A group seeking to preserve Highland Park's historic character has won the endorsement of the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission for the formation of a historic zone under the supervision of a neighborhood association empowered to review alterations to any building.
Despite resistance from two museums and some residents, the commission last week recommended that the Los Angeles City Council include most of Highland Park and portions of Mt. Washington and Montecito Heights in the city's sixth Historic Preservation Overlay Zone.
In such a zone, a special community association would review proposed demolition and construction projects to make sure they are consistent with the neighborhood's appearance and historic values.
The historic zone was proposed by the Highland Heritage Trust, a neighborhood preservation group. Its area would be far larger than any of the five zones that have been designated in the city under a 1983 ordinance. The proposed Highland Park zone includes a corridor on both sides of Figueroa Street from York Boulevard on the north to Avenue 35 on the south.
As drawn, the area would blanket some 3,800 buildings. About 1,500 of those are deemed to be of historic value, said Robert Duenas, the city planner in charge of the proposal.
The plan, which eventually would require City Council approval, next moves to the Los Angeles Planning Commission, where a battle is shaping up between preservationists and some residents who want lower Mt. Washington and Montecito Heights excluded from the zone.
Representatives of the Southwest Museum and Heritage Square Museum, now regulated as cultural landmarks, voiced support for the preservation zone but are seeking to be exempted from the extra layer of project review.
The planning commission plans a community hearing on the proposal sometime late in June.
The city's five other historic zones are Angeleno Heights near Echo Park, Melrose Hill and Whitley Heights in Hollywood, South Carthay near Beverly Hills and North Miracle Mile near Hancock Park.
Two much smaller zones were originally proposed in 1986 by the Highland Park Heritage Trust and other neighborhood groups as a way to prevent developers from razing the area's many Craftsman, Victorian and Spanish Revival houses to make way for boxy, modern apartment buildings. The two were combined into an expanded area after the trust and the city conducted surveys showing the extent of historically important buildings in the neighborhood.
"This is really a grass-roots effort by the community itself," said trust board member Charles Fisher. "This will bring about much more of a sense of community where people feel they have much more control over their neighborhood."
He said the move also is supported by business advocates who think the designation might help spur efforts to restore Figueroa Street, the heart of the community's ailing commercial district.
Fisher said activists feared that accelerating development in the neighborhood, one of the city's oldest suburbs, would spell extinction for buildings that in some cases date back more than a century. The loss of historic buildings has been held in check since 1989 through a temporary special ordinance that has regulated demolition and construction in Highland Park during revisions of the community plan.
Under the proposal, a volunteer five-member neighborhood association would be named to examine all proposed new construction or substantial alterations to buildings within the zone. The panel would recommend to the Planning Commission whether to grant a "certificate of appropriateness" along with any normal approvals. It also can draw up design standards to make sure that construction or remodeling projects retain the qualities of a neighborhood.
The panel would consist of four members appointed by the mayor, the City Council and the Cultural Heritage Commission and a fifth chosen by the four. The ordinance requires that it include representatives from real estate and construction as well as an architect.
Opponents say they resent being swept under the association's regulatory umbrella, which they claim will make home improvements too costly for the area's low- and middle-income residents. The group of residents asking that lower Mt. Washington and Montecito Heights be excluded has suggested waiving application fees for some work and breaking the area into smaller zones to increase the level of local representation in the neighborhood review process.
"For a lot of people here, it's really scary that they're not going to be able to improve their houses the way they want, that they'll get caught in a bureaucracy," said Virginia Johannessen, one vocal opponent.
Acknowledging the potential for controversy, a spokesman said City Councilman Richard Alatorre, who represents part of the neighborhood, favors the idea of a Highland Park zone, but will await public comment before committing to its exact boundaries.
Officials at the 20-year-old Heritage Square Museum, a collection of eight 19th-Century buildings that have been moved to a 10-acre site east of the Pasadena Freeway near Avenue 43, worry that the historic preservation zone would hinder efforts to import and restore old buildings, which are already regulated as historic structures.
Executive director Barry Herlihy said that while he supports the historic preservation designation for the area, it makes no sense to apply the neighborhood's preservation standards to buildings that, though historic, were not built there in the first place.
"They really have no business trying to regulate what we're trying to do or how we're trying to do it," Herlihy said.
Jerome Selmer, executive director of the Southwest Museum, said the Cultural Heritage Commission's recommendation will complicate the impending decision by museum officials whether to enlarge the facility at its current home of 78 years or relocate to a new, bigger site. A consultant hired by the museum recently recommended finding a new home but did not recommend a site.
Because the museum is a city cultural landmark, any changes it plans already are reviewed by the Cultural Heritage Commission. Selmer said museum officials do not want to face yet another approval process for proposed redevelopment of the museum, whose crowded quarters hold one of the world's greatest collections of American Indian artifacts.
A leader of Save Our Southwest Museum, a neighborhood-based group that wants the museum to stay, criticized the museum's opposition to being included in the zone as "ludicrous."
"It's baloney that they think it's going to affect their decision to stay," said Richard Barron, an architect who is SOS's representative on the museum's planning committee. He said the museum is too important not to receive heightened resident scrutiny of any redevelopment plans, even without the historic preservation zone review.
The museums lend credibility to the proposed zone, say supporters of the plan. The Cultural Heritage Commission agreed, but noted that if they suffered unspecified "problems" from the zone, they could be removed.
The Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission has recommended creation of the city's largest Historic Preservation Overlay Zone covering 3,800 structures in Highland Park, of which 1,500 are deemed to have historic value. The area's irregular boundaries, which in many instances follow lot lines between streets, are roughly represented below. If the zone is approved, alterations to any structures would require approval by a local review committee.