GUEST COMMENTARY - Historic preservation can get ugly. In the constant push-and-pull between protecting the past and building the future, there are bound to be disagreements, and sometimes the arguments get heated.
Community members make passionate speeches about preserving LA’s heritage. Developers insist on the importance of creating new housing and revitalizing commercial hubs. This tension is built into the fabric of every large American city, and it’s not surprising that this tension sometimes sparks harsh words and bitter feuds.
But I think a new line was crossed in a recent preservation battle. I think we saw a new kind of ugliness that was unusually disturbing, in that it wasn’t just about arguing a point of view. It was about smearing peoples’ reputations.
The subject of the debate here was a ramshackle structure in the Hollywood Hills. The property had been purchased by a new owner who planned to demolish the existing house and build a new one designed by a prominent architect. Before this could happen, the Los Angeles Conservancy stepped forward to nominate the house as a Historic Cultural Monument (HCM). The reason? The house had served as home to actor Philip Ahn and musician Kurt Cobain.
The Conservancy prepared the nomination. It was reviewed by Office of Historic Resources. A staff report was published finding that the house met the criteria for designation as a Historic Cultural Monument and recommending that the nomination be approved. But the new owner of the house hired a lobbying firm to fight the nomination, and the staff report included a letter from two attorneys at Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell (JMBM). The letter starts on page 40 of the report.
This is where it gets nasty. It’s totally understandable that the new owner, having bought the property and hired an architect, would be opposed to the nomination. The problem is that the letter submitted on his behalf by JMBM attorneys Benjamin Reznik and Daniel Freedman goes way beyond questioning the justification for the nomination. Reznik and Freedman accuse the Cultural Heritage Commission of bias, which they claim will prevent their client from receiving a fair hearing. After asserting that “the Property does not meet any of the criteria for designation as an HCM,” they go on to say, “[W]e also demand that the Commission take no further action on this nomination due to its bias in favor of the Conservancy, and that the matter be referred to an unbiased tribunal [….]”
To support their claim of bias, Reznick and Freedman list a number of facts: 1) “[T]he Commission has publicly and financially supported the Conservancy through both personal
memberships and financial sponsorships.”; 2) “[T]he Conservancy has also bestowed a variety of awards upon the City [….]”; 3) “[T]he Commission's lead staff member, Ken Bernstein, […] was previously employed by the [Conservancy].”; 4) Bernstein stated in a recent book that he owes his career in historic preservation to Conservancy Executive Director Linda Dishman; and 5) The letter asserts that, “there is more than a possible bias in this instance, as the Commission's own voting history illustrates the existence of a high probability of bias in favor of the Conservancy. Since 2016, not one of the thirty (30) HCM applications/nominations prepared and/or submitted by the Conservancy have been denied by the Commission.” Reznick and Freedman sum up by saying, “Given this information, it is apparent that our client is unable to receive a fair hearing before this Commission. Nor is it possible for the Commission's staff to provide a truly objective evaluation of the nomination.”
The facts that Reznik and Freedman state are all true, but the conclusions they draw from them are irresponsible slander. To claim that the Cultural Heritage Commission is unable to offer their client a fair hearing and that Commission staff can’t provide an objective evaluation is both unfair and untrue. Collectively the members of the CHC have decades of experience in historic preservation, and the individual members are architects, educators, writers and historians with deep knowledge of LA’s past. (They’re also generously donating their time, as they receive no salary for the work they do as Commissioners.) The staff at the Office of Historic Resources is likewise made up of professionals with years of experience in their field. While the work done by the CHC has often won praise, the Commissioners have also been subjected to harsh criticism by applicants, property owners and community groups who disagree with their decisions. They’ve taken a lot of heat. Anyone who’s attended their meetings knows that the Commissioners try very hard to be scrupulously objective.
