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A Battle Rages on the Home Front

Santa Monica: The practice of demolishing old houses to put up 'monster mansions' pits historic preservation versus property rights.


All Marc Schrobilgen wanted was to follow in the footsteps of scores of others: Buy a so-so house in Santa Monica, rip it down and build a two-story dream abode. A year and $65,000 later, it is his demolition permit that remains a dream.

Schrobilgen is swept up in a fractious debate over preservation versus homeowners' rights in this eclectic beach-side community, where hundreds of modest bungalows that helped give the town its flavor have been bulldozed and replaced with colossi known as "monster mansions."

Bemoaning a loss of charm and character, preservationists have raised an alarm. But they have been shouted down by rankled homeowners, many of them elderly, who fear a mass evaporation of equity should the city restrict tear-downs or remodelings.

Up and down one leafy street after another, well-tended lawns are sprouting "No Historic Districts" signs. And a pro-development lawyer has been gathering signatures for a ballot initiative that would leave the choice of preservation up to homeowners.

Countering that, a preservation-minded developer has just launched the nonprofit Santa Monica Conservancy to raise awareness of the city's architectural and historical treasures.

Each side accuses the other of spreading misinformation and sowing confusion. In an extreme case, one homeowner had the impression he would not be allowed to replace a leaky toilet, even though the city's existing rules put no limits on interior changes--and certainly not plumbing repairs. Rather, the aim of preservationists is to protect the exteriors of buildings considered to be significant.

And that is where Schrobilgen ran into trouble.

A year ago, the 31-year-old video producer and editor paid a bit more than $1 million for a property on 18th Street just south of San Vicente Boulevard. Engineers told him the foundation was crumbling and that the 1930-vintage Spanish Revival house was beset with toxic mold, asbestos and termites. They advised him to raze it and start from scratch.

Schrobilgen was no stranger to the tear-down mania that has swept Santa Monica and other California cities where real estate values are sizzling. In the last three years, he has bulldozed two houses and built big replacements on lots north of trendy Montana Avenue. Both fetched millions of dollars. With those proceeds, Schrobilgen said, "I finally [had] enough money to build a house for myself and my girlfriend and start a family. So I started going through the process."

"The process" entailed applying for a demolition permit. Under the city's existing policy, requests for "demo" permits for houses older than 40 years face review by the Landmarks Commission, members of which are appointed by the City Council. Usually, the process is a formality, as 224 demo permits issued from 1988 to 2001 for properties north of Montana attests.

But in this case, concerned neighbors asked the Landmarks Commission to consider establishing a "historic district" on 18th Street. Such a designation involves a long public review process. As a stopgap, the commission designated Schrobilgen's house a "structure of merit"--a classification designed to give time to consider alternatives to demolition. It falls well short of "landmark" status and does not preclude remodeling or alteration.

"The house was a good candidate for some neighborhood preservation, a house that could be saved and added onto," said Ruthann Lehrer, a landmarks commissioner who works as a historic preservation planner in Long Beach. "That sort of initiated the whole controversy over historic districts."

Indeed, faced with hefty mortgage payments for a house he deemed uninhabitable, Schrobilgen began mobilizing neighbors.

Tom Larmore, a pro-development attorney, created the Homeowners Freedom of Choice Initiative. The initiative would prohibit the city from designating a home in an area zoned for single-family residences as historic or as a landmark without the owner's consent. Larmore failed to amass the required 6,000 signatures to qualify the initiative for this November's ballot and said he is now aiming for the 2004 election.

In March, a consulting firm hired by the city finished updating an inventory of Santa Monica's historic resources, focusing on the area north of Montana. It includes properties that have been or could be designated as landmarks, structures of merit or contributors to historic districts.

About 9% of the properties, or 358, are listed. Those include the "18th Street Grouping," also known as Gillette Regent Square. The pocket is named for King C. Gillette, who invented the safety razor in the early 1900s and then turned to developing housing for Santa Monica's burgeoning middle class. Also included in the listing are Adelaide Drive, a stretch of Craftsman and other expansive homes with views of Santa Monica Canyon and the ocean, and La Mesa Drive.

The prospect that the Landmarks Commission might begin designating wide swaths of such neighborhoods as historic districts riled homeowners.

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