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Preservationists Hope the 'New' Long Beach Won't Level the Old

May 19, 1985|DARYL KELLEY | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — It was enough to warm a preservationist's heart.

In a week when things old and beautiful were honored across the nation, the restored terra-cotta pastels of the Dr. Rowan Building glistened like new. Across the street, the triple-spired temple the Masons crafted in 1903 had been rescued from a wrecker's ball.

A block farther south, at Pine Avenue and Broadway, a sign below the landmark clock tower on the old Bank of America proclaimed "space available" because of historic restoration.

But, as the nation marked National Historic Preservation Week and as Long Beach approaches its 100th birthday in 1988, local preservationists say another downtown building is more indicative of city government's efforts when it comes to restoring historic structures.

The Jergins Trust Building, an ornate embodiment of the tourist and oil booms that raised its 10 stories in stages from 1914-29, is scheduled for demolition in July.

"I'm afraid demolition is moving faster than preservation," said attorney Donald Lounsbury, chairman of the Cultural Heritage Committee, an advisory body the City Council formed in 1977.

"Here we are planning for the year 2000," said Lounsbury, "but if we don't do something in the next two or three years, we won't have any buildings left worth saving."

In addition to the Jergins, the Pacific Coast Club on Ocean Boulevard just east of downtown, the Fox West Coast Theater on Ocean, Acres of Books on Long Beach Boulevard and the Tichnor House next to the Pacific Coast Club are all threatened, said Doug Otto, president of the private Long Beach Heritage Foundation.

None of the architecturally and historically significant buildings in Long Beach are truly protected, said Lounsbury. As demonstrated by the Jergins building, even the 25 structures designated landmarks by the city can be razed after a maximum city-ordered delay of one year.

That is why Long Beach preservationists--several small loosely knit groups with no paid leadership--were not celebrating Tuesday when the City Council officially reaffirmed its general commitment to architectural heritage and added three more buildings to its list of landmarks.

"Preservation is not a high priority at City Hall," said Lounsbury. "We have been told unofficially that until we show we have a constituency, don't rock the boat. But government has a responsibility to lead. It can't just react to people marching in the streets. Overall, the council members have not faced the need for attention to this matter."

For their part, city officials say they are still resurrecting a downtown that by 1965 had gone 30 years without a major new building, by the mid-1970s had lost half its shops, and by 1978 was cited in one federal study as the sixth most depressed urban area in the country

"If all these buildings were so great, we wouldn't have to redevelop the downtown," said Mayor Ernie Kell. "I feel the private sector are the ones interested in restoring the buildings, so they're the ones who should be involved. I'm just not convinced how involved government should become."

Lounsbury, Otto and others maintain that after seeing several hundred million dollars in new downtown construction during the last decade, it is now time for the city to also focus on saving the best of its past.

In general, what the preservationists say they want is for the City Council to approve a specific plan for saving historic buildings.

Heritage Experts

Other area cities, notably Pasadena and Los Angeles, have done just that by hiring experts in cultural heritage to work hand in hand with redevelopment officials. Those cities, according to spokesmen there, recruit developers to rehabilitate old buildings just as they seek out developers of new ones.

Pasadena has four full-time employees working on urban conservation projects, said Claire Bogaard, executive director of Pasadena Heritage.

In addition, Pasadena has made it illegal for property owners to tear down any building that is at least 50 years old without first having city permits to build a new structure on the site. The Long Beach Cultural Heritage Committee recommended a duplicate ordinance, but the city attorney's office said it would be constitutionally questionable.

The city attorney also said a follow-up proposal that would have restricted demolition of only landmark structures raised too many unresolved legal questions. The 2-year-old Pasadena statute has not been challenged in court, said Bogaard.

Redevelopment Aims

Care should be taken in comparing the restoration efforts of cities, cautioned David Biggs, redevelopment project manager for downtown Long Beach. The substantial investment of Pasadena and other cities with clusters of historical buildings occurred because "the cornerstone of redevelopment in those cities is historical preservation," said Biggs. "In Long Beach new development is anchoring downtown redevelopment."

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