By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
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City Council Member Pam O‘Connor, a professional preservationist, agrees. “It’s harder to get your arms around something that‘s more vernacular,” the former mayor said. “Landmark [status] is often reactive. If a building adds to their daily life, they [people] will have that reaction, ’My God, they‘re tearing it down.’
”Part of it has to do with more development,“ O‘Connor said. ”More resources are threatened with demolition, and people care about that continuum of history, the story of their neighborhood, the story of their city. If you let go of everything, you do lose an awful lot.“
Building owners and developers counter that there is a clear agenda driving the preservationists. And that agenda, they say, has a lot more to do with stopping development and preserving the status quo -- in the case of the apartments, cheap rents -- than with salvaging the past for future generations.
”What does Tarbet know about historical landmarks?“ said S. Forest King, one of the owners of the shotgun cottage on Second Street. ”They’re using it as an anti-development tool. Their method is dishonest. They don‘t try to stop developers, they try to ruin them.“
Former Landmarks Commissioner James Lunsford agrees that ulterior motives may be driving the preservation movement. Lunsford, who recently resigned from the commission after helping complete a draft of the city’s proposed Preservation Element, said he was disturbed by the lack of clear rules and regulations guiding the landmarks process.
”I think that to some degree the historical purpose was being misused to try to protect the residents,“ said Lunsford, who was the city‘s planning director from 1971 to 1984. Lunsford, who wrote the 1983 book Looking at Santa Monica to call attention to the rapidly changing face of the city, believes the pace of change is accelerating but that ”using landmarks to accomplish other purposes is wrong.“
Of the potential landmarks awaiting approval, it is the Ocean Park apartment complex on Bay Street that perhaps best highlights the nature of the escalating preservation war. Earlier this month, some 60 supporters -- including two former mayors and a former Planning Commission chair -- showed up at the usually sparsely attended city Landmarks Commission hearing to urge the board to save the rent-controlled apartments.
The residents came armed with a presentation that showcased the unique features of the Craftsman-style bungalow complex. The pictures -- which sometimes made the cramped quarters look more spacious than they are -- featured the buildings’ beds and porches and low-pitched, overhanging roofs with wide eaves, as well as the units‘ original fixtures, such as claw-footed tubs, hexagonal-tile floors and counters, built-in iceboxes, and decorative hardware.
In the end, six of the seven commissioners agreed -- the buildings, which were declared eligible for inclusion in the California Register of Historical Resources in 1994, were definitely worthy of consideration.
”It seems to be quite obvious that this deserves designation,“ said Commissioner Ruthann Lehrer, an architectural historian. ”It’s a very unique oasis.“
The commission set a September 11 date for the hearing, a decision to which the landlord‘s attorney, Rosario Perry, objected. He said the looming date didn’t allow his client, who wants to tear the structures down for a parking lot, adequate time to prepare.
”We don‘t feel it should be designated a landmark,“ Perry told the commission. ”We need time to put together a presentation. We feel we have some very serious questions to consider about the landmark status.“
Perry has repeatedly questioned the motivation behind the tenants’ landmark application, noting that it was filed after the landlords, Manhar Patel (who owns the Rose Cafe and the Firehouse in Venice) and Naresh Mehra, filed an application to go out of the rental business under the Ellis Act. The tenants must leave by October 6.
The reason the tenants have spent thousands of dollars on attorneys and consultants, Perry contends, is simple: They want to hang on to rent-controlled apartments a block from the beach that go for between $292 and $678 a month. ”This whole thing is just a scam to try to stop the Ellis,“ Perry said. ”No one has thought these were valuable until now.“
A landmark designation, Perry noted, won‘t guarantee that the residents will stay in their units. ”I doubt very much it would stop the evictions,“ Perry said. ”If they designate it a landmark, the owner will file for economic hardship and sue the city for damages.“
After the commission meeting, the tenants celebrated in the buildings’ courtyard with a party attended by Councilmen Michael Feinstein and Kevin McKeown. The tenants gave speeches and cheered each other‘s efforts, and although some privately worried about losing their homes, few, if any, had made plans to move.
”It’s expensive to move,“ said Tim Falguiere, who works at a health-food store on Main Street just a few blocks from his apartment. ”I haven‘t looked at all yet. Hopefully, we won’t have to move.“
It isn‘t the first time the Bay Street tenants have faced eviction. In the late 1980s, investors riding a soaring junk-bond market were ready to buy the building. Long-time tenants recall being approached with an offer by eight Chicago investors dressed in pinstripe suits.