Rent-Control Ruling : Ban on Renovations Threatens Landmark

Times Staff Writer

An architectural landmark in Studio City that has twice escaped a wrecking ball has become entangled in an unexpected threat--red tape from City Hall.

A preservation-minded investor who bought the historic Laurelwood Penthouse Apartments 18 months ago to save them from being torn down for condominiums has been blocked from repairing them.

As a result, the unusual hillside apartment complex may face a new attack from townhouse builders eager to crowd new three-story condos onto the site.

A Los Angeles city moratorium on apartment renovations has thwarted apartment owner Helen Jameson's hopes of restoring the 40-year-old units built by renowned architect Rudolph Schindler.

The two-story apartments at 11833 Laurelwood Drive are considered a Schindler masterpiece. Preservationists have described them as among the finest surviving examples of California modern architecture--flat-roofed, low-profile buildings that blend into the land on which they sit.

Schindler, an early associate of Frank Lloyd Wright, perfected his modern style of architecture during a design career that spanned 33 years, ending with his death in 1953.

His Laurelwood apartments were threatened with demolition in 1980 and 1986 when previous owners sought to use the site for condominium projects. Tenants and preservationists rallied both times to save the apartments.

Fans of Schindler's hoped they had permanently saved his complex in 1980 when they persuaded the city's Cultural Heritage Commission to declare it a cultural-historical landmark. The apartments' owner at that time envisioned building 58 condo units on the site.

The 1986 threat came when a new owner revealed he was prepared to build his own townhouse project on the property unless a buyer could be found who was willing to meet his $2.5-million asking price.

In September of that year, officials from Cultural Heritage and from Parks and Recreation put a temporary freeze on a demolition permit to stall the condo plan.

Jameson, of North Hollywood, said she purchased the apartments in January, 1987, for $1.6 million.

She quickly determined that the complex needed about $250,000 in renovation, mostly for a new roof and repairs to stairways and rotted wood damaged by years of leaks.

Before she could start work, however, the City Council clamped a one-year moratorium on such renovations. Council members recently voted to extend the moratorium six months, through the end of the year.

Officials said the moratorium was imposed to prevent landlords from using renovation projects as an excuse for removing tenants so they can raise rents beyond levels spelled out in city rent-control rules.

Under the old procedure, an apartment owner who spent $10,000 a unit on repairs and displaced a tenant for more than 25 days could collect a higher rent from a new tenant.

"We didn't have any control at all over landlords," said Jim Fleck, a planning and economic analyst with the rent stabilization division of the city's Community Development Department.

Fleck said Monday that officials are in the process of strengthening the rules that regulate such evictions. He said that after the moratorium ends, the city hopes to have tighter controls over the type of repairs made to guarantee that renovations are "substantial, not cosmetic."

Jameson acknowledged Monday that she had hoped to raise some of her tenants' rents after the Laurelwood's renovation. Newcomers are paying about $900 a month. But more than half of her tenants are longtime residents who pay around $500, she said.

As a result, she is taking in about $400 a month less in rent than she is paying in mortgage payments for the Laurelwood apartments, Jameson said.

To save money, she has dismissed the manager of the apartments and manages the complex herself, she said. A handyman does such things as patching on the series of stepped, flat roofs during rainy weather.

Jameson said the apartments once more have been put up for sale--although she hopes the city rescinds its moratorium before a buyer is found. She said the next buyer may be someone more interested in developing the valuable property, which is south of Ventura Boulevard, than in preserving existing apartments.

"I've had second thoughts," she said. "I knew it was a landmark when I bought it. . . . I love the place. It is unique. People stop out front and take pictures of it."

Jameson said she was unfamiliar with Schindler and his work before she purchased the Laurelwood apartments. Since then, she has also become a Schindler fan and something of an expert on the Schindler style. Two months ago, she was a volunteer at a Schindler festival held at UCLA.

"That's when I got the seller's remorse. I realized that I can buy any ugly, boxy apartment complex. These are one of a kind."

Jameson's tenants say they feel the same way. Some have expressed fear that a new condominium developer has his eye on the Laurelwood.

"The way Schindler built these back into the hill gives us tremendous privacy," said John De Pascale, a chemical manufacturer who has rented a two-bedroom Laurelwood apartment for 10 years and pays a monthly rent of $516.

"It's gone downhill over the years. I'd have loved to have seen this place when it was new. A lot of engineering students stop by here to look at what he did," he said.

Neighbor Jimmer Podrasky, who moved in shortly after Jameson bought the apartments and pays $884 a month, said he appreciates the unusual character of the place.

"Each apartment I've been in here is a little different," said Podrasky, who is lead singer for the Rave-Ups, a popular Los Angeles country-rock band.

Each of the units has hardwood floors, open-beam ceilings, small kitchen milk-delivery doors, ceiling-high windows and an unobscured view.

"Once we moved in, friends told us Rudolph Schindler was famous and gave us a bunch of articles about him. He'd lived in Connecticut in cabins before he came here. He wanted to keep the rustic feeling he'd enjoyed in the cabins."

Said Podrasky with pride: "Schindler actually came here and hammered nails himself when this place was built."

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