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A new crack in the old neighborhood

The Windsor Square preservation debate has divided the area. Some fear friendships will suffer long after the issue has been decided.

June 24, 2004|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

Preservation.

It seems like a concept that is embraced along with motherhood and democracy. Yet it has set neighbor against neighbor in Windsor Square, a courtly slice of Los Angeles known for its historic manors, preened lawns and deep community pride.

Homeowners who spend Saturdays side by side planting crape myrtle and magnolia trees in keeping with century-old parkway designs are divided on a pending preservation plan. It's making sensible people act out on a level that one resident likened to "a church fight."

There are claims of Internet warfare, party snubs and a "Stepford Wives" mentality. The landscape too has changed. Dueling lawn signs -- more than 700 for or against the proposal -- popped up in front yards in March.

Here's what happened to ruffle residents of these 68 blocks in the Mid-Wilshire area:

Five years ago, a few longtimers launched the idea of making Windsor Square a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone, which means a homeowner would need the approval of a design review board before changing a house's exterior.

The Los Angeles City Planning Commission approved the special zoning May 27. There will be a hearing by the City Council's Planning and Land Use Management Committee this summer, and the City Council will probably decide the issue soon afterward. Then Mayor James K. Hahn will be asked to approve it.

As the idea has crept closer to becoming a reality, neighbors have separated into two camps: Those who want to keep the period-revival houses -- most of which were built around 1920 -- as they are; and those who don't want to relinquish their right to control what they can do to their own homes.

"People who buy high-income properties do not want to be told what to do," one owner said at a hearing on the new zoning. She moved out of another protected neighborhood because the oversight involved in enlarging a deck was "like living in a prison."

A prison?

Overstatement is common in these charged situations, says Harry Reis, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester in New York.

"Some people think of historic houses as belonging to the community," he says, but "homeownership is also considered by most Americans to be a sacred right. They respond badly to being told what they can and cannot do to their home. It is almost like being told what you can and cannot do to your own body."

When the issue of public good versus individual rights involves the financial and emotional investment of a home, he says, debates can get less friendly and may stay that way.

A Windsor Square homeowner opposed to the historic zone idea says others like her worry about feeling permanently alienated from neighbors once the City Council has made a decision. Will they still be invited to holiday parties? Feel comfortable pitching in for beautification projects? Or will they have to put on their boxing gloves instead of their gardening gloves?

"Whether they have a problem depends on if they act reasonably to resolve conflict," says Reis. "Other neighborhoods have survived."

In Los Angeles, there are 17 Historic Preservation Overlay Zones and 15 that are in line to become one, says Ken Bernstein of the Los Angeles Conservancy, a nonprofit preservation group that guides homeowners in the process. The first HPOZ was named 20 years ago to protect the Victorian homes in Angelino Heights. The latest zone, approved last year, is three blocks of midcentury tract homes in Mar Vista designed by Modernist architect Gregory Ain.

For now in Windsor Square, an Interim Control Ordinance is handling issues including teardowns and monster-sizing, building a home that fills up the lot.

The proposed preservation ordinance -- revised to appease more residents -- would also focus on keeping the area's architectural features intact; that is, the half-timbering treatment of a Tudor Revival, arcaded porch of a Spanish Colonial Revival and iron grillwork of a Mediterranean. Clean-lined contemporary designs would not fit the classic mix and would be nixed.

This has pro-zone resident Bob Burke breathing easier. He mentions a newly constructed home, an unadorned modern, outside Windsor Square but close enough for traditionalists to fret about.

"Frankly, it looks like an army barracks on the northern slopes of Afghanistan," says Burke, who grew up in the neighborhood and was an environmentalist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration during Jimmy Carter's presidency. "It shows you that you can't rely on anyone's good sense."

With 1,100 houses, Windsor Square has one of the largest collections of period revival-style homes in the county, says the Conservancy's Bernstein. In the early 1950s, the neighbors successfully fought an effort by oil mogul J. Paul Getty to tear down homes to build his world headquarters.

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