An architect’s model of the proposed Killefer Square development shows how the historic school site (orange building) would be impacted. This view is from above Olive Street.

By Daniel Langhorne

The developer proposing a 345-bed private dormitory for Chapman University on the Killefer School site was told to come back and try again by Orange’s Design Review  Committee,  primarily because the project would tower over the federally-protected historic building.

The Killefer School building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2015, due to the efforts of the Old Towne Preservation Association (OTPA). The Killefer School is believed to be the first school in California to voluntarily integrate students before a group of Mexican-American parents challenged segregation, and won their case in the 1944 Mendez v. Westminster court ruling. The case set a precedent for the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision three years later.Prior to its listing on the National Register, the Orange Unified  School  District  planned  to sell the property to a developer who proposed building homes on the site.

That sale was short-circuited when the Killefer School attained historic status. OUSD subsequently moved to sell the 1.7 acres to the second highest bidder ($5.075 million), Western States Housing Development Co. The district later agreed to sell an adjacent 0.12 acres, which hosts a vacant shed and part of Richland Continuation High School’s parking lot. The real estate is in escrow, pending development approvals from the city.

Housing versus history

As proposed, Killefer Square would exclusively cater to Chapman University students. Some design review committee members acknowledged the dire need for more student housing, and hinted that the developer could potentially maintain some density and height with additional design tweaks, so the public can see the historic schoolhouse from Lemon Street.

Both an environmental consultant hired by the developer and city staffers agreed that the project did not meet the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for national historic districts. Committee member Ann McDermott said that the practical needs for student housing shouldn’t over-shadow the Killefer School’s historic significance.

“The fact that Chapman University needs more housing can’t take precedent over preserving the site,” McDermott said. “(Killefer Square) will drastically alter the site.”

Committee member Robert Imboden said the project still has a long road of approvals ahead of it. “The reality is, this type of building program is not a predominant development in Old Towne,” he said. “I would argue it changes the character of the site.”

Imboden argued that the developer’s decision to reposition the ingress and egress to the underground parking structure on Lemon Street doesn’t do enough to maintain the campus’ historic aesthetics. “I just don’t think that’s a big enough change in the project,” he said. “It’s not an architecture issue, it’s a density issue, it’s a visibility issue.”

Hide and seek

The design review committee meeting included some tense exchanges between the project’s architect, Leason Pomeroy, and Jeff Frankel, preservation chair of OTPA, when one of the committee members noted that people walking on Lemon Street wouldn’t know the historic school was on the site, unless they were aware of the neighbor-hood’s previous aesthetics.

“Well, OTPA knows it’s there,” Pomeroy said, which received chuckles from some audience members.

Frankel wasn’t amused by Pomeroy’s snipe about OTPA’s success in getting the California State Historic Resources Commission to list the building on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The site is well-documented. The feds know it is there,” Frankel said.

In addition to the design review committee’s August meeting, the Killefer Square developer showcased its proposal at two community meetings, at Yorba Middle School and Pitcher Park.

More to it

About a dozen community members attended the Aug. 20 meeting at Pitcher Park. Two models of different iterations of the project were on display, and representatives of the project answered questions and listened to criticism. The developer’s representatives repeatedly informed residents that Chapman University has no hand in developing Killefer Square, even though the project would house Chapman students exclusively.

The proposal may run into legal headwinds, considering federal anti-discrimination laws under the Fair Housing Act.

Robert Solomon, a clinical professor of law who specializes in community development at UC Irvine, said he is not aware of any private developments, without university partnerships, that limit rental housing to students.

“Without the school connection, limitation to students may be discriminatory against a variety of groups, based on age, marital status and, depending on the school demographics, race, national origin, military status or others,” Solomon said.

Photo courtesty Communications Lab

Killefer Square gets mixed review from Orange’s design committee