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Gingerbread or Stucco? : City’s First Historic Preservation Zone Is Put to the Test

Times Staff Writer

On Angelino Heights, a battle is being fought over aluminum windows and stucco walls.

It’s not a fight Tom Morales says he relishes. But Morales, chairman of the city’s first official neighborhood historic preservation association, adds: “If we let this go, we might as well chuck the whole thing out the door.”

The dispute pits the preservation association against Bonifacio Garcia, owner of a dilapidated apartment house on Bellevue Avenue, just inside the 117-acre historic district. Through an apparent error by the Department of Building and Safety, Garcia obtained a permit to stucco over his building’s wooden exterior and replace large antique window frames with smaller aluminum ones. According to city ordinance, that should not have happened without prior review by the association--which subsequently rejected Garcia’s plans as a desecration of a potentially lovely building.

So, three-quarters of the way through his work, Garcia has been ordered to stop. And, officials say, what would be a trivial matter in any other neighborhood may develop into the first test of government-backed preservation in Los Angeles.

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Situation Closely Watched

Special zoning has long been used to protect such historic neighborhoods as Georgetown in Washington and the French Quarter in New Orleans. But, in the go-go real estate atmosphere of Los Angeles, a so-called Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ) still seems radical. As a result, Angelino Heights is being closely watched as a pioneer, even as the city’s second such zone, South Carthay on the Westside, is under way and a third, North University Park near USC, is expected to be approved soon.

Angelino Heights is populated by a mixture of “yuppies,” blue-collar families and welfare recipients; by Latinos, Asians and Anglos; by proud homeowners, slumlords, and renters who simply want a decent apartment. This grafts many more socioeconomic angles onto decisions about woodwork and dormer windows than in South Carthay, which is predominantly middle class and well preserved.

Garcia can appeal but says he is confused by the bureaucracy, and angrily demands to know what right preservationists have to tell him what he can do with his property.

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“I am so mad with these crazy guys,” he said. “They don’t understand what the people want.”

His supporters contend that the preservation law adds burdensome and expensive red tape, such as “certificates of appropriateness,” to simple private decisions. In response, Morales said that Garcia and some other homeowners don’t understand what a historic zone is all about.

“We are not against new construction. But we want to preserve the flavor of our streets,” said Morales, an aerospace export manager who grew up in his 13-room Victorian showplace home on Carroll Avenue. “It’s an educational problem letting people know that the HPOZ is to everyone’s benefit.”

A historic zone is designed to “protect and enhance the use of structures, features, sites and areas that are reminders of the city’s history . . .,” according to the 1979 ordinance that authorized the zones’ creation and that of associations to evaluate proposed demolitions and the design, colors, materials and landscaping of most construction projects within zone borders.

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“Los Angeles has always been characterized as disregarding the past and embracing the present. This is a way of changing that,” said city planner Lothar von Schoenborn.

The historic zones face some problems, he said. They include the need to exempt small renovation jobs from review, getting the associations’ links with the city clarified and making sure that City Hall clerks do not repeat the error made in the Garcia case.

But, overall, Von Schoenborn said, “I’ve been pretty amazed how well this is working for Angelino Heights.”

Ileana Welch, coordinator of the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission, which also reviews HPOZ decisions, echoed that assessment. “It is certainly worth the effort to retain the ambiance that is so precious in that area,” she said.

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Los Angeles’ First Suburb

Located just east of Echo Park and just north of the Hollywood Freeway, Angelino Heights has been called Los Angeles’ first suburb. It is a treasure chest of Victorian, Craftsman-California Bungalow and Mission Revival-style homes that, on their hilltop above downtown, seem transported from San Francisco. Decades of neglect after World War II took a harsh toll until restoration began in the ‘70s. Although many properties remain dilapidated, the area has become known for the painstakingly refurbished 1880s gingerbread mansions on and near Carroll Avenue.

Moreover, there are strong development pressures on Angelino Heights because of its location, less than two miles from the heart of downtown.

In September, 1983, the council and mayor designated almost the entire hillside as the city’s first HPOZ--but not without arguments over boundaries and the possible displacement of the poor. The district includes about 300 structures, mostly homes and small apartment buildings. Twenty-six of them are city-designated monuments, which gives them extra protection.

