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Beverly Hills historic homes at risk of demolition, preservationists say

Beverly Hills vote to change historic preservation ordinance 'a big step backward' - L.A. Conservancy advocate

Historic homes and other buildings in one of California's most storied enclaves are at risk of demolition because officials have rolled back protections, preservation advocates say.

After hours of sharply divided discussion, the Beverly Hills City Council voted 3 to 2 late Tuesday to alter the city's highly praised preservation ordinance. Among other changes, the revisions would set a higher bar for structures to qualify for local landmark status and for architects to be included on the city's "master architects" list.

It would also shorten the time during which applications for landmark designation would have to be reviewed and acted upon and prevent the city from designating local historic districts within single-family residential neighborhoods.

In Los Angeles and nationwide, local historic districts have proven to be an effective way to maintain community character, said Adrian Scott Fine, director of advocacy at the Los Angeles Conservancy.

"This is a big step backward for Beverly Hills," he said. "After making such great progress in preservation, the city has clearly reversed course with overly selective landmark criteria, a subjective process for opting out of designation that's vulnerable to abuse and a lack of basic safeguards for historic places."

City spokeswoman Therese Kosterman said the revisions were the result of months of collaboration among the Planning and Cultural Heritage commissions, residents, council members and the conservancy.

"The changes maintain the most important elements of the historic preservation ordinance and attempt to strike a balance between preservation and property rights," she said. "The new criteria for historic designation are now more objective and should bring greater clarity to property owners about whether their building qualifies as historic."

In January 2012, the city earned plaudits from preservation proponents for adopting an ordinance that sought to protect noteworthy structures and sites. The rules were written in response to the demolition of such local icons as the Friars Club, Pickfair and John Lautner's Shusett House.

An aborted plan to raze Richard Neutra's Kronish Residence helped galvanize the community to create a landmark designation process and a five-person Cultural Heritage Commission.

The city has since put 29 properties on its local register of historic properties, including the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Greystone Mansion and the Kronish house.

The conservancy gave the city its highest grade — A-plus — on its countywide Preservation Report Card for 2014. Fine said the group now planned to lower the rating.

Proponents of historic preservation in Beverly Hills have long waged battle with property-rights advocates who have expressed concern that values could drop if the balance tipped too far in favor of safeguarding properties.

"People today have very different lifestyles than they did 80 to 90 years ago," resident Larry Larson said in a letter supporting the revisions. "Many of these older homes are 'functionally obsolete.'"

Councilman Willie Brien said the changes "make for a more fair, balanced ordinance."

But Woodrow W. Clark II, an economist based in Beverly Hills and author of the forthcoming book "Smart Green Cities," disagreed. "The Beverly Hills City Council has made a bad mistake," he said.

The revised ordinance, he said, puts too much control of the city's potentially historic buildings in the hands of the Planning Commission and reduces the Cultural Heritage Commission's clout. "That," he said, "is contrary to what other cities and even the state of California are doing: preserving our history."

martha.groves@latimes.com
Twitter: @MarthaGroves

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