Preservation Forecast: Challenges in 2014

Posted January 5, 2014

by Jean Frost, Preservation Vice-President

As WAHA begins a new calendar year, the forecast for 2014 appears to be challenging yet exciting as WAHA strives to fulfill its continuing mission of preserving the community’s architectural and cultural heritage. On the horizon in West Adams is a year with major new Community Plan initiatives, additional nominations for Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monuments (HCMs), reviews within our Historic Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZs) to identify historic resources overlooked in some of our older HPOZ surveys, and, of course, advocacy when our historic resources are threatened.

Historic designation recognizes what is valuable in our community and worthy of special consideration in planning decisions. That is why we encourage our members to consider nominating properties (their own or other West Adams structures) for individual landmark designation. At times, WAHA has to call the significance of a property to a decision maker’s attention. While preservation advocacy can be challenging, the reward is often seen in the form of walking by a building you saved or a project you helped make better.

Two trends we have observed this past year have been the “mansionization” of West Adams and the gutting of historic buildings’ interiors.

Mansionization: We are beginning to see construction proposals for new out-of-scale buildings whose volume exceeds what is prevailing in the neighborhoods. Some developers use as their guideline the single largest building nearby as a justification to build what will completely alter the scale of a neighborhood, as opposed to fitting into the prevailing community character. Although the city has passed legislation somewhat protecting single-family-zoned neighborhoods from this practice, West Adams’ many multi-family-zoned character neighborhoods are not protected.
Interior demolition: The second trend we have seen is the gutting of the interiors of designated properties. Sometimes it is done to create a maximum of rental units within the “shell” of the historic buildings, destroying significant historic aspects of the interior. Other times it is a “flipper” trying to modernize one of our older homes. (Contributors to HPOZs, unless there is other recognition such as National Register eligible or HCM status, are only reviewed for exterior changes; however, for individually designated buildings, the character-defining features on both the interior and exterior are to be protected.) There are three HCMs that were gutted in the past year: the Connell Carriage House (634 West 23rd Street), the Bishop Residence (1342 West Adams), and the Martz “Quintuplet” (1978 Estrella). Too often alterations are done without benefit of the required permits, nullifying the safety net that would have prevented the destruction.

West Adams Has Become A Magnet for Development
In one sense we are the victims of our own success. Preservation has been a means to instill community pride and build on the past, and the success of historic preservation in enhancing the quality of life in a “blighted” area means that previously neglected neighborhoods become prime locations for developers seeking newly promising neighborhoods. Many good developers research an area and understand its preservation guidelines, including Secretary of Interior’s Standards, but some do not. So out-of-scale buildings are proposed and WAHA must step in and attempt to affect the project.

There are two pending housing projects that create a new scale for a neighborhood, both in University Park: the Oak Norwood project and the Anastasi project.

The Oak Norwood project was first not approved by the University Park HPOZ Board, but then it was approved by the Director of Planning, and then it was appealed. The case was heard at the South Area Planning Commission on January 21, and the appeal was not upheld (it is expected that the Appellant, Adams-Dockweiler Heritage Organizing Committee, will further appeal to City Council). The project consists of 29 units, with 54 bedrooms located within six new two- and three-story buildings along the west side of the 2300 block-face of Oak Street and a 72-space underground parking lot for shared use by the Los Angeles Unified School District in the University Park Historic Preservation Overlay Zone.

This proposed in-fill Oak Norwood project is the largest single project attempted in the University Park HPOZ’s twelve years. A total of 31,571 square feet of new construction within six separate buildings is set down alongside a uniquely homogeneous Twentieth Street National Register Historic District. The project replaces what were once one- and two-story buildings (demolished by the LAUSD in the 1980s) with a two- and three-story project that would result in an increase, from what was there originally, of lot coverage by 69% and an increase in the density volume by 180%. Neither of these statistics is compatible or conforming to the University Park Preservation Plan. However, not only has the Director of Planning disagreed with the Board’s recommendation to deny the project, but a Zoning Administrator also made a decision allowing reduced setbacks (a decision that has also been appealed). WAHA supports the appeal in the hopes that the massing, scale and volume of the project can be reduced.