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As required, the Angelino Heights Historic Preservation Assn. is composed of residents and real estate and design experts appointed by the mayor, council and heritage commission. They have reviewed about 10 projects since they first met in January, 1984, ranging from a new apartment building to restoration of an antique porch. The stucco job on Bellevue is the only project they have recommended be stopped.

“It is absolutely necessary to have some control, and I believe a majority of the neighborhood supports us,” said Cecil Dover, a designer who lives on Carroll Avenue and is secretary of the Angelino Heights association.

Dover said his group’s job is not to dictate design but to educate residents about preservation while keeping the ethnic mix “a wonderful microcosm of what all of Los Angeles should be.”

“We have to help overcome cross-cultural misunderstandings,” Dover said. “Many people feel that stuccoing a little bungalow is the appropriate way of fixing it up. Historical preservation is a cultural concept that probably just isn’t there for them.”

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In the Bellevue Avenue case, a clerk apparently did not recognize the HPOZ coding for the property and never told Garcia about the extra review. Garcia said he took out the old windows because they were so large that a child might easily climb on a ledge and fall. And the stuccoing, he said, was the most economical improvement.

Certificate Denied

Besides, he said, he never heard of the HPOZ until Morales came by one day in November. A city stop order soon followed. After a lively neighborhood hearing in January, the association unanimously rejected his request for the necessary “certificate of appropriateness.”

Bill Garcia (no relation), deputy to City Councilman John Ferraro, whose 4th District includes Angelino Heights, said he expects the city will eventually allow Bonifacio Garcia to complete the stuccoing because so much work has been done.

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Still, the matter could have implications for the future of HPOZs, Bill Garcia said. The association, he said, is awaiting an opinion from the city attorney on whether he would defend it in a possible lawsuit and whether it can apply for corporate grants since it gets no city money.

Any HPOZ recommendation is supposed to be taken to the Planning Commission and can be appealed to the City Council and then to court. Bonifacio Garcia has not yet taken any further step, officials said.

Angry Neighbor

The case has angered Jesus Franco, president of the Property Owners and Residents Assn. of Echo Park, Silver Lake and Elysian Area, which opposed HPOZ designation--unlike other residents’ organizations in the area. Franco contends that the zone serves only Carroll Avenue homeowners while violating others’ property rights and imposing economic hardships. “A cow that leads the rest to slaughter, that’s the people on Carroll Avenue,” he said.

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Franco, who lives on Bellevue Avenue, said: “The majority of houses here are very old and the wood is dry and has lost its natural resins. You can’t hold these dilapidated houses together with a coat of paint. A better alternative is to stucco.”

The Garcia matter has raised another concern. “We don’t want to feel like evil scoutmasters looking for problems,” said one resident who is active in neighborhood organizations. “But we try to keep the rules and regulations of the HPOZ and let the HPOZ know if we see anything.”

Displacement Debate

There are also fears that the district could lead to rapid “gentrification.” Preservationists concede that some homes that had been divided into small apartments have been restored to their original single-family status by middle-class lovers of Victorian design. However, they maintain that displacement could be worse without the HPOZ because it would be easier for developers to demolish properties and build expensive condominiums. Besides, they say, rent control is still in force.

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Association members insist they want affordable housing built. In fact, they recently recommended approving demolition of a badly decayed house to make room for a proposed four-unit building in a modern Sante Fe style.

“We are willing to encourage creativity and even contemporary design if it’s compatible with what’s around it,” said Bruce Boehner, an architect who is the association’s treasurer.

George Wong, the project’s builder, said he was prepared to submit a Victorian design if the modern one had been rejected. “I expected the association to be a little difficult to deal with, but to my surprise they were very helpful,” he said.

No False Fronts, Please

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Mal Bert, the architect, recalled that at the hearing one resident asked why he didn’t design a false gingerbread front. “I almost jumped out of my skin when I heard that,” he said. “But then Tom Morales said, ‘If you want that, go to Disneyland.’ ”

The association can waive the need for a certificate of appropriateness if a building is being restored to its original appearance or if emergency repair work is needed. Otherwise, filing fees of more than $200 and Planning Commission approval are required.

That is too time-consuming and expensive, members say. They have asked the City Council to widen exemptions for reconstructions, small renovations, garden houses and patios.

City planner Von Schoenborn agreed: “If you have to regulate every nail, community support will erode.”

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