Lyn MacEwen Cohen is sure that the future of the once-grand Miracle Mile lies in its past--so sure that she and other area residents are trying to have a four-block strip of Wilshire Boulevard designated a historic district.
But Moussa Shaaya and other owners of property along the strip are not convinced. Shaaya owns Desmond's, one of about 19 Art Deco buildings on Wilshire Boulevard between Detroit Street and Burnside Avenue that would be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places if the state approves the proposal.
"This place is like a slum," said Shaaya, referring to the area's vacant storefronts, discount stores with large window ads and buildings shabby from years of neglect. "The only way for it to change for the better is for the buildings to change," he said, adding that he would like to build at least a 10-story addition to his property at 5500 Wilshire Blvd.
Cohen, who is president of the Miracle Mile Residential Assn., faces the tough job of persuading Shaaya and other property owners to see their Art Deco, Streamline Moderne and Zig Zag Moderne buildings as magnets that would attract business and shoppers. At least 51% of the property owners have to approve the proposal before the state Office of Historic Resources can make the designation.
The strip along Wilshire Boulevard is zoned for high-density, commercial development.
"Preserving the best concentration of Art Deco buildings in the city would pump new life into the area," Cohen said. She has researched Miracle Mile's heyday, which began in the late 1920s when developer A. W. Ross turned the area between Sycamore and Fairfax avenues into the city's most fashionable shopping district. "A historic district would be like a slice of life from the '30s."
Bill Christopher, president of the Westside Civic Federation, said the primary intent of the historic district is to revitalize the area.
"We're not interested in keeping every building exactly the way it was as much as we'd like to see the area become a vital, pedestrian-oriented shopping area," Christopher said.
The state will hold a public hearing on the proposal in November. In the meantime, proponents are meeting with the property owners, said Nancy Michali, an urban designer and residential association member.
So far, the group has not been very successful, although it is still early in the process, Michali said.
"We had a meeting and only three owners showed up," Michali said. "And I'm afraid they hit the roof (when informed of the proposed district)."
Ruthann Lehrer, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, said the owners' reactions stem from widespread confusion over the consequences of establishing a historic district. The conservancy is spearheading the preservation effort.
"There's more carrot than stick in this designation," Lehrer said. "It doesn't prevent owners from altering or demolishing the buildings. It only provides owners with tax incentives and moral imperatives to renovate."
Most people are unaware that there is a difference between state and city historic status, Lehrer said. The city's Cultural Heritage Commission has the power to review any proposed changes to a building it designates as historic. The state designation carries no such clout, she said.
Question of Status
Michali said three-fourths of the buildings in the proposed district would not qualify as city landmarks and thus would not be subject to the commission's scrutiny. She said the commission does not generally list entire commercial districts.
Michali said she applied for the state designation after a study by the Southern California Rapid Transit District on the impact of a proposed leg of Metro Rail identified the four-block strip as a potential historic district.
Lew Mitchell, a restaurateur who opposes the proposed district, said residential association members want to prevent growth.
"It's clear the buildings are of no singular merit," said Mitchell, who was one of the first businessmen to reinvest in the Miracle Mile after it fell on hard times after the retail flight to the suburbs in the late 1950s. "Yet we'd have to go through hell on wheels to change the shape of a door handle if they establish a district here."
City planner Emily Gabel said the area's striking Art Deco designs are its best features. Desmond's, which Shaaya owns, is often touted as the showpiece of the four-block strip. It is a two-story building supporting a nine-story tower, and contains an exotically stylized floral mural in the main entry.
"I'd hate to see any of the buildings stuccoed over or demolished," Gabel said.
William Delvac, an attorney who specializes in historic preservation, said if the buildings were listed on the National Register of Historic Places their owners would be eligible for substantial tax deductions for improving them.