West Hollywood Plan for Preservation Stirs Landmark Squabble

Times Staff Writer

For years, real estate developers offered Elsie Weisman sweet deals that she always refused.

Not until three years ago did they finally give up.

And that was only after Weisman, 88, spurned what a relative called the "sweetest deal of all," a $1.3-million offer from a developer who wanted to tear down her two-story house in West Hollywood and build a 48-unit condominium project.

"My mother made it clear that she wants to live there until she dies and pass the estate to her granddaughter," said Richard Weisman of Pacific Palisades.

Now, he and other relatives are angry because they claim a proposed preservation plan under consideration in West Hollywood could prevent the property from ever being developed and render it "next to worthless" as an inheritance.

They have threatened to go to court, if necessary, to oppose the plan.

And they are not alone.

In the month since a City Council-appointed task force began drafting a landmarks ordinance, intended to save some of the city's more significant structures from the wrecking crew, a battle royal has erupted between preservationists and development-minded property owners.

The next salvo is expected to come Monday, when the council considers whether to enact what amounts to a temporary moratorium prohibiting the demolition of 118 structures included in an inventory of possible city landmarks.

Preservationists say the action is necessary to head off possible demolitions before the task force completes its work, probably in May.

Property owners who claim they stand to lose huge sums of money should their property be declared a landmark, have labeled the inventory a blacklist, and have vowed to oppose the plan.

Plan Called 'Nonsense'

"It's nonsense as far as I'm concerned," said Shokrollah Paya, who owns two modest frame houses on San Vicente Boulevard that are part of West Hollywood's oldest housing stock, remnants of a turn-of-the-century railroad community known as Sherman.

"If I can demolish the houses and build six or seven apartments, my property is worth maybe $1.5 million," he said. "If they tell me I can't, I'm left with a couple of run-down, termite-infested houses that aren't worth much to anyone. It doesn't make sense."

The debate has even stirred divisions within the five-member Historic Preservation Task Force.

Last month, task force member Bob Pierson suggested that the group consider expanding the list of potential landmarks to include three brick steps at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Sunset Plaza Drive, the last vestiges of the legendary Cafe Trocadero, a magnet for celebrities during the 1930s and 1940s.

However, the idea did not find favor with Banks Montgomery, another task force member, whose family owns Sunset Plaza, with its collection of upscale boutiques, and an adjacent property where the famous nightclub once was located.

A few days later, he had the steps removed, triggering a barrage of criticism.

'Bad Faith'

"It was an example of bad faith," said Pierson. "It's the wrong signal for someone to be sending who has been entrusted with the responsibility of considering how to preserve historic resources."

Montgomery said a driveway serving Sunset Plaza needed to be widened and the steps were in the way.

"The real issue here is that it demonstrates how far some people will go to put something on a list," he said.

"I'm concerned about the entire process. Historic preservation needs to balance the interests of the community--of property owners--and so far, much of what's been done has been one-sided against the interests of property owners."

Commission Proposed

Any ordinance sent to the council for consideration will provide for a seven-member commission, to be appointed by the council, responsible for recommending which properties are ultimately designated as landmarks, said Ruthann Lehrer, another member of the task force.

At Montgomery's urging, the task force on Wednesday agreed to recommend that at least one spot on the commission be reserved for a property owner or local property developer.

"There is a tremendous amount of misunderstanding about what the process is, what it will be and how it will work," Lehrer said. "Property owners have no basis to fear they will not receive a fair hearing."

The city's preservation effort began three years ago when a consulting firm was commissioned to identify structures of architectural, historical or cultural significance that might serve as the basis for a landmarks registry.

Supporters, who point to the example of the Dodge House, say the effort was long overdue.

Landmark Destroyed

The Dodge House, designed in 1914 by architect Irving Gill in what is now West Hollywood, was bulldozed in 1970 despite protests from preservationists across the nation.

"It's important to have a visible reminder of the evolution of any city, and ours is no different," said Debbie Potter, the city's economic development manager who has worked on behalf of the plan.

"Unfortunately, people tend to be motivated by self-interest and it obscures their vision," she said. "Everybody is for historic preservation except when it affects them. That's the primary difficulty we face."

Several council members have said that some properties included in the inventory may not be appropriate for designation as landmarks, and that the inventory is meant to serve only as a guideline for future decisions.

"Nothing is written in stone at this point," said Councilman John Heilman.

'Costing Us a Fortune'

However, disgruntled property owners do not appear to be convinced.

"It's costing us a fortune," said Soheil Rabbani, whose father's two homes on Palm Avenue, bought nine years ago, are listed in the inventory.

"We had the lots where those houses are located sold for $600,000 a few months ago, and when this list came out, the prospective buyer called off the deal," he said.

"They say (the houses) are historically important, but I can't see it. They seem pretty awful to me. They're not the kind of places you think of as being worth saving."

He was among a dozen people to voice opposition to the plan before the City Council two weeks ago.

Others, including the Rev. Edgar Neuenschwander of West Hollywood Community Church, whose parsonage is included in the inventory, have written letters requesting exemptions.

The church wants to raze the parsonage in order to provide for parking, the minister said.

"I know a number of senior citizens in the area who are worried about not being able to sell their property," he said. "They're not comfortable with the idea of restrictions being placed on them."

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