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Creating a Vibrant Area

June 09, 1996|Alexander Garvin | Alexander Garvin, a member of the New York City Planning commission, teaches urban planning at Yale University. He is the author of "The American City: What Works, What Doesn't" (McGraw-Hill)

NEW YORK — Imagine a Los Angeles where every movie studio had been replaced by more lucrative revenue-producing businesses, where the Venice canals were filled in to provide needed parking, where every department store had been torn down to provide sites for more efficient big retail outlets. The right legislation can preclude this dismal future.

With the proposed destruction of one of Los Angeles' most important landmarks, the Cathedral of St. Vibiana (1871-76), everybody should be asking themselves what should be done to preserve this city's historic structures. The rationale for saving old buildings is not to satisfy some people's nostalgic desire to return to another era or other people's dislike of the newly built environment. The U.S. Supreme Court explained it best in its landmark decision upholding the constitutionality of historic preservation:

"Structures with special historic, cultural or architectural significance enhance the quality of life for all. Not only do these buildings and their workmanship represent the lessons of the past and embody precious features of our heritage, they serve as example of quality for today . . . fostering civic pride in the beauty and noble accomplishments of the past; protecting and enhancing the city's attraction to tourists and visitors; support[ing] and stimul[ating] business and industry; strengthen[ing] the economy of the city."

The reconstruction of San Diego's historic Old Town transformed it into a major tourist destination. Visitors to Santa Barbara's "El Pueblo Viejo" generate thousands of jobs and add hundreds of millions dollars to the city economy.

What the Supreme Court failed to answer, however, was what to save and how to save it. Fortunately, the country has more than 2,000 local agencies that, like the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission, are legally responsible for deciding what to preserve. These include places of historical significance (the original Charlie Chaplin Studio); of aesthetic prominence (Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House); of social importance (the Hollywood Walk of Fame); of public significance (Angels Flight, Los Angeles' only inclined railway), and of scenic distinction (Santa Monica Canyon).

Preserving our cultural heritage is a tough job. The simplest way is to purchase and maintain landmark structures. We do not have to worry about preserving the Gamble House, Greene & Greene's architectural masterpiece, because it is owned and maintained as a house museum by the City of Pasadena and USC. No city, of course, has the money to buy every property of significance, nor would anyone seriously propose transforming an entire city into a museum.

Consequently, municipalities entrust presentation to property owners who are required by law to obtain permission from a landmarks agency before remodeling, adding to or demolishing a historic structure. Agency regulation is necessary to prevent well-intentioned repairs that can result in the desecration of a fine old buildings. To some extent, this diminishes property rights. But it is the only way for society to be sure future generations will enjoy precious features of our heritage.

Unfortunately, requirements imposed by a well-meaning preservation agency may produce the opposite result: increasing deterioration, abandonment and eventual demolition. If it imposes restoration requirements that a building's occupants cannot afford, property owners will forgo repair. Similarly, if owners are forbidden to adapt their buildings to contemporary needs, government may force them to abandon them. Eventually these properties deteriorate to the point that public safety requirements will mandate their destruction.

For Los Angeles to profit financially from cultural heritage, it must stop punishing property owners who engage in major renovation by increasing their tax bill. It must also provide a mechanism that will allow them to obtain private financing for that renovation.

The key to reviving downtown Los Angeles is filling the city with people day and night, seven days a week--not just during office hours, Monday to Friday. An aggressive preservation policy could transform the historic Broadway Theater District, just a few blocks from St. Vibiana, into this sort of lively, downtown district. The key lies in attracting occupants to the upper floors of what was once the city's premier commercial district. Today, retailers pay top dollar for ground-floor space on Broadway, but nobody is ready to rent the office space above. With the right changes in tax-assessment policy and building codes, those unrentable office floors could be converted into affordable residential loft apartments.

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