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Preserving L.A.

A proposed ordinance to protect the interiors of historic homes goes too far. The goal is worthy, but education and peer pressure are better tools for the job.

September 10, 2009

Los Angeles is gradually losing its priceless trove of Craftsman and other architecturally significant homes. The exteriors are generally safe; many are protected under the city's Cultural Heritage Ordinance, which requires property owners to wait six months to a year before getting a permit to demolish or significantly alter their buildings. That gives owners time to come to their senses -- and to realize that their historic homes are worth far more to them, and to potential buyers, intact.

The losses are occurring indoors. Clueless homeowners are gutting their historic interiors. That's criminal.

Of course, that's just a figure of speech. Should property owners be compelled by city law to get special permission for an extreme interior makeover? There is a balance to be struck between preservation and property rights, and even if the proposed ordinance to be taken up today by the City Planning Commission were enforceable, it intrudes too far into a homeowner's ability to live in and enjoy his or her home. The city ought to be able to temporarily protect interiors generally seen by the public -- in theaters, for example, or commercial spaces such as stores -- but not private homes.

The city's preservation ordinance was drafted in 1962 and is due for an overhaul. It was adopted before the California Environmental Quality Act, and it should be updated to acknowledge and coordinate with the state law rather than compete with it, but the current draft falls short. Other parts of the proposal have real merit. Property owners would be entitled to earlier notice that their properties have been nominated for monument status. This makes the process fairer, and it also increases the likelihood that the owner will become a partner in preserving the city's cultural heritage.

Los Angeles is often mocked as having no historic fabric, but it has a lot -- and this city has the social capital and knowledge to preserve and celebrate it. No historic-cultural monument has been demolished since the Ambassador Hotel, and that came only after years of hearings and court battles. But Los Angeles will never be an embalmed museum like parts of pre-Katrina New Orleans or Charleston, S.C. The city's culture is grounded in growth and dynamism, and its preservation ordinance must balance that penchant for change against the need to encourage the respect for and celebration of history. Lawmakers and preservationists have made great strides toward honoring the historic cityscape. But honoring the private interiors and the private people who live in them is a matter that should be left to education and perhaps even peer pressure, not new legal restrictions.

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