Many Cities Are Disregarding History, Conservancy Declares

Times Staff Writer

Failing grades were flying across Los Angeles on Wednesday as preservationists issued their first "report card," which evaluates local cities' efforts to save old landmarks.

The Los Angeles Conservancy handed out grades of F to 44 cities -- including nearly a dozen of the county's wealthiest enclaves -- that allegedly have failed to protect historic structures.

But some outraged municipalities responded by accusing the conservation group itself of failure to understand how preservation initiatives are being conducted in modern neighborhoods across the county.

The upscale cities of Agoura Hills, Bradbury, Hidden Hills, Malibu, Manhattan Beach, Palos Verdes Estates, Rancho Palos Verdes, Rolling Hills, Rolling Hills Estates, Santa Clarita and Westlake Village were among those receiving Fs.

Calabasas, Duarte, La Canada Flintridge and Torrance managed to eke out D-minuses. Beverly Hills and Claremont slipped by with Ds.

Residents of the "failing" cities should be embarrassed enough to begin pressuring local officials to adopt landmark-protection ordinances, leaders of the 25-year-old conservancy said.

"These are students who haven't bothered to show up in class and even make a token effort," Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues, said of towns at the bottom of the list.

Six other cities -- Long Beach, Pasadena, Santa Monica, South Pasadena, West Hollywood and Whittier -- received A's for local landmark-protection laws and for overall historic preservation efforts. Thirty-seven cities, and the county's unincorporated area, received grades of B through D.

Conservancy leaders said criteria for determining the grades had included whether cities had ordinances to allow designation of historic landmarks and whether any landmarks had been designated. Cities were also examined to determine whether they had taken advantage of property tax incentives allowed by the state, whether historic districts had been recognized and whether they had conducted historic architectural resources surveys and had historic preservation officers or commissions.

The report card was issued by conservancy leaders who gathered on the steps of the historic Pasadena City Hall, which is dated to about 1927.

Linda Dishman, the conservancy's executive director, said the report card had been designed to salute cities doing a good job while helping motivate those lagging behind.

"Sometimes ticking people off promotes them to take action. We hope this will be a call to action by people in communities labeled truant to really look at the historic resources they have," Dishman said.

But some of those on the flunk list accused the conservancy of failing to eliminate archaic criteria from its grading process.

Officials in Palos Verdes Estates said their 64-year-old city closely regulated development with tough community deed-restriction rules and a neighborhood compatibility ordinance that preserves views, trees and local character.

"We have nine historical landmarks, including a wall, a gate house, the library and an early house," said Planning Director Allan Rigg. A few years ago the city spent more than $100,000 repairing a 74-year-old landmark statue of King Neptune and now protects it with a video camera wired directly to the Police Department.

"I'm personally disappointed" in the preservation report card, Rigg said.

Santa Clarita spokeswoman Gail Ortiz said her 16-year-old city had accomplished the conservancy's goals without enacting specific ordinances. Instead, officials have purchased 2,500 acres of open space for preservation and just closed escrow on a historic pioneer oil refinery site and a Native American site.

"It's the difference between how an old city and a new city moves," Ortiz said.

Manhattan Beach planning chief Richard Thompson said he was unaware of any historic structures that need preservation in his community. He said small older homes are being replaced by larger ones, but to deny property owners that right would create "an equity issue."

In Westlake Village, city planner Peter Pirnejad had a similar reaction. "It's odd we'd get an F. We're a master planned community that wasn't even incorporated until 1981. We don't have a historic ordinance because there's nothing old here," he said. Conservancy officials, meanwhile, stood by their grades. They likened the cities' responses to "the-dog-ate-my-homework" excuses.

"All we can go on is what they told us. Many cities have local development guidelines, but unless they specifically protect the historic fabric of the town they are architectural guidelines, not historic preservation guidelines," said Catherine Barrier, a preservation advocate with the group.

Even newly built suburban communities can have historic structures and archeological sites that need to be taken into account, Barrier said.

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