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Saving the water tower: Confusing historical significance with sentimentality?

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POSTED August 3, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Just because something is old doesn’t make it historical.

It might have sentimental value. But for something to be considered historical it has to take on some significance in the overall scheme of things. The act of determining whether something is historical doesn’t do much good either if that is the end game. Either it needs to be protected in a permanent state of decay with efforts to make sure further deterioration doesn’t occur, such as with Bodie State Park, or it needs to be preserved and/or restored.

The debate over the water tower on Wetmore Street tagged for demolition is a classic example of confusing sentiment with historical value. The effort, so far, hasn’t developed legs in the form of an effort to prove its historical significance besides just saying it is, nor is there any long-term groundswell effort to make preservation and restoration possible.

The city has acted responsibly in complying with state requirements that such structures be certified as being able to withstand an earthquake. A structural engineer determined it could no longer function safely as a water tower without a $2.1 million investment. The city made the tank tower structurally safe by draining the 300,000 gallons and disconnecting it from the water system.

Those that want to preserve the water tower haven’t made equally responsible moves for their cause, at least not yet.

Solo Don Quixote style efforts rarely succeed. There needs to be a steering committee formed such like how the Manteca Historical Society & Museum got off the ground. That is true of other efforts that required a large investment of money from the community to turn a hope into a reality, such as the Manteca Boys & Girls Club.

The formation of Friends of the Manteca Water Tower would be a start. Likeminded people joining together could build a case as to why the tower should be saved and what costs it would take to make that happen.

Then they need to line up potential donors of seed money who would contribute to the preservation efforts to get things moving if they are successful at saving the water tower from demolition.

Then there needs to be a high-profile campaign. It needs to start with the first step, which is convincing those who call the shots that it should be saved.

In the two-year saga, virtually the only public mention by anyone at the Manteca City Council meeting about whether the water tower should be saved came from Richard Hanson. Simply grumbling or snipping about it doesn’t work. This is a policy decision. That means the five elected council members have to be lobbied with a grassroot effort that would do itself good to be visible at every council meeting.

Instead we have an effort that is long on hoping and wishing and short on action. It targets a bureaucratic procedure solution instead of a policy solution. And because of that, it will not succeed.

Try to convince an engineer or a planner that a non-functional 52-year-old water tower that could very well be in Timbuctoo in Nevada County instead of Manteca is significant historically. Engineers aren’t sentimental. They are practical.

Instead, they need to enlist a sympathizer who could be an advocate. Councilman John Harris, for example, offers one possibility as he is a history buff. If this is about the water tower and not simply creating a lot of attention, then the grunt work has to be done. It includes building support of the council. That requires more than just one impassioned speech during a council meeting. It requires a campaign that has high visibility.

The water tower aside, the entire debate illustrates a significant shortcoming in Manteca. Little or no attention is being paid to preserving structures of historical interest.

As a building either of sentimental or perceived historical value bites the dust, the usual comments about how sad it is to see that happen and why isn’t anything being done to save it are made. But other than that, nothing happens.

What is needed is an effort to identify buildings of historical significance, catalog them officially through the city and then work on devising long-range strategies on how to preserve them.

If it is a private sector building, it may require putting in place ordinances as well as developing tax breaks or incentives to preserve them unless taxpayers acting collectively through their elected leaders have the stomach to buy them outright.

Keep in mind that it opens the door to draconian government-imposed restrictions on the use of private property as has happened in Berkeley and San Francisco.

What has happened there could happen here.

An official committee could designate the first flat-top home or the first ranch-style subdivision home of being significant historically and in need of preservation. It would mean whoever owned said homes would be extremely limited in what alterations or even repairs they could make.

Living in one of the original flat-tops would make me less than enthused about such a government entity being created in Manteca.

I also would be not too thrilled if my water rates had to go up a $1 a month to rehab a nonfunctioning water tower that has sentimental appeal.

True efforts to designate and then preserve structures of “historical significance” aren’t without cost.

That needs to be part of the debate.

It’s easy to say something should be saved from a wrecking ball. Talk is cheap. It’s another thing entirely to actually make that happen. And that can be expensive.



This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209-249-3519.

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