What goes up…

Chicoans search for alternatives to demolishing local icons

Chico State history professor Michael Magliari is trying to find alternatives to demolishing Chico’s iconic water towers, including these two at Orient and Third streets.

Chico State history professor Michael Magliari is trying to find alternatives to demolishing Chico’s iconic water towers, including these two at Orient and Third streets.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

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Concerned residents can check Facebook for updates—search for the Chico Heritage Association or “Save the Chico Water Towers.”

Chico residents are attached to the city’s water towers, which are slated for removal. That was clear during a presentation by Chico State history professor Michael Magliari last Saturday (Aug. 26), at the Chico Museum, where their fate was discussed.

Two of the towers have stood side-by-side at East Third and Orient streets for more than a century, casting shadows from the downtown Chico skyline. They were both constructed with state-of-the-art designs, Magliari said, during a progressive era of construction in Chico. Popping up in countless historical photos and paintings, the towers, which are owned by California Water Service Co., have become a part of the local culture and are listed in the city’s Historic Resource Inventory.

The two other towers, constructed in the 1940s and ’50s, are not similarly registered, but Magliari says they are nevertheless historical in their own right. Built to facilitate an expanding post-war population in Chico, they too were made with then-modern engineering, towering even higher than the others, each one holding as much water as the side-by-side towers combined. One can be found on East Sixth and Oleander avenues, and the other near West Second and Cherry streets.

Results from recent seismic studies, however, show the towers to be unsafe in the event of an earthquake, Cal Water of Chico District Manager Pete Bonacich told the CN&R in a separate interview. With costs of over $1 million each to bring them up to code, the utility company announced its plans for demolition in early June.

The towers have been empty for nearly two years, and have become “less and less useful” in the face of newer and larger ground-based tanks over the last decade, becoming “a burden and liability” for Cal Water, Bonacich said.

Magliari has been working with Cal Water on ways to preserve the towers, and he presented three options during his presentation that could help offset costs of maintaining and bringing the towers up to seismic standards.

The Mills Act, enacted in 1972 and adopted by Chico in 2003, allows property tax reductions for historic properties and could be explored in the case of the towers, Magliari said. Another option—getting the towers listed on the National Register of Historic Places—could qualify them for another tax reduction. Lastly, Magliari mentioned the California State Historic Building Code, which can provide alternative building regulations for qualified historic buildings, possibly eliminating the need for renovation. None of these avenues are mutually exclusive, he said.

Several concerns and questions were raised by the audience. One member questioned the validity of the seismic data collected by Cal Water and asked if the measurements were taken when the tanks were full, or after they were empty. Another asked for reassurance that the towers would not disappear overnight without a chance for further discussion.

City Councilman Andrew Coolidge addressed the attendees and put some minds at ease, saying demolition could be appealed at the City Council level, at least for the two side-by-side towers at East Third and Orient streets that are listed on the city’s Historic Resource Inventory.

Bonacich told the CN&R that the towers were found to be a possible safety hazard while empty or full. A resident of Chico for over 40 years, Bonacich said he appreciates the towers and emphasized that they would not be demolished overnight. “They’re pretty, iconic [and] a part of the city’s history,” he said.

After the talk, Coolidge told the CN&R that he felt encouraged by the large crowd of concerned residents, and that Cal Water seems to be looking into potential alternatives to taking down the towers. He said he and other council members had spoken with Cal Water already.

“I am hopeful,” Coolidge said. “I like that they are looking at saving the towers and working with the city—it’s not often you see this in a big company.”