Riverside, CA's Chinatown Archaeological Site Saved from Development

Posted on: June 12th, 2012 by Guest Writer 2 Comments

Written by M. Rosalind Sagara

After nearly three and a half years of legal proceedings, the 4th District Court of Appeals of the State of California recently issued a final judgment invalidating the City of Riverside’s approval of an office development that would have destroyed a National Register site -- my community’s historic Chinatown.


Left: Author Rosalind Sagara in front of the archaeological site. Right: Built to honor the Chinese settlers who came to Riverside in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this Chinese Pavilion is located in front of Riverside's Downtown Library.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990, Riverside’s historic Chinatown dates back to 1885 and is considered to be one of our nation’s best-preserved early Chinese settlements.  The lawsuit to protect the historic archaeological site centered on the validity of the purchase sale agreement and whether or not the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) complied with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the state’s regulations protecting historic sites threatened with demolition.

A panel of judges ruled that the city failed to consider reasonable alternatives to the proposed building plans and location.  The Court also found that the EIR contained insufficient analysis for the City to consider the environmental and cultural impacts of the proposed development. The final judgment sets aside the City’s certification of the EIR, its statement of overriding considerations, and approval of the project.

The legal ruling is a victory for the Save Our Chinatown Committee and our network of allies -- educators, preservationists, community groups, students, archaeologists, and countless individuals who’ve rallied to give voice to our preservation campaign.  We also share this victory with those who believe citizens must have a say in how their communities grow and develop.  We look forward to providing city officials with guidance in using preservation principles as an equal component in future planning processes related to the historic site.

This preservation campaign has taught me that engaged citizens -- who are willing to speak up, write letters and emails, organize and attend meetings, contribute money and ideas, learn and listen to others -- are as important as legal tools and good luck.  Preservationists must be willing to pull out all stops because we believe a place is worth it.  But it’s about more than just saving places, it’s about people, building community and creating a sense of place.

M. Rosalind Sagara is a community organizer and filmmaker.  She is a co-founder and board chair of the Save Our Chinatown Committee

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2 Responses

  1. Ralph Megna

    June 20, 2012

    As a former member and chairman of the City of Riverside’s Cultural Heritage Board (the city’s preservation commission) who voted to approve the proposed development at the Chinatown site, allow me to observe that a great many mitigating details have been left out of this simplistic account of what took place. For example, this posting makes no mention of the fact that the site had been built upon and extensively disturbed between the period of its historical significance and the present; that considerable professionally supervised salvage archaeology was conducted on the site more than 20 years ago (and again about five years ago) and that additional work was contemplated as part of the new development; that a sizeable part of the site was was essentially going to be protected in the landscaping and parking area; that the new office building planned permanent interior and exterior interpretive displays (no recognition of the Chinatown currently exists at the site); and that over two decades of published “appreciation” of the site had failed to raise any significant funds for it public preservation.

    The court’s decision on the narrow CEQA grounds notwithstanding, I think the decision reached by the City took into account many factors, and balanced preservation, public exhibition and new development in a responsible way. I would challenge the project’s opponents to do better.

  2. Janet O'Dea

    June 26, 2012

    Other issues to watch are coming to a head in San Diego. We need the National Trust and NT members to come to San Diego to help us defend the integrity of the historic Balboa park on the brink of its 100th anniversary. See http://archive.constantcontact.com/fs075/1101889363559/archive/1110193268012.html
    Please send the National Trust representatives to our city to help us with this effort. It is the most important issue in San Diego. Thank you.