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Beverly Hills takes steps to preserve architectural treasures

In response to the demolition of several famous buildings, the City Council approves rules for tearing down or altering structures older than 45 years and designed by important architects. It also establishes a Cultural Heritage Commission.

January 12, 2012|By Martha Groves, Los Angeles Times
  • Phoebe Sasso, 8, walks down a flight of stairs during an outing with her family at the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills. The property could be given local landmark status under the newly adopted ordinance.
Phoebe Sasso, 8, walks down a flight of stairs during an outing with her family… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

Responding to the demolition of such local icons as the Friars Club, Pickfair and John Lautner's Shusett House, the city of Beverly Hills has adopted a historic preservation ordinance that seeks to protect noteworthy structures.

Prompted in part by an aborted plan to raze Richard Neutra's Kronish House, the City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to approve new rules for demolishing or altering structures at least 45 years old and designed by a city-recognized architect. The council also approved the creation of a landmark designation process and a five-person Cultural Heritage Commission.

Beverly Hills Councilwoman Lili Bosse was among many who said the ordinance was long overdue. "For me, it was one of the most important nights in Beverly Hills history," she said in an e-mail.

Planning Commission members, who proposed the changes, said they and city staff worked hard to balance the rights of property owners with residents' desire to save architectural and cultural treasures. As in Los Angeles, landmark designation would not necessarily protect a building from demolition or drastic alteration, but it would trigger a longer permitting process.

"This is something the city has wanted for quite a while," said Brian Rosenstein, a planning commissioner who helped craft the ordinance with guidance from the Los Angeles Conservancy.

He mentioned houses by architects Wallace Neff, Paul Williams and Neutra, along with Greystone Mansion, the Beverly Hills Hotel, Robinson Gardens and the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Some properties are already state or national landmarks, but the new Cultural Heritage Commission would probably designate them locally as well, so that owners could receive tax breaks under the state's Mills Act.

The City Council would have the final authority to approve any designation. It named Noah Furie, a longtime planning commissioner who also helped write the ordinance, as the heritage panel's chairman.

The ordinance would expand the notice period for a demolition permit to 30 days from 10 days for any structure at least 45 years old that was designed by a locally important architect, designer or builder or a "master architect." The city will compose a list of architects of known fame and local architects who have designed buildings important to the city's history. In a bow to property-rights advocates, the ordinance prohibits designation based solely on who lived in a residence.

Under the ordinance, anyone who altered or demolished a historically significant building without permission would be subject to a five-year moratorium on developing the property.

Previous surveys have identified as many as 200 potentially significant properties. "Not all will be landmarked," Rosenstein said. "We really want to save the best of the best."

"The city has demonstrated a real commitment to the historic places that make Beverly Hills unique," said Linda Dishman, executive director of the L.A. Conservancy.

Hamid Gabbay, designer of many Beverly Hills residences, expressed concern that landmarking could dampen real estate values.

But Michael Libow, a real estate agent, disagreed. Libow spent years restoring the Witch's House, a 1921 storybook building created as a movie studio office.

"I've had calls from people who were shocked I was in favor," Libow said. "I actually feel there will be more value to be able to market a property as a landmark. There's a certain cachet to having a landmark status home."

martha.groves@latimes.com

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