told supervisors that Dahlstrand’s work does not meet the standard of a master architect.
She also took issue with one consultant’s description of Dahlstrand as a “locally significant master.”
“I’ve never heard of such a designation,” she said.
Supporters of a historic designation who spoke via Zoom were all Carmel Valley residents, many of whom identified as members of the Carmel Valley Association. Most shied away from debating the merits of Dahlstrand and instead focused on the aesthetic of the center and its importance to the residents there.
Luana Conley referenced the results of a survey in which the majority of respondents wanted to maintain the current integrity of the center. She said she believed the center was a “significant cultural structure.”
Carmel Valley resident Larry Bacon told supervisors that Dahlstrand’s design “is a work of art.” He went on to say he was worried that “property rights will trump the public good.”
And John Heyl reminded supervisors that the county Historical Advisory Commission had already ruled 7-1 to designate it a historical resource. The commission, however, is not a legislative body and can only make recommendations to the board.
At the end of the comment period, each supervisor weighed in on their views. Supervisor Chris Lopez said he’d welcome someone coming into his southern Monterey County district to redevelop a shopping center. And Supervisor John Phillips said he did not believe Dahlstrand to be a master architect and that when he visited Mid Valley it was “clearly a shopping center that needs a facelift.”
Phillips also called into question the analysis of Diana Painter, an expert who argued that Dahlstrand was indeed a master architect. Phillips alleged that Painter submitted Dahlstrand’s name to the Pacific Coast Architecture Database in order to boost her contention that he was worthy of the title. Phillips essentially echoed what Lombardo said earlier when Lombardo claimed Painter “went to great lengths” to include Dahlstrand in the database.
A message left for Painter at her Santa Rosa office was not immediately returned Wednesday. Painter was not hired directly by the county; instead, she was hired by the firm that the county contracted with to perform the environmental impact report.
Supervisor Mary Adams, whose district the center is located, supported the historic designation. She said she had been involved in the process since 2019 and that Stanley’s vision is “not in sync with the surrounding environment.” She went on to say that Stanley has been very adversarial and had made his existing tenants miserable.
“He is bringing financial hardship on himself,” Adams said.
The earlier allegation against Painter set off a contentious discourse among Adams, Phillips and Supervisor Luis Alejo, who stated he, too, was unconvinced that Dahlstrand was a master architect and that he did not “meet that higher level of rigor.”
When Alejo spoke of the possible ethics concerns involved in Painter’s analysis, Adams spoke over him, saying that it was a period of the meeting when supervisors were to ask questions, not to make statements. Later Alejo said he was “disrespected” by Adams.
In the end, Phillips made a motion not to designate the center as a historic resource and won support from Alejo and Lopez. Adams and Supervisor Wendy Root Askew registered the two minority votes.
Contributed by local news sources