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.
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.
Landmarks, they contend, don’t have to be fancy structures once erected for the rich. They also can be modest, sometimes cramped examples of how the low-wage workers and beachcombers who once made this seaside city their home lived.
“Where did all the working people that built the pyramids live?” activist Annette Del Zoppo asked at a recent Landmarks Commission hearing on the endangered Bay Street complex. “This is like that.”
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.
”The idea was to buy out the tenants,“ recalled Alexandra Sestokaite, a fabric designer who has lived in her unit for 37 years. The complex was saved when the junk-bond market crashed.
If anything, Sestokaite believes, the current tenants are better prepared and more united than they were a dozen years ago. Neighbors who once passed each other with a nod and engaged in small talk are now friends who stop to chat and discuss their latest strategies. ”This is very different,“ she said. ”We are so much more together.“
Although the cost of saving the structures is rising — it includes $1,700 for the landmarks filing fee, $750 for a survey map, and a still-undetermined amount to pay an attorney and the consultants who drafted a report — tenants vow to continue the fight, even if they lose their homes.
”They’re unique,“ said Jerry Summers, a a college music teacher who has lived in the complex for 10 years. ”They‘re unique in the neighborhood, perhaps even in Santa Monica. It’s part of history that‘s endangered.
“For all of us, it’s also part of our personal history that‘s endangered,” Summers added. “We don’t want to come back in 10 years and not be able to rekindle those memories because it‘s gone.”
City planning officials say the Landmarks Commission has three and a half months to make a decision. If the structures are designated a landmark, then an Environmental Impact Report that explores all the options for the site must be prepared, a lengthy process that can take months. The final decision would rest with the City Council.
“If it’s important to the city or to the people of the city, that overweighs everything,” said Donna Jerex, the staff member in charge of landmarks.
M.B. Abram, who has lived in the complex for 18 years, hopes the community will give the landlord a compelling reason to yank his Ellis filing.
“You cannot ignore ultimately the sentiments of the community,” Abram said.