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Saturday, Feb 09 2013 10:30 AM

Caltrans' initial take: Westpark shelters not eligible for listing

BY ANTONIE BOESSENKOOL Californian staff writer aboessenkool@bakersfield.com

Caltrans has found preliminarily that two Cold War-era bomb shelters in the potential path of the Centennial Corridor project are not eligible for historic status, a status some residents hoped would spare their homes.

The decision is not final. Philip Vallejo, an architectural historian with Caltrans, said the determination still must be reviewed by the state Office of Historic Preservation.

"This is still a draft," Vallejo said. "Nothing is finalized until we begin and end our consultation with the state historical preservation officer."

TRIO OF OPTIONS

Resident Keith Womack alerted Caltrans to the bomb shelters during a public meeting on the project last December. His dad, the late Jim Womack, built the two shelters on South Garnsey Avenue in the early 1960s.

If the bomb shelters are found to be eligible for historic listing, that would complicate choosing Alternative B for the Centennial Corridor highway project, the path Caltrans staff are recommending based on what they know currently about this section of Bakersfield.

Caltrans won't make a final decision for about another year on which of three possible routes to build. But in the meantime, it has recommended Alternative B because, of the trio of options, it doesn't impact parks or a neighborhood that it's found to be eligible for historic register listing.

Under federal law, Caltrans has to avoid those impacts if another route is available.

Alternative B would take down about 200 houses, plus many businesses and a handful of schools.

If the bomb shelters and the neighborhood they're in are also found to be eligible for historic listing, that doesn't automatically disqualify Alternative B. But it would mean that all three alternatives would have to be weighed against each other, Caltrans staff have said.

LACK OF INTEGRITY

Shortly after the December public meeting, Vallejo and a few colleagues drove to South Garnsey Avenue and were shown one of the shelters, he said. They then told staff from JRP Historical Consulting, a Davis-based subcontractor on the project, to go back for an assessment. It did.

"JRP found, and we concurred at this point, that those two properties, although they are relics of the Cold War era, because there was a certain lack of integrity, we found them not eligible" for historic listing, Vallejo said.

One shelter has been altered too much to be eligible, he said. The second, which is larger and more intact, isn't eligible because the house where it's located has been changed too much.

In 2010, Caltrans came across a fallout shelter in the path of a highway project in Sonora. The house it had been built in back of had been razed. That led Caltrans to establish a threshold for assessing such shelters, Vallejo said.

"The crux of it is we say the house is important. It's an important part of the story" that justifies a historical listing, he said.

With the South Garnsey shelters, "there's been significant changes that wouldn't allow us to properly convey its sense of history."

Caltrans did find a third bomb shelter near the two others, but not in the path of Alternative B. That one and its associated house, on Marsha Street, are preserved enough to qualify for historic listing, Vallejo said.

"That one we found eligible," he said. Building it was a significant expense for the family who lived in the house, and that's part of the story.

"It was a perfect example of the fear that people faced that they would go through this expense to build this type of resource."

That third shelter is in Rancho Vista, an area eligible for historic listing, Caltrans has said. That's partly why Alternative A isn't the recommended choice for the Centennial Corridor.

GOING FROM HERE

Caltrans will send its finding, and the information from JRP Historical Consulting, to the state Office of Historic Preservation for review soon. Then that office has 30 days to respond to Caltrans. If staff there disagree with Caltrans' opinion, "We'll take a second look at it," Vallejo said.

"We're waiting for their response to accept or deny our recommendation," said Caltrans Project Manager Steven Milton. "And once we get that, then we'll know for sure if that's an issue."

Milton said Caltrans is hoping for a determination from the historic preservation office by mid-March.

"It isn't a black-and-white issue. There's so many grey areas," he said. "That's why were so careful all the way down, that when we make a determination, it's the right one."

Milton also said release of the draft environmental review of the three alternative routes will be delayed, partially by the bomb shelter analysis but mostly to ensure compliance with multiple agencies' air quality rules.

It was originally expected out in late March or early April. It's not clear when the report will be made public.

SECOND OPINION

Meanwhile, Tony Padilla, who owns the houses where one of the bomb shelters is located on South Garnsey, has asked a local history buff to help apply for historical status for the shelter.

Stephen Montgomery, a Bakersfield resident who's studied and advocated for the protection of Bakersfield's historic buildings, said he's been working with another nearby resident, Quinn Miller, to summarize the historical aspects of his house, once the site of a Prohibition-era bootlegging operation.

Montgomery has been gathering information on the shelters and planned to file for historic status for the shelters and send his information directly to the state Office of Historic Preservation.

"The tact I'm working from is to get the neighborhood identified as a historic neighborhood because it's got the bomb shelters and the bootlegging," Montgomery said. "To my knowledge, those two bomb shelters may be the only two surviving from that era in this community. And the wine cellar operation -- that's definitely a unique thing."

Montgomery said he planned to tour the bomb shelters soon, and would be looking for anything that would've made them a living space in the event of a nuclear attack, such as toilets or water storage.

But time is running out, Montgomery said.

"I don't know if this campaign here will be successful or not, but I thought at the very least I could step in and help these folks," he said. "Either way, we have to get this thing moved along no matter how we apply for it."

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