LA DEATH WATCH-City Hall’s culture of tolerating rule-breaking, secrecy and special interest influence-peddling was on vivid display Saturday when a developer’s giant, house-killing backhoe demolished the 100-year-old, Oswald Bartlett House, a cultural landmark in Los Feliz.
It did not have to turn out this way.
In fact, an anonymous “philanthropist” was trying to buy the Bartlett and save it from destruction only hours before the backhoe began clawing the house into a pile of rubble. According to Doug Haines of the Hollywood Neighborhood Council, the potential buyer offered to purchase the Bartlett from developer Elan Mordoch for $1.5 million - twice what Mordoch originally paid for the property.
“The developer chose to be greedy and spiteful instead of a good neighbor,” said Haines. “Mordoch’s attorney (Ben Reznik) said he would sell only if the offer was in the $3 million range. In effect, Mordoch was ready to flip the property if he could quadruple his initial investment.”
The Bartlett house was - according to many independent experts - a cultural-historic treasure, a rare example of the early work of A.C. Martin, a leading architect who significantly contributed to the built-environment of this city during the first half of the 20th century. A half-dozen of Martin's works, including LA City Hall itself, are listed as official city landmarks.
Much of the responsibility for this unfortunate ending rests with the LA City Council.
Last Wednesday (Dec. 15) the City Council had the opportunity to declare the Bartlett an official “historic-cultural monument,” a designation that would have protected the house from immediately being razed. Designation would have introduced a major – but not insurmountable - impediment to Mordoch’s plan to build a six-unit townhouse project on the Bartlett site and possibly induced the developer to cut a deal with the anonymous buyer.
But the council voted to sign the Bartlett’s death warrant by denying it monument status.
But there’s more to this unfortunate saga.
If the council had declared the Bartlett a “monument” it would have sent a welcome and healthy message to Mordoch - and all developers - that there is a penalty to be paid for misleading the public and city officials about the impact of their projects.
The fact is that Mordoch failed to disclose in his early environmental documents - submitted to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) - that the Bartlett house was a "cultural resource.” Instead those documents dismissed the Bartlett as a non-descript “older single-family residence.”
For months, the truth about the Bartlett’s significance was a well-kept secret.
As a result, city planning officials operated in the dark. When they considered Mordoch's application for land-use entitlements (including zoning variances) for his project, these misinformed officials did not – as they should have - consider possible mitigations to protect even a shred of the cultural history threatened by the developer's project.
Similarly, Mordoch’s misleading environmental documents kept the public in the dark. If members of the community had known the truth about the Bartlett, they could have made their voices heard during the planning review process and demanded steps to mitigate the impact of Mordoch’s project on an important cultural resource.
More importantly, the developer's misleading environmental assessment prevented the community from making a timely request of the Cultural Heritage Commission to protect the house by designating it as a monument. Inarguably, the commission – which rejected designation - was strongly influenced by Mordoch’s argument that designation would unfairly interfere with his project after he had invested so much time, money and effort in securing his land-use entitlements.
But that argument rings hollow. It ignores the fact Mordoch obtained his entitlements – with all his time, money and effort – with a misleading environmental assessment.
The Bartlett’s death was also a victory for backroom influence-peddling.
Bartlett supporters – after belatedly learning of the Bartlett's significance –found themselves playing against a stacked deck.
When supporters urged the Cultural Heritage Commission to declare the house a monument, the developer's ally, Gabriel Eshaghian, reportedly threatened to use his political influence with Mayor Garcetti's office to block such a designation.
Make no mistake, Eshaghian has clout. He contributed to Garcetti’s campaign for mayor and co-hosted two fund-raisers for Garcetti, one at Jimmy Kimmel’s house, the other at his own home (rich irony: Eshaghian’s saves about $15,000 a year in property taxes on his own home because it is a city-designated monument). Eshaghian is now, unsurprisingly, a Garcetti-appointee on the city's powerful Airport Commission.
The mayor's aides, according to multiple witnesses, also made their objections to landmark status for the house loudly known to Councilman Tom LaBonge when LaBonge - in whose district the Bartlett is located – initially offered to help save the house. Perhaps that push-back from the mayor explains LaBonge's subsequent lackluster efforts to protect the Bartlett and finally his support for its demolition.
It was also revealed that Garcetti's office – at the very least - signaled the Cultural Heritage Commission staff that it was interested in how the commission (all Garcetti appointees) was handling the Bartlett monument application. Did that have any effect? The commission’s chief says no. But Bartlett supporters are unconvinced.
The death of the Bartlett signifies more than the loss of an irreplaceable cultural asset. It also represents another triumph for City Hall’s own troubling ‘culture’ that tolerates rule-breaking, secrecy and influence-peddling.
(John Schwada is a former reporter for Fox 11 in Los Angeles, the LA Times and the late Herald Examiner and an occasional contributor to CityWatch.)
Vol 12 Issue 105
Pub: Dec 30, 2014