City's Watchdog Over Historic Landmarks Bids for More Clout

Times Staff Writer

Last week's heated City Council debates over whether to grant landmark status to the Ambassador Hotel and the Church of the Open Door have focused new attention on how historic preservation works--and why it sometimes flops--in Los Angeles.

While the City Council has final say, it usually relies heavily on recommendations from the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission, a group of mayoral appointees that evaluates buildings and sites nominated as city monuments. But not always.

In the politically loaded case of the downtown "Jesus Saves" church, the council voted to declare the building a historic monument, as recommended by the commission. But with the sprawling old hotel on Wilshire Boulevard, the council voted against historic monument status--and against the wishes of the commission--and instead let stand a compromise that may or may not save the building.

When founded in 1962, the commission was one the first such civil watchdogs in the country. Over the years, some of the city's most prominent architects and historians sat on the board.

But critics--and even some commissioners--say the board's bark has grown weak against the din of intense development and that it needs sharper teeth to be effective. Among its weaknesses are a relatively small support staff, a low budget and lack of authority to pick the sites it is asked to consider for preservation.

"It's clear to all of us on the commission that we need greater resources, responsibilities and authority," outgoing Commissioner Gerald Yoshitomi said in a recent interview. "There has to be some pro-active activity, otherwise we're going to lose whole neighborhoods."

Critics hope that out of a new and long-awaited cultural heritage ordinance scheduled for City Council committee review this month will come new strengths for the commission.

Architect Named

Additional clout on one front may be just around the cornice. Last week, Mayor Tom Bradley appointed architect Takashi Shida to the commission. If confirmed by the City Council, Shida will become the only architect in the present commission lineup, despite a requirement on the books all along that members have "expertise in the historic, cultural and architectural traditions of the community."

Other members include dentist Amarjit S. Marwah, retired teacher Velma M. Taylor and businesswoman Olivia G. Rodriguez. Bradley is also awaiting council approval of his appointment of clothing designer Ruben Panis to a board seat empty since last year.

Preservationists say Shida's appointment is a step in the right direction. In an early July interview, Ruthann Lehrer, then director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, an advocacy group, said that lack of architecture professionals on the commission created "a real handicap." Marwah, the commission president, also favors having architects or architectural historians on board. But other commissioners say such expertise is not needed.

Commissioners receive $25 a meeting and gather twice a month at City Hall to wade through historic documents and hold public hearings. They also tour proposed landmarks, noting architectural detail, condition and modifications, but also weighing potential contributions to history, politics or culture. The Mack Sennett movie studio in Echo Park--a dumpy, warehouse-like building--became a landmark in 1982 because it was a major center of the early Los Angeles movie industry.

One-Year Delay

However, even after City Council approval, landmark status only delays demolition for a year, at most, while a renovation-minded buyer is sought. A number of other cities, by contrast, have laws that protect buildings permanently.

Some also have bigger budgets. Indianapolis, a city one-fourth the size of Los Angeles, has nine historic preservation staff members and a $281,000 annual budget. New York City earmarks $2 million and maintains a staff of 60.

The Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission, meanwhile, makes do with a $105,000 annual budget and a staff of two. The Commission currently has a backlog of 50 cases, staffers say.

Some of the 321 sites that have won city landmark status in the 25 years that the commission has been in business include such well-known structures as Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Hollyhock House in Barnsdall Park, the Watts Towers and the ornate Bradbury Building downtown. City records show that 16 structures languish in political limbo, approved by the commission but never heard before the council.

Under the proposed ordinance strengthening its hand, the commission membership would grow to seven, a majority of them professionals in architecture, history, planning or related fields. The members would be able to nominate sites for preservation, and not wait for the suggestion to come from elsewhere as it must now.

If the ordinance is passed, "it will help tremendously," says Robert Winter, a former board member and co-author of a guide to Los Angeles architecture. What it would not do, however, is beef up staff or salaries. Commissioners say their workload has tripled in recent years but that budget and staff increases lag behind.

Some commissioners rail against the system that draws them into a controversy only at the 11th hour, when buildings are already threatened and developers have sunk money into the site. They call for a pro-active program that would preserve blocks, as well as buildings. New York, for instance, has 50 historic districts and Indianapolis has seven.

Los Angeles has two "historic preservation overlay zones"--the Spanish colonial homes of South Carthay Circle on the Westside and the Victorian row houses in Angelino Heights near downtown. But these zones require strong political and neighborhood support and are difficult to set up, preservationists say.

Citywide Survey

Critics also fault Los Angeles for moving too slowly on a citywide architectural survey that began with much fanfare in 1981 with the help of a $30,000 grant and hosts of volunteers. Although one-fifth of the city was surveyed, funds have since dried up and work continues piecemeal, city officials say.

Nevertheless, heritage-watchers say more people are becoming involved with preservation. Private advocacy groups like the Los Angeles Conservancy and Hollywood Heritage Inc. are growing, and more and more developers, especially small ones, are renovating buildings instead of tearing them down.

Says Winter, the former board member and architectural historian: "I still don't think we're doing enough, but we're doing something."

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