Architectural preservationists in Highland Park lost a battle Wednesday before the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission. But they say that won't deter their efforts to obtain special zoning to protect historic buildings in two neighborhoods.
"We've spent a lot of time on this and we plan to continue negotiating," said Pearl Beach, a local activist.
The commission voted 3 to 0 against granting designation as city cultural-historic monuments to two California Craftsman homes at 4967 and 4973 North Figueroa Street that may be torn down for apartments. Beach's organization, Sycamore Terrace Assn., and the Highland Park Heritage Trust, another local group, had mounted a strong campaign to preserve the houses.
The preservationists had hoped for a victory Wednesday as a first step toward a larger proposal to obtain historic-preservation zoning for two entire neighborhoods in Highland Park.
Commission members said the two homes were in poor condition and that Derek and Daisy Ma of Monterey Park, who are in escrow to buy the property and want to build apartments there, would suffer financial hardship if the homes were preserved as monuments. The commission also expressed concern that there is no historically minded buyer to take over the Mas' escrow and preserve the homes.
But a local real estate broker who specializes in selling historic homes testified that the homes can be successfully marketed and that the one he has seen is in good condition. And Ruthann Lehrer, director of the nonprofit Los Angeles Conservancy, a preservation group, challenged the commission's decision, saying its findings should be based solely on what she said are the considerable architectural merits of the homes and not on financial hardships incurred by a prospective owner.
A city planner familiar with the process said the commission's vote Wednesday would make it more difficult for Highland Park residents to obtain the designation they want as "historic preservation overlay zones." That requires painstaking research as well as public hearings and approval by Los Angeles' Cultural Heritage Commission, Planning Commission and City Council.
With such obstacles, it is little wonder that only two historic zones exist in Los Angeles--one in Angelino Heights near Echo Park and the other in Carthay Circle, between Olympic and Pico boulevards just east of La Cienega Boulevard.
Highland Park's preservationists have slated two neighborhoods for protection. One proposed zone covers a four-mile swath they call Sycamore Terrace, which would be bounded on the north and south by Avenue 51 and Avenue 42 and the west and east by Marmion Way and the Pasadena Freeway.
A second, smaller zone, called Echo Hayes, would extend for about one square mile and be bounded roughly by Arroyo Seco Park on the east, Figueroa Street on the north, Roselawn Place on the west and Media Drive and Benner Drive on the south.
In 1979, Los Angeles City Council approved an ordinance that would allow, on a case-by-case basis, historic preservation overlay zones to "protect and enhance the use of structures, features, sites and areas that are reminders of the city's history." The overlay-zone designation preserves all buildings within its boundaries that are deemed historically, architecturally or culturally significant. It also requires a city-appointed design review board that must approve the design, color, materials and landscaping of new construction and renovation. This is to ensure that structural changes are compatible with the area's architecture.
But the historic zones have also sparked controversy. Some homeowners and developers consider overlay zones an unwarranted intrusion on property rights and say that restrictive zoning would lower property values and stifle development in Northeast Los Angeles, an area that already suffers from a housing shortage. Many of the architecturally significant homes in Highland Park sit on land zoned for apartments.
In Angelino Heights, for instance, one apartment owner threatened to sue when the community's design review board prohibited him from putting stucco on the wooden exterior of his building and replacing antique window frames with smaller aluminum ones.
Highland Park's preservationists say their unsuccessful fight to preserve the Craftsman homes has taught them how to organize and conduct historical research--skills they say will help them lobby for the zone designations.
Virginia Neely, vice president of the Heritage Trust, recalled that, when residents met last fall to discuss strategies to preserve the Craftsman homes on North Figueroa Street, "They didn't know anything. But they got busy and have shown a lot of determination."
North Figueroa Street was known since the early 1900s as "Professors' Row" because many of its stately homes were built for Occidental College teachers when the campus was located on Avenue 50 and Figueroa Street. Occidental moved to Eagle Rock in 1914.