Growth Fight Spawns Cultural Clashes : History: Landmark status is being sought for sites of little significance in an effort to prevent development, critics say.
Few would deny that there is a peaceful beauty to Fryman Canyon, a wooded ravine in Studio City where large trees and colorful wildflowers flourish in the midst of the urban jungle that is Los Angeles.
But can acres of land virtually untouched by humans--land where no historical events of note took place--be considered culturally significant, worthy of city landmark status?
Recently, the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission said yes, it could, and recommended that half of the 63-acre Fryman Canyon parcel be designated as a cultural monument.
But listen to the man who wrote the law giving the commission its powers: “It seems to me that they are interfering in private property without sound historical basis,” said Ken Ross, 80, who in 1962 was head of the Municipal Art Department and helped author the Historic Preservation Ordinance.
Critics say the Fryman Canyon decision illustrates how the city’s cultural monument designation process is being abused as slow-growth activists seek new weapons in their ongoing battles with developers.
Over the last year, slow-growth groups citywide have nominated several sites with little apparent cultural significance as landmarks in what detractors call thinly veiled efforts to stop bulldozers and construction crews.
Such trends do not come as a surprise to Ross, who recalled that tensions always existed between preservationists and developers. He said the preservation law was written with the idea that the year’s delay would allow time to find new buyers to protect historic structures.
The first structure to be declared a cultural landmark in Los Angeles was the Leonis Adobe in Calabasas in 1962, Ross recalled. The adobe was nominated when its fate was threatened by the landowner’s plans to build a Safeway on the site.
“That was justified. It was one of the last adobes in the valley,” said Ross, who is fond of recalling the days when orange groves graced the Los Angeles Basin. “It had a great history.”
Perhaps the most criticized recent nomination of a site involved a neighborhood drive to designate as a landmark a Studio City carwash where a developer planned to build a $15-million mini-mall.
The commission also has seriously pondered designating as a landmark a 25-year-old white-domed theatre-in-the-round at the behest of Woodland Hills residents who opposed a plan to build apartments on the site. As well, panel members considered some World War II-vintage hangars at Van Nuys Airport--nominated by a company trying to renew its lease on the buildings.
In Studio City, the residents and environmentalists who nominated Fryman Canyon as a potential landmark were most interested in stopping a 26-home development that landowner Fred Sahadi plans to build there, critics say.
“The people who are anti-growth activists recognize that this is a tool in their arsenal where they have very little risk of losing,” said Douglas R. Ring, a Century City attorney who has represented developers before the commission, and is now suing the city over the designation of a Hollywood building as a landmark.
When a site is named a landmark, it is protected from demolition or alterations for a year. The nomination process can delay a developer up to two months while the commission decides whether the property deserves such protection.
“As carwashes and canyons will tell you, it is a process which has been abused,” Ring said. “The rules, the limits as to how far the commission can go, are truly not well defined.”
Detractors of the tactic say using the commission’s powers to stall projects is an attack on property owners’ rights to use land as they see fit and undermines legitimate historic preservation efforts.
“This has become a court of obstruction,” said attorney Benjamin Reznik, who represents Sahadi, who will be able to construct his 26 luxury houses after all because the commission protected the half of his canyon where he had not planned construction. “It has become the panic button that people can push at the last minute.”
But commissioners and their staff members say sites may have true historic or architectural value even if their nominations are prompted by other concerns.
“Just because a tenant files an application, it may look as though the tenant just doesn’t want to move, but it may well be that the building is significant,” said commission staff member Nancy Fernandez.
A two-month delay for a developer is a small price to pay to guarantee that important sites are not inadvertently destroyed, said commission Chairman Amarjit Marwah.
Jay Rounds, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, a nonprofit historical preservation organization, said many people seek landmark status for buildings when they feel they have no other recourse to stop rampant construction in their neighborhoods. Rounds predicted the number of such applications will soar as development pressure in Southern California mounts.
“Development issues are coming face to face with legitimate environmental issues and there are not enough mechanisms for looking at the overall quality of the neighborhood,” Rounds said. “I don’t blame people for seizing whatever mechanisms they can find.”
Though commissioners generally do “a credible job of screening out things that are inappropriate,” he said, such applications take a toll on the already overtaxed commission staff and resources.
Two years ago, commissioners spent considerable effort on an application brought by members of the First Southern Baptist Church of Hollywood, who sought landmark status for their 1923 building. Their request followed the disclosure that that the block was being considered as a potential Metro Rail site.
Church Pastor Gary Tibbs said he hoped that landmark status for the building, which once housed the first Conservative Jewish synagogue in Hollywood, would save the entire block from being razed.
“We were exploring all of our options and we thought that if the commission landmarked the buildings then they wouldn’t be able to destroy the block,” Tibbs said.
But Tibbs withdrew the nomination after learning that landmark designation could not save the former synagogue building--much less the block--from destruction, but could prevent the church from making any alterations to it.
“They could still demolish the building even if the culture commission is protecting it, but if they landmark the building, you don’t have any control over it,” Tibbs said. “We didn’t want the commission to tell us what to do with it.”
Members of both the development and preservation community agree that changes could help the commission to function more effectively. Architects, for example, say the commission needs more stringent guidelines to help the panel determine what meets the standard of a significant site.
“They need to clearly define what a cultural heritage building is, and what saving it does for the community,” said architectural historian Jerry Viniegra.