There are a few clinkers in the crowd, but, by and large, the people who serve on the Santa Monica boards and commissions are bright, dedicated, knowledgeable people who play a crucial role in the work of the City.
They are driven by love or duty or both. Their hours are long. They are not paid for their time or their talent. They read staff reports that are duller than dust and often impenetrable, make all manner of difficult decisions, hear every sort of complaint, are often criticized, face hostile people, must rely on City staff people whose primary job is adhering to the City Hall line, whatever it is, and their only tangible reward is the City’s annual Boards and Commissions dinner.
The Landmarks Commission is among the most impressive panels. Its members not only know Santa Monica, they know the landmarks ordinance and related rules and regulations and they understand both the role of the Commission and the purposes of historic preservation in the city. They are serious people who take their responsibilities very seriously.
We have covered the Commission for six years and while we have not always agreed with its calls, we know of no instance in which it has exceeded its authority, violated its charter or acted recklessly.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for City Staff or the City Council, as they demonstrated once again last Tuesday night.
In October, the Landmarks Commission nominated the Craftsman bungalow at 921 Nineteenth Street for designation as a landmark. The owner of the property, 19th Street Townhouses, appealed the decision as it wants to demolish the house and replace it with condominiums.
The appeal was heard by the Council Tuesday night.
The staff report recommended that the Council uphold the appeal, arguing not only that the house wasn’t worthy of designation, but that the Commission decision “raises broader issues for Council discussion that have policy implications regarding the application of the City’s landmark designation criteria…”
The report went on to say, “If the criteria are applied too broadly, structures with varying levels of significance could be deemed eligible for landmark designation. That result could undermine confidence in the standards and process…The appellant asserts that the findings and designation are rationalizations of the Commission’s action and contradict the City’s Historic resource consultant’s report and the staff analysis and recommendation…If the Landmark designation process appears to overstate a building’s contribution to the City’s cultural heritage and is viewed as being utilized as a strategy to prevent development, it may devalue the cultural and historical significance of other Landmarks that have been designated using appropriate application of the criteria…Use of the Landmarks Designation process to halt development rather than as a means to protect and recognize the City’s cultural heritage is a significant policy choice and a departure from widely accepted standards.”
The presumption of the staff report was exceeded only by the staff’s arrogant demeanor at the meeting.
First, the staff presumes that the Landmarks Commission doesn’t understand either its role in the process or the basic landmark criteria.
Based on our observation of the workings of City Hall over the years, the Commission is the only body in the landmarks field that fully understands its role, consistently applies the criteria accurately and thoughtfully, and, singly and collectively, comprehends the necessity as well as the value of historic preservation.
Second, the staff presumes that the Commission doesn’t take its responsibilities seriously, and willfully manipulated the process, in this instance, to “halt development.”
The staff’s charge that the Commission would deliberately “devalue” the historic preservation process that it is pledged to oversee is profoundly insulting.
The Commissioners have repeatedly demonstrated their unwillingness to sully the process or abuse it, as they are fully aware that that would put the entire historic preservation program in jeopardy.
The charge is also ludicrous on its face. If the Commission suddenly decided last October to “halt development,” surely it could have found a larger, more significant project to target.
Third, the staff presumes that the Commission can not “contradict” the findings of the staff and its consultants.
But if such findings were sufficient in themselves, there would be no need for a Landmarks Commission.
In fact, in this as in most other areas, there is no such thing as a definitive consultant’s report. And there is no one currently on City staff who knows as much about historic preservation and/or landmark criteria as the seven members of the Commission.
Their standards are higher than the “widely accepted standards” cited by staff. They have impressive credentials. Two architectural historians with impressive records of accomplishment, an architect, a local historian, a designer and two realtors serve on the Commission. In contrast, the staff report was prepared by three planners and the City’s new “urban designer,” Stephanie Reich.
Fourth, the staff report presumes that as the house on 19th Street is not on the City’s historic resources inventory, it does not qualify as a landmark. But the inventory is unfinished. Only two weeks ago, the Council allocated funds to complete it. Thus, the fact that the house is not on the inventory means nothing.
Fifth, the staff report presumes that the data in its files is finite, and complete. But as long as the city and things in it are subject to change, information about it and things in it, such as consultants’ reports, are also subject to change, amendment, or possibly the wastebasket.
The case that the Commission made in October for designating the house on 19th Street as a landmark was clear, compelling and convincing.
The case that the appellant made against designation last Tuesday was weak, and, as we have indicated, the staff report was less an argument for upholding the appeal than it was a wholly indefensible and baseless assault on the Commission’s integrity.
But, once again, the majority of the Council dutifully followed staff’s orders and upheld the the appeal. To their credit, Council members Ken Genser and Kevin Mckeown disputed both the appellant and staff’s cases for overturning the Commission’s decision objected to its allegations about the Commission’s motives, and voted against upholding the appeal.The Council majority’s willingness to rubber stamp another wrong-headed, arrogant staff report suggests, again, that City Hall is out of control and doing damage to the city it exists to serve.