Are there close connections between the CHC and the Conservancy? Yes. But what Reznik and Freedman don’t understand (or pretend not to understand) is that these kinds of relationships are pretty common among the City’s various boards and commissions. Take a look at the Board of Library Commissioners, the Community Forest Advisory Committee or the Cultural Affairs Commission. It’s no accident that the Mayor selects people who’ve worked at non-profits related to the work of the board or commission. Not only are these the people who have extensive knowledge of their field, but in many cases, they’ve shown their dedication to the field by doing years of work for little or no compensation.
Has the CHC approved 30 applications presented by the Conservancy since 2016? Yes. But is this because of an improper relationship, as Reznik and Freedman allege? Or is it because the Conservancy employs solid professionals with deep knowledge of their field, who make sure their research is thorough and their arguments are sound? The attorneys make it sound as though the CHC and the Conservancy are conspiring together to commit an illegal act. If so, what are they trying to achieve? Nobody stood to make any money from approval of the nomination. Does this mean that the Commissioners and the Conservancy are engaged in an unholy conspiracy to…protect LA’s history?
The most striking thing about the letter is that two attorneys who work for a lobbying firm are accusing the Conservancy of having undue influence over the CHC. The hypocrisy here is so outrageous it’s laughable. These are people who take money to influence government officials. JMBM and its employees have also donated a good deal of money to politicians. Over the past twenty years the firm and its employees have given tens of thousands of dollars to candidates seeking public office in the City of LA. Some of these people currently serve as elected officials. When we look at State races, the contributions come to well over $100,000. (This includes contributions made back when the firm was called Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Marmaro.)
JMBM is a very successful firm, and their web page says that they deliver “outstanding” results for their clients. Given the allegations that Reznik and Freedman make in their letter, it would be interesting to ask them: Is JMBM’s high success rate the result of improper relationships with the various officials they interact with? Or is it the result of a thorough knowledge of their field and a commitment to professionalism?
The lowest blow of all comes in a footnote on the first page of the letter, where the authors assert, “[T]he Conservancy's conduct truly was ‘predatory,’ as the Conservancy admitted to knowing about the structure years before it was sold to our client, and only decided to submit a nomination after it was sold.” When applied to humans, the word “predatory” generally means that an individual or a group is exploiting or victimizing others to enrich or empower themselves. While you could certainly argue that the Conservancy should have approached the new owner before submitting the nomination, it’s unclear what the non-profit stood to gain, aside from protecting a structure that had historic value. And the accusation shows a lack of understanding of the preservation landscape. There are probably thousands of structures and sites in LA County that could potentially be considered historic. Unfortunately, the money and the resources available to pursue historic designation are relatively limited. The Conservancy often has to make choices based on where the need is most urgent. And while some would argue that the organization should have contacted the owner first, in scenarios like this it’s not uncommon for property owners to demolish a structure to thwart historic designation. In any case, using the word “predatory” to describe the Conservancy’s actions is both ugly and inaccurate.
At this point I should disclose that I’ve been involved in a civil action in which JMBM is a participant. A while ago the City of LA approved a project that involved the demolition of 40 rent-stabilized apartments to make way for a hotel. The group I work with, United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA), sued the City to overturn the approval. Daniel Freedman represented the project applicant. UN4LA won in the trial court. The applicant is appealing the decision.
The case is now closed. At their April 7 meeting, the Cultural Heritage Commission voted to reject the nomination, but the letter from JMBM is still a disturbing escalation in the tactics used to fight historic designations. The Los Angeles Conservancy has worked for decades to preserve and celebrate LA’s history. There are a number of landmark buildings that might well have been erased if it hadn’t been for the organization’s efforts. The members of the Cultural Heritage Commission volunteer their time to review and assess nominations, in some cases being called upon to make difficult and controversial decisions about awarding historic designations. Neither the Conservancy nor the CHC deserve the insulting accusations contained in the letter from JMBM. Reznik and Freedman owe them an apology.
(Casey Maddren is a CityWatch contributor.)