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Preserving the Past : Preservation: Communities establish zones to protect neighborhoods' historic, architectural and cultural characteristics.

November 13, 1994|R. DANIEL FOSTER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Foster is a Los Angeles free - lance writer

In a city that reinvents itself with each new architectural whim, preserving the look of older neighborhoods can be a quixotic task. Indeed, those who live in such areas say their fight to shelter their communities is like chasing after historic characteristics that only they can see and appreciate.

But buoyed by a city of Los Angeles ordinance created in 1979 that can seal neighborhoods against indecorous development and renovation, city residents have since found new teeth. They have battled to create seven such areas, called Historic Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZs), and are pushing for 11 more.

"Los Angeles is behind other cities that have many more zones," said Barbara Hoff, director of preservation issues at the Los Angeles Conservancy, a nonprofit group that helps residents win historic designations. "A typical East Coast city has 27 zones or more. People forget that historical doesn't just mean houses from the 1820s and '30s, it also means those from the 1920s and '30s."

HPOZs are designed to preserve neighborhoods' historic, architectural, cultural or aesthetic significance. The majority of homes in HPOZs (the first was Angelino Heights, designated in 1983) are over 40 years old. Some zones are carved out of neat square blocks of residential tracts. Others have jagged boundaries that avoid commercial districts, although one proposed zone in Venice consists entirely of commercial real estate.

An HPOZ does not require homeowners to fix up their properties, but an HPOZ neighborhood association reviews any proposed exterior changes that are visible from the street. Aluminum windows or stucco, for example, would mar the design integrity of a Craftsman bungalow and would not be allowed. Routine maintenance is not affected by a zone's design requirements.

Additions or new structures, which, under an HPOZ, require approval from the Cultural Heritage Commission and city Planning Department, need not match existing architectural styles in the zone, but they must fit the area's aesthetic standards.

Those who fight for HPOZs say the process is tedious, time consuming, involves political infighting among factions of the city council and residents, and is often frustrating. It involves numerous community meetings and public hearings, petitioning of homeowners, historical surveys, and perhaps most difficult, convincing neighbors that an overlay zone is not bad medicine.

Many homeowners, for example, mistakenly believe they will be prevented from altering the insides of their homes or from adding or renovating patios, fences, porches, sun decks or balconies without having to navigate the city's bureaucratic approval process.

Homeowners and renters often begin their battle for an HPOZ when yet another Craftsman bungalow or Spanish revival home is razed to make room for garish apartment complexes.

"Developers would buy up 12 homes at a time, tear them all down and put up really ugly, huge buildings. Detroit Street is pretty much decimated," said Denise Robb, who lives in the Miracle Mile district. Robb formed the Miracle Mile Action Committee in 1989 to continue a battle that was begun in 1986 for an HPOZ called Miracle Mile South.

Bounded by 3rd Street and Wilshire Boulevard to the north and south and Detroit Street and Hauser Boulevard to the east and west, the proposed zone is adjacent to the Miracle Mile North HPOZ, which was secured in May, 1990.

Robb's neighborhood consists mostly of Depression-era Spanish-style apartment buildings, many designed by celebrated architects Max Maltzman and Milton Black. The structures are more difficult to protect than single-family homes since landlords are largely absent.

"I always hear the complaint that we shouldn't have a zone because tenants are transient, but some have lived here for 15, 25 years," said Robb, who has rented in the area for seven years.

Robb and five other board members have made weekly forays to City Hall and libraries, tracking down the neighborhood's history. Since Robb began her crusade in 1986, she said that 51 buildings have been torn down and developers keep phoning up owners, making offers. According to one estimate, 50% of Miracle Mile South has been redeveloped.

Although Robb and her crew now feel more bitter than encouraged, others say their long fight has been worth it, bringing neighbors together in ways even an earthquake and riot could not accomplish.

"At our first meeting in 1987, we packed the old Masonic Temple on Figueroa with 400 people," said architect Richard Barron, who helped secure the city's most recent and largest HPOZ, Highland Park, awarded in June. "We knew then that we had something--a love of the community."

To advertise their meeting, Barron and other neighbors posted signs depicting a bulldozer about to devour a tiny bungalow.

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