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L.A. council acts to protect historic area

Officials put a hold on most construction in Windsor Square while they seek to overcome legal challenges to a city preservation plan.

February 08, 2007|Tony Barboza | Times Staff Writer

Hoping to protect one of its oldest, most historically significant neighborhoods, the Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday slapped a 45-day moratorium on most demolition and building activity in Windsor Square, a square-mile area of stately homes west of downtown.

The council acted to prevent a blitz of construction after an October ruling in Los Angeles Superior Court that overturned the neighborhood's historic designation and preservation ordinance. Judge Dzintra Janavs said the city had not properly studied the environmental effect of establishing the district and made errors in its official survey.

In a unanimous vote, the council repealed the disputed ordinance just before approving the moratorium, also unanimously.

Council members said the actions would give them time to come up with a measure that would satisfy the court.

A grid of tree-lined streets bordered by Beverly, Wilshire and Arden boulevards and Van Ness Avenue, Windsor Square is home to the mayoral residence and other mansions built in the 1910s and 1920s.

The neighborhood is one of the largest and most well-preserved historic areas of the city, said Ken Bernstein, historic resources manager for the city's Planning Department.

Nearly 90% of the more than 1,000 buildings in the district were deemed historically significant in a survey.

"This is one of the oldest of all the neighborhoods in Los Angeles," said Councilman Tom LaBonge, who sponsored the motions approved Wednesday. "Unless it's protected from development ... we will see rapid change."

Windsor Square is treasured for its large frontyards and elegant houses with varied architectural styles, including Tudor, Colonial, Spanish and Mediterranean. The area is a favorite filming location, city officials said.

Historic preservation laws have been used for more than 20 years in Los Angeles in such neighborhoods as Angelino Heights, West Adams and Highland Park. The preservation districts limit the changes people can make to their homes' facades but do not bar all construction or interior remodeling.

Fred Gaines, an attorney representing a group of residents who opposed the historic designation and who filed the lawsuit that led to the court decision, said the zones are too restrictive.

He also questioned the long-term effects of preservation: "Will people be able to update their homes? Will buildings not be remodeled? Will the area be able to be built out to accommodate the population?"

He also suggested that the designation was motivated by a desire to keep "immigrants and Orthodox Jews and others who have different cultural styles and needs for their houses out of the neighborhood."

Members of the neighborhood association dispute that contention, saying their sole aim is to preserve the historic character of their community.

Historic districts usually have overwhelming community support, said Jay Platt, preservation advocate for the Los Angeles Conservancy, a nonprofit preservation group. This is the first time that one of the city's 22 historic districts has been demoted to non-historic status, he said.

Mary Pickhardt, a member of the Windsor Square Assn., said residents have put in thousands of volunteer hours to bring about the designation and that she was disappointed to see it repealed.

Pickhardt attributed the change to "a handful of disgruntled neighbors that overturned the will of a majority of the neighborhood on a technicality."

The neighborhood's distinction as historic, she said, has helped maintain a uniform feel and scale, prevented further "mansionization" and even boosted property values.

Neighboring Hancock Park has been the scene of a similar dispute. Last year, competing neighborhood associations battled over plans to protect an equally large zone of 1920s and '30s-era homes.

It is unclear whether the court's decision -- or the council's response -- will affect the way historic districts are established in the future.

"This is a temporary stop-gap measure while the city studies any potential [environmental impact] measures," Councilman Ed Reyes said before voting.

Temporary moratoriums are common practice when a historic designation is in question and necessary to prevent opportunistic development, said LaBonge's chief of staff, Renee Weitzer.

"It's important that we don't trigger a rush to the permit counter," Weitzer said.

"The threat of tear-downs and ill-considered renovations is very real" if no protections are in place, said Pickhardt of the Windsor Square Assn., addressing the council.

Gaines, the attorney, said he would challenge the moratorium in court.

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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