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Sam Hall Kaplan

Preservation: the People's Choice

May 08, 1988|Sam Hall Kaplan

In keeping with the spirit of an election year, the theme for National Preservation Week that begins today and runs through Saturday is "the people's choice."

Judging from what I see and hear in neighborhoods in Los Angeles and elsewhere, it is no contest. Preservation as a planning and design movement with political, economic and social implications has grown to be a major force in the shaping of our cities in recent years.

Very much on the increase has been the adaptation of dated buildings, historic or otherwise, to new uses, the restoration, conservation and preservation of others, and generally. a sensitive attempt to create a more varied and rich urban fabric.

The result has been new life and value to old neighborhoods and the laying to rest of the criticisms in real estate circles that preservation is a self-indulgent movement prompted by fear of progress. (Though, to be sure, there is no preventing some residents from using preservation as a banner to cloak their greed and prejudice.)

But overwhelmingly, the preservation movement has been a heartening response to an emerging awareness and appreciation of our rich architectural legacy and its potential to lend a city a sense of time, place and pride.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the rise of neighborhood activism. As noted by Daniel Hoye in the Los Angeles Conservancy's current newsletter, "community and homeowner groups are using the tools of preservation to instill pride of ownership, improved neighborhood image and a better quality of life." Hoye continues:

"By organizing to create a voice, neighborhood groups can better address civic issues, such as traffic, parking, crime, graffiti, improved city services, adjacent developments and incompatible land use. At the same time, they can protect architectural integrity through designation processes, which often provide economic benefits for homeowners."

These, of course, are not just preservation issues, but quality-of-life issues that apply to all neighborhoods, be they architecturally or historically distinctive, or not. It is a linkage that our politicians, planners and bureaucrats would be wise to recognize, given the drift of Los Angeles in the present and foreseeable future from a collection of first-growth suburbs into a logjam of a second-growth city.

Short Takes: Critical to preservation in Los Angeles are the local Historic Cultural Monument ordinance, the city's Cultural Heritage Commission and the Cultural Affairs Department, all of which, at present, are in the process of, hopefully, being strengthened.

Soon to be released is the draft of a new ordinance that will extend the protection of historical monuments and increase pressure on owners to seek preservation solutions rather than demolition. Working on the ordinance has been Councilman Joel Wachs, helped by the commission and the department that seem to have been revitalized under Rodney Punt, acting as general manager.

Given the increasing political muscle of the preservation movement, Punt, who is seeking a permanent appointment as department head, no doubt, recognizes the value of preservation. Certainly, one could describe the amiable Punt as a preservationist of sorts, having somehow survived in the department for 11 years, including 7 as deputy to the unlamented Fred Croton.

It is heartening to note that the county received 10 proposals to preserve through a new use the Pan Pacific Auditorium in the Fairfax district, with its sculpted Streamline Moderne-style facade, as one of the city's more expressive landmarks.

Of the 10, the county's asset management staff has indicated it prefers a scheme consisting of a retail and entertainment center featuring an ice rink, five movie theaters, restaurants and offices. It was submitted by the development firms of Kornwasser & Friedman and Goldrich & Kest, and designed by Gruen & Associates.

Having been once bitten by a scheme that failed to materialize, the county, obviously, wants to be on the safe side and pick a project that will work and generate some funds. But whether the mix of uses and design selected is appropriate to the landmark and the surrounding community is another matter. It is with this in mind that I look forward to a public presentation of all the schemes.

When dealing with public resources, in particular historic landmarks, the governmental agencies involved must recognize that they have an obligation to look beyond the bottom line. Lest the Reagan Administration has made us forget, there is something called a public trust.

Demonstrating that public trust recently was the city of Pasadena and its enlightened negotiations to protect the Julia Morgan-designed YWCA Building in the civic center. A portion of it was marked for demolition under a plan by the Y for a new fitness facility.

The negotiations were complex and heated, but it appears that everyone involved gave a little so that the design integrity of the building, in particular the gym, could be saved.

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