It’s your history, but it’s our sign
It is commonplace to say that Los Angeles has no historical memory. But that’s not quite true. In fact, many older neighborhoods have tried to protect their historical character by voting for historic preservation overlay zones, or HPOZ. Homeowners in such zones need the approval of a review board before changing their houses’ exteriors.
But what happens in commercial areas when preservation activists impose their will on owner-occupied businesses? This question took on a new urgency for me this month when the Cultural Heritage Commission designated our family’s automobile dealership, Felix Chevrolet, and its rooftop sign featuring Felix the Cat, a historic cultural monument.
We are not planning to demolish the building or the sign. In fact, we are currently spending several million dollars to remodel our downtown L.A. facility. What’s more, my wife and I belong to the Los Angeles Conservancy. We support the HPOZ in Hancock Park. We both have doctorates in history and have taught at USC and UCLA. My father-in-law, Nick Shammas, put up the sign when he took over Felix Chevrolet in 1958, and we spend $1,300 a month maintaining it. So it has been part of our lives.
But we oppose the designation. The fact is, although historians can help us understand the past and present, we cannot predict what might happen five, 10 or 20 years down the road. With this historical designation, a future owner would have to build his business around the showroom and sign. Even if it stayed a Chevrolet dealership, General Motors could require the new owner to build a new facility or remove the sign for being incompatible with GM’s corporate identification. Not being free to do this could result in the loss of the franchise, 200 jobs and $450,000 in annual sales tax revenue for the city of Los Angeles.
Such arguments, however, carried no weight with four of the commissioners. It didn’t matter that the facility was originally built in a Spanish Colonial style, transformed into a Streamline Moderne style and altered dozens of times. It didn’t matter that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who appoints the commissioners, opposed the designation over concerns for future economic development. It didn’t matter that City Council member Jan Perry, whose district includes the dealership, opposed it as well.
Like most people, the commissioners are in love with the Felix the Cat sign. But they were not swayed by arguments based on property rights of the owners -- who opposed the designation -- economic development, job retention or sales tax revenue. Instead, their views reflected only a narrow perspective of some in the historic preservation community -- not the needs of the broader community. And they are not beholden to anyone. This became apparent in some of the comments made by commissioners and other historic preservation experts. One suggested that if GM closed the franchise, we could switch to selling cat products. Another said maybe we could open a restaurant. Another suggested that maybe this would teach GM something about corporate responsibility.
Moreover, unlike the process used to create residential HPOZs, the process that I witnessed hardly seemed democratic. An activist who has opposed developments on another part of our property was the person who nominated Felix for its designation. I learned about the nomination only after a hearing had already been held. Compare this process with that of a residential HPOZ, which sometimes can take years as the views of those affected are fully considered. The designation of Felix Chevrolet took place in a few short months. The commissioners voted after listening to each side speak for 15 minutes.
The commission’s action ensures that the showroom and the sign will remain in place in perpetuity. While it may be theoretically possible for a future property owner to rebuild on the site, the legal, financial and other impediments that can be used to prevent such rebuilding almost guarantee its failure.
I know that expressing my opinion could subject us to great difficulty in the future, because the commissioners have the power to deny any improvement we wish to make. They can make it very difficult for us to survive. And maybe we won’t survive. Maybe there will come a day when I have to sign 200 pink slips. If it does, I hope the commissioners will come down to Figueroa and Jefferson and spend a little quality time with the latest generation of Felix Chevrolet employees. Maybe they could share some creative ideas for selling cat products, starting a restaurant or chatting about corporate responsibility.