Landmarks by the Sea 

Santa Monica faces uphill battle to save old buildings

Wednesday, Aug 30 2000

At first glance, the cluster of four worn-out wooden buildings covered with bougainvillea and vine failed to attract Michael Tarbet’s attention. The tenant activist had walked past the World War I--era structures a block from the beach in Santa Monica for years before stepping through the chainlink fence and into the leafy courtyard.

“I lived a couple of blocks away,” said Tarbet, who is an organizer for housing issues for Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, the city‘s powerful grassroots tenants group. “I didn’t know about this place until someone called the SMRR tenant hot line.”

Once he stepped through the gate at 137--147 Bay St., Tarbet found an enchanting world that seemed frozen in time. The cramped units with rollout beds and sleep-in porches had served as crash pads for generations of beachcombers and laborers looking for a cheap place to lay their heads. Now, they were also home to an eclectic mix of tenants who included a nurse and a composer, a fabric designer, and a former professional basketball player.

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With Tarbet‘s help, the structures that had survived for nearly 80 years with little notice have become the latest trench in a landmarks war to preserve Santa Monica’s past from the biggest building boom in a decade. Last month, tenants of the 21-unit complex joined a growing preservation movement fighting to stave off the wrecking ball by seeking landmark designation for potentially historic buildings.

And as with many social forces in Santa Monica, the roots of this debate can be traced to rent control. In some cases, tenants of rent-controlled complexes believe their landlords want to tear down buildings to free themselves to make more money. And landlords believe their tenants are seeking landmark status for buildings in an attempt to keep rents low.

“It‘s probably been the most interest [in historic preservation] since the Ocean Park Historic District was created in 1990,” said Donna Jerex, who is in charge of historic preservation for the city’s Planning Department. “You‘re always going to want that balance between people who want to preserve and those that want to be able to do what they want with their property. There’s a lot of support [for preservation] now.”

The heightened concern for saving buildings coincides with an increase in the number of demolition permits filed with the city, according to Planning Department records. Since January 1, developers and property owners have filed 76 applications for demolition permits. That compares to 103 for all of last year and only 25 for the second half of 1998.

Demolition permits have triggered landmark consideration for half a dozen structures or complexes under review this year. They include:

An abandoned 100-year-old shotgun cottage at 2712 Second St. that is awaiting a final City Council decision on September 12. The city‘s Landmarks Commission voted to declare the structure a landmark two years ago, but allowed the owners to tear down the dilapidated structure after properly documenting it. The Church in Ocean Park and the Ocean Park Community Organization successfully appealed the decision to the City Council, which voted to delay demolition pending the results of an Environmental Impact Report.

A defunct 65-year-old mortuary at 1230 Montana Ave. that will go before the Landmarks Commission on September 11, the same day the commission will debate the status of the Bay Street apartment complex. The North of Montana Neighborhood Association rallied behind the mortuary after a developer applied for a demolition permit to pave the way for a mini-mall. The neighbors hope to preserve the structure and use the surrounding lawn as public space.

An 18-unit, 53-year-old seniors’ apartment building with a sprawling lawn at 401 Montana Ave. Neighbors, who oppose a proposed condominium project, successfully urged the Planning Commission to stop the wrecking ball while an Environmental Impact Report is conducted.

An 80-year-old, 13-unit rent-controlled bungalow courtyard at 211 Alta Ave., which was designated a landmark on May 8. The city filed a landmark application after the owner sought to demolish the building. The owner is proceeding with plans to go out of the rental business under the state‘s Ellis Act, a law passed in 1985 that allows landlords to remove their properties from the rental market.

A Craftsman-style home at 555 Seventh St., which was designated a landmark on April 10 after the city filed an application. The owner, who filed for a demolition permit, sold the building during the landmark process. The buyer wants to preserve the building.

Behind the recent surge in landmark applications are the preservationists -- a diverse group that includes slow-growth advocates, beleaguered tenants and architectural historians -- who argue that the buildings (among 4,000 in the city eligible for landmark consideration) are an integral part of Santa Monica history.

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