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City Planning Department

Find Out About Historical Surveys

What is a historical survey?

A Historical Survey is an inventory of properties that are at least 45 years old and retain reasonable architectural integrity. Historical Surveys are often used as planning tools as part of redevelopment activities or community plan updates. Although often conducted by volunteers, they are best prepared by, or under the guidance of, individuals meeting professional standards set forth by the National Parks Service. There are two types of survey: Reconnaissance Level and Intensive Level.

What is a Reconnaissance Survey?

A Reconnaissance Level survey is a broad-brush look at a study area to indicate what is potentially historical, what is not historical, and what needs additional study to make a determination of historical significance. Typically, properties are mapped, photographed and documented on standardized state forms. Documentation includes information available through public records, like building or water permits. This includes original owner, architect, builder and date of construction, if known. The building's condition is noted, including obvious exterior improvements and alterations, with dates, if known. A short description records the architectural style, materials and method of construction. Finally, the property is evaluated for potential historical significance, based upon its condition and architectural merit.

A Reconnaissance Level Survey is a sorting tool. It separates properties with no potential for historical significance from those that merit closer scrutiny. It also provides baseline data for further research. It does not necessarily reveal information about significant persons or historical events associated with documented properties. They are most useful for quickly analyzing opportunities and constraints for future development as part of a larger planning effort.

What is an Intensive Survey?

An Intensive Level Survey starts with the information provided in a Reconnaissance Level survey, and adds more property-specific historical data. The property's Chain of Title indicates if significant persons lived or worked at the site during their productive years. Further research also identifies the architect, contractor or builder as significant practitioners and assesses how their body of work is represented by the subject property. Historical records can associate a property with significant historical events, or patterns of events in San Diego's history, as indicated in a Context Statement.

How is potential historical significance determined?

Potential historical significance is determined by a comparative analysis of similar properties within a related context. Historical contexts are developed through professionally prepared Context Statements that accompany the survey and provide the framework for decision-making.

What is a Context Statement?

A Context Statement provides the history of the survey area, organized into significant themes and related property types. Themes may include topics like: Early San Diego Settlement; Health Seekers and the Medical Community; the Pan American Exhibition; Business and Commerce; Auto-Related Development; Influence of the Navy; and Modernism.

Property types are identified and analyzed for expected frequency, location and integrity. For example, Spanish-era adobes maybe extremely rare in the survey area, while post-war tract houses are common. Commercial buildings would be expected along old rail corridors, while naval facilities would be found in the port area. Adobes would most likely be somewhat deteriorated, since they are made of easily perishable materials, while more recent masonry structures would be in good condition because of the durability of their construction material.

In this way, common, ever-present and representative property types can be identified, and interesting, rare or exceptional examples are likewise noted. Rare properties in poor condition could attain exceptional status, in contrast to common properties in poor condition that would not be considered significant.

What does it mean if my property is included in a historical survey?

It most likely means that your property is 45 years old or older and has good architectural integrity. Depending upon the evaluator's rating, it could indicate that your property is: 1) potentially eligible for individual designation; 2) is a contributor to a potential historical district; or, 3) is not historically significant. An "individually significant" rating in a Reconnaissance Survey would indicate a good probability of meeting local designation criteria.

In cases where your property is identified as potentially historical, further research would need to be done to determine whether your property meets Historical Resource Board criteria for designation. This would only be necessary if you want to designate your property, or want to remodel or demolish your property. If you want to remodel or demolish your property, you would be asked to provide a historical study prior to getting your permit. The requirements for historical studies are located in the Land Development Manual Historical Resources Regulations.