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Tear down Brentwood's Barry Building to save it?

That's what developer Charles Munger contends his plan would do at the former Dutton's bookstore site. Foes, including preservationists, don't see it that way.

August 21, 2009|Martha Groves

It's safe to say that billionaire investor Charles T. Munger's idea of historic preservation does not jibe with the Los Angeles Conservancy's.

At the site of the Barry Building, the mid-century modern landmark on San Vicente Boulevard that for years housed Dutton's bookstore, he envisions a bustling new Brentwood Town Green filled with restaurants and shops.

To get there, Munger proposes to raze the building, put parking below, then construct a two-story complex in the same style but three times the size of the original.

"Applicants are unable to recall any greater victory for historic preservation in the entire history of the city," he adds.

To many Brentwood residents and the preservation community, this is logic taken to a paradoxical extreme. The idea is "totally incompatible" with the project's stated goal of respecting cultural heritage issues, according to the L.A. Conservancy.

By Munger's reasoning, one would improve on history by "demolishing Rome's Colosseum and building a new renovated Colosseum with similar architectural design and technique," suggests one neighbor, Bob Blue.

The Barry Building is a historic-cultural monument, a status the city bestowed in 2007 after Munger floated a proposal to replace it with 60 luxury condos and retail shops. Demolition and replacement of the building, opponents say, would run counter to a key tenet of preservation: If damaged or destroyed, historic places cannot be replaced.

"It's a slap in the face to the people and the city of Los Angeles," said Diane Caughey, an architect and the daughter of Milton Caughey, who designed the Barry Building, completed in 1951.

As Munger begins his quest for city approvals, critics have raised a battery of objections -- from the noise and traffic they fear would be generated to the potential loss of a beloved, low-key gathering place with its central courtyard and curving stairways. Although some observers deemed the building unremarkable, Mary Klaus-Martin, who was president of the city Cultural Heritage Commission when the building was designated, described it as "a jewel" designed by an acclaimed young architect.

Blue and other opponents of Munger's plan recognize that they're up against a formidable force with cavernous pockets. Munger, 85, is a founder of the Los Angeles law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson. In 1978, he partnered with Warren E. Buffett to run Berkshire Hathaway Inc., the legendary holding company.

A 1949 photograph in Munger's project description shows his wife's father, David Barry Jr., holding a shovel as he and others plant one of many coral trees in the grassy median on San Vicente where the Pacific Electric Red Car track once ran. The lush trees were designated a city historic-cultural monument in 1976.

By then, the boulevard had become the main drag through the well-heeled community, with upscale shopping malls, restaurants and office buildings. Many residents fear that traffic generated by a nearly 50,000-square-foot shopping complex -- with 350 parking spaces, more than required -- would further clog an artery that already comes to a standstill at times.

"The proposal would apparently transform the bedroom community of Brentwood into something that it has never before been: a center for night life," Wendy-Sue Rosen, chairwoman of the Brentwood Community Council, told the Los Angeles Planning Department.

Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents the area, sits on the warm seat in the middle, between residents and a patient developer.

"The Brentwood community is wide awake and focused on that piece of land," Rosendahl said. "He must respect the community and its interests."

Munger contends that he plans to fill the Brentwood Town Green with neighborhood-serving shops and eateries -- in other words, the type of project many planners favor because such businesses can, in theory, reduce auto trips.

"I would want in Brentwood exactly what I would want in my neighborhood of Hancock Park," he said.

For inspiration, he is turning to the Brentwood Country Mart, a mostly one-story collection of retail shops and eateries on 26th Street near San Vicente, about a mile west of the Barry Building.

Like the mart, Brentwood Town Green would feature picnic-style outdoor dining. Diners would be protected in foul weather by what Munger calls "retractable skylights" -- basically, a slide-away, rainproof cover over the open courtyard (a feature Munger plans to keep). The cover would bring the project height to 50 feet.

Munger says the Barry Building suffers from outmoded electrical and mechanical systems, a lack of insulation and poor layouts, defects that would be difficult to fix. Since Dutton's closed in April 2008, a furniture store, a coffee shop, a Pilates studio and a consignment shop have moved in, with short-term leases at favorable rents.

Landmark status does not necessarily prevent an owner from developing or even demolishing a property, but it does create an environmental review process when the owner seeks a permit for demolition or substantial alteration.

That process requires Munger to explore alternatives for preserving the Barry Building. Lambert Giessinger, historic preservation architect with the city Planning Department's Office of Historic Resources, said any new development could be constructed on the parking lot behind the building.

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martha.groves@latimes.com

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