Brad Meyers asked why poor people should deserve to live near the beach. I used to agree with him that it was impractical to use such valuable property for public housing, when using less expensive land would free up money to build more units elsewhere.
Then I realized the law of unintended consequences at play. If public housing is always built on the least expensive property, then the city will create a ghetto. The NIMBY principle will relegate housing to one part of town, with all the problems such a concentration of population creates. How much richer Santa Monica becomes the more mixed its neighborhoods are.
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Whereas the City of Los Angeles has been busily creating additional historic districts to protect older homes of merit, Santa Monica, with only one designated historic district to its credit, seems unable to protect that single district. The Third Street Historic District is in an uproar over a plan to build a two-story cantilevered Modernist structure in the midst of the supposedly protected California Bungalows on Third Street between Ocean Park Boulevard and Hill Street. Described as an addition (due to a loophole in regulations governing new construction) but in reality a massive new building, the project would require the physical displacement of an existing historic home to create a larger backyard building site. The project will be on the agenda of the Landmarks Commission for the third time at the next Landmarks Commission hearing on Monday, November 12.
That the debate over this project has dragged on since the late spring suggests that there are real problems with it. And indeed there are. The Historic District has guidelines established at its inception to govern new construction in the District. This project is in such significant violation of these guidelines that one would have expected it to be denied outright at the very first hearing.
Residents of the District have been unanimous and vociferous in their opposition to the project and they have received widespread support from the larger community. Unfortunately, certain of the Landmarks Commissioners seem oddly unaware of the extreme unsuitability of the project in this particular location, at the heart of the District and immediately adjacent on all sides to historic homes. Perhaps this lack of awareness is due to a strong personal fondness for Modernist architecture. Or maybe some commissioners are concerned about the issue of individual property rights (but blind to the fact that if this project were allowed, it would violate the trust of other homeowners in the District who have faithfully adhered to the guidelines). One can only conjecture.
Whatever the reason, it would seem to me that when accepting a position as a commissioner, one has first and foremost a responsibility to uphold the mandate of that commission. And in this case that would mean protecting the Historic District by insisting that its guidelines be honored.
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Historic Homes vs. Modern Mansions
Dear reader, please consider this unfinished contemporary fable:
Once upon a future time, a proud band of citizens in a well-known little town decided to set aside just one small neighborhood as a special District. They wanted to preserve a moment in architectural time by celebrating the beloved Modernist homes there. Designed by talented architects, the houses were much admired for their massive cubic and rectangular shapes, smoothly trowelled stucco or concrete surfaces, and for their shining glass walls or metal-trimmed windows. Sometimes two or three stories high, they were topped with flat roof decks and often included overhanging, seemingly unsupported rectangular rooms cantilevered into space. Sometimes the homes were surrounded by concrete block fences or walls. Perhaps they had metal doors and gates.
At first, town officials unanimously welcomed this unique gift to the City and helped the citizen group as it labored a very long time, at personal expense, to establish and protect this living museum by creating a code and strong guidelines to help future homeowners create similar Modernist homes there. It was