SAN JOSE -- Residents who have been fighting to save the Willow Glen Railroad Trestle from demolition, arguing that it was a historical landmark, were disappointed when the National Register of Historic Places recently declared the 1922 railroad bridge ineligible for historic status and could be removed to erect a prefabricated pedestrian bridge.
The debate began when the Willow Glen Railroad Trestle, which is a wooden railroad bridge originally built in 1922 to provide access to downtown “canning districts,” was marked for destruction because the city of San Jose wanted to replace the trestle with a new pedestrian bridge as part of the city’s Three Creek’s Trail system.
In his report, National Register Keeper Paul Lusignan said the trestle’s importance and role in local history are “weak at best.” He explained that the railroad industry was already “well established before the arrival of the line, and the line itself was never more than a minor carrier of local tonnage.”
In an Aug.15 Lexology article, Arthur F. Coon reported that this San Jose city project may cause a considerable change in the significance of a historical resource and may have a significant effect on the environment for purposes of California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Coon said architectural historian Ward Hill had argued that the trestle was not historically relevant and most likely had been repaired on several occasions with modern materials. Hill also said the trestle was of standard design and had no historical architectural relevance either.
The debate became more complicated when it was discovered that an environmental impact report (EIR) was not initially filed and should have been, because there was an initial “fair argument” that the trestle was an historical resource. The courts initially agreed with those trying to protect the trestle, but then the city appealed.
Daniel S. Cucchi, an associate at Abbott & Kindermann LLP, a California-based land use, environmental and real estate law firm, said that the court turned to the applicable language in public resources code section 21084.1, noting that local agencies have the power to determine that a "presumed" historical resource is not historic when supported by the preponderance of the evidence.
"Thus, it was reasoned that application of the fair argument standard to that decision would directly contradict the statutory language," Cucchi told the Northern California Record.
Cucchi said that the courts found one instance in previous decisions, Valley Advocates and Citizens for Restoration of L Street v. City of Fresno (2014) that corroborated the court’s initial decision to side with those who wanted to save the trestle.
“It, therefore, held that the city’s determination of whether the trestle was an historical resource must be reviewed under the substantial evidence standard and remanded the case back to the trial court to make that determination,” Cucchi said.
The National Register decision came as good news to San Jose city officials who have been trying for almost three years to tear down the trestle for the pedestrian bridge.
Susan Brandt-Hawley, the attorney representing those who want to keep the trestle, said in a recent interview that the group wasn’t deterred and hopes to change minds at the National Register.
“We’re going to get a transcript of that [state commission] hearing to send to staff in Washington,” Brandt-Hawley told the Northern California Record. “There’s a lot of evidence that they didn’t have.”