Cultural Heritage Gets a Reprieve

SPECIAL TO CITYWATCH--A bright ray of hope broke through the dark clouds of looming destruction late last week when the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission voted unanimously to recommend Historic-Cultural Monument status to a Mendel Mayer designed structure in Beverly Square. 

Since its formation in 1962, the five member mayoral-appointed body has overseen the designation of over 1,000 buildings and sites in Los Angeles, as a way of providing official recognition and protection for Los Angeles’ most significant and cherished historic resources.

Their vote to send their recommendation to the full City Council for validation and permanent protection gives temporary relief: it will arrive there with lots of positive anticipation and encouragement that is matched by a determined landlord with a wrecking ball at the ready. 

This battle remains undecided. 

The City Council will make the final decision of ether another small victory for cultural heritage or bulging profitability for a landlord, in this microcosm of the ongoing argument between preservation and destruction taking place in our neighborhoods today. 

The commissioners, led by a hands-on president that had led commissioners on a site visit, spoke, with degrees of passion about the merits of the request. Never repeating what another had said, each made remarks about the value of preserving and giving monument status to the structure and each had an original and positive reason to say “yes” to monument status. 

Lawyers for the landlord that used the Ellis Act to empty the building, except for one lone standout who then began the campaign for historic-cultural monument status, argued that the case was not about recognizing an important designer, but was simply a landlord-tenant dispute, marginalizing the argument for heritage in their summation. 

Dozens of supporters each took public comment time to say something positive about why the structure should be given historic-cultural monument status. Almost none repeated what previous speakers had said, but gave original testimony that was reflective of how many nerves had been touched. 

Once the full City Council deliberates and hears the arguments for and those against monument status, the chips could fall either way. This building could be protected, or doomed to destruction: it is not over yet. 

This is the state of cultural heritage, as expressed in architecture, in our city today. Every step of the way is a struggle that requires facts, figures, and feelings -- along with money, means and a mobilization of supporters -- to gain incremental advantages that accrete into commission and council votes. 

A majority of the members of the City Council must agree with the commissioners and the public speakers to solidify this as a victory. One councilman, who represents the district where the structure is located, has gone strongly on record with his support. He can be expected to lead the discussion.  The hope is that he can bring along a coalition of his fellow councilmembers to form a majority. His leadership on this matter cannot be doubted. 

The historic-cultural veneer of this request for protection should not cover over what is becoming an epidemic abuse of the Ellis Act. This state law, designed to help landlords exit the rental business, has been twisted into a mechanism to evict tenants from affordable housing and tear down buildings so that bigger ones, with smaller units and higher rents, can be built in their place. 

This process is occurring against a backdrop of a dramatically changing housing landscape, as growth and development in Los Angeles accelerates. The Mayor of Los Angeles has a goal of building 100,000 new housing units by 2021. The city is at a confluence of increasing population and a growing housing shortage in prime areas. 

Everyone seems to want to live in Los Angeles, one of the world’s truly great cities, the envy and destination of people worldwide -- especially if they can live in some of our most desirable areas. The real estate mantra of “location, location, location” is beginning to have a corollary of “destruction, destruction, destruction.” 

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Profit-maximizing landlords know that, as the city’s population explodes, demands for more density will provide a fluid and more lucrative market for their new constructions. Displacement or eviction can happen to anyone, in any neighborhood, in a city that has more renters than homeowners. 

What’s happening with the Mendel Mayer structure in Beverly Square is not an isolated example. Destruction of homes is a citywide issue that requires more citizen participation in order to bring it to the attention of our lawmakers. They need to stand taller than they have been about this problem. 

What more people can do is, join the conversation on city planning. Get plugged in: speak out and participate. Every City Councilmember has a land use deputy for the district, and a field deputy that covers each specific area. Get to know them. 

Similarly, every neighborhood council has a Planning and Land Use Committee that you can work with. And, the City Council has its own Planning and Land Use Management committee (PLUM) you can track and where you can make public comment. Thirty neighbors speaking out at the Cultural Heritage Commission hearing may have helped the commissioners with their Mendel Meyer decision. 

Beverly Square is one neighborhood of many in the city. The Mendel Mayer home is an important structure. The Commission’s decision and the upcoming council vote may become bellwethers for how seriously our historic-cultural heritage will be taken when profitability, not provenance, is allowed to be the ruling factor.

 

(Tim Deegan is a long-time resident and community leader in the Miracle Mile, who has served as board chair at the MidCity West Community Council, and on the board of the Miracle Mile Civic Coalition. Tim can be reached at timdeegan2015@gmail.com.) Edited by Linda Abrams.

-cw

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 73

Pub: Sep 8, 2015