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Most L.A. County cities failing to protect historic sites, study says

Many communities mistakenly believe they have no preservation resources or have delayed efforts due to budget cuts, report finds.

March 14, 2014|By Bob Pool
  • Women walk dogs in front of the Wyvernwood Garden Apartments in Boyle Heights. Built in 1939 and home to about 6,000 residents, the property is one of several considered endangered by the L.A. Conservancy.
Women walk dogs in front of the Wyvernwood Garden Apartments in Boyle Heights.… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

Most of the 88 cities in Los Angeles County are failing to adequately protect historically important structures that are in danger of being razed, according to a new study by the Los Angeles Conservancy.

The "Preservation Report Card" assigns an F to 51 cities and all of the county's unincorporated communities — some that made no effort to save their historic places since the group's last county-wide assessment was completed six years ago.

Conservancy leaders said some newer communities mistakenly believe they have no historic preservation resources while officials of other communities have delayed creating programs because of budget cuts tied to the recession. Still other towns, the report concluded, are failing to use protection tools they already have at their disposal.

Culver City, Long Beach, Pasadena and Santa Monica were among those that earned As, while Downey, La Cañada Flintridge, Lakewood and Malibu were among those with failing grades.

"It's a snapshot as to how well preservation is improving in L.A. County," said Adrian Scott Fine, director of advocacy for the Conservancy. "We want it to be used by communities as a tool so they can start assessing how they're doing."

Fine said Los Angeles received an A-plus because of its forward thinking in the adoption of a preservation ordinance in 1962, when the city's Bunker Hill area was being cleared of houses to make way for high-rise offices, the Music Center and more recently Disney Hall.

"L.A. was cutting-edge back then, and I think it is today," he said.

Beverly Hills went from an F to an A-plus after a series of high-profile home demolitions. The city is now compiling a list of master architects that triggers a review process if a property owner applies for a demolition permit, Fine said.

At the same time, Beverly Hills toughened what had been a weak historic preservation ordinance, it implemented the Mills Act — an incentive program that provides tax breaks for property owners — hired a preservation planner and created a cultural heritage commission.

Another city making strides with historic preservation was Burbank, which in 2008 had not designated a single landmark despite having adopted a preservation ordinance in 1994. In the past six years, though, it has beefed up that ordinance, embraced the Mills Act and created a Web page to promote its historic preservation efforts.

The Conservancy also praised Calabasas for its historic preservation ordinance and its use of the Mills Act that has allowed structures built in the 1970s and '80s to be designated as local landmarks. Fine said youthful cities like Calabasas should "view its built heritage through the lens of its own development, not in comparison to older communities."

However, the Conservancy study did not address Calabasas' recent crackdown on building code violations, which has irritated longtime residents living in houses built in the 1920s and '30s. Some homeowners complain that the city fails to recognize building permits issued by the county prior to incorporation and is requiring extensive and expensive repairs. In two cases, residents contend, the city's requirements led to the demolition of two older homes. City officials have countered that homes they targeted were remodeled and enlarged over the years without proper permits.

The Conservancy also singled out West Hollywood's evolving historic-designation improvements for praise as well.

Still, some significant structures fall through the cracks even when cities do have a historic preservation ordinance.

"West Covina has a fantastic mid-century modern church that was approved in December for a new housing development. The city failed to recognize it in under the California Environmental Quality Act," Fine said. West Covina earned a C grade on the report card.

The 32-page report lists cities' preservation grades and explains the criteria used to calculate the scores. It also outlines "elements of a strong preservation program" and offers tips that city leaders can use to improve preservation efforts and future report card grades.

In the meantime, the Conservancy has several endangered Los Angeles properties on its radar, including the city's first park-like apartment development, Boyle Heights' Wyvernwood Garden Apartments. Built in 1939, the 70-acre, nearly 1,200-unit complex is home to about 6,000 residents.

But a Miami-based developer, Fifteen Group, has proposed that Wyvernwood be demolished and replaced with 4,400 housing units. Before the $2-billion project moves forward, city officials have asked for more information about the economics of the proposal, according to the Conservancy.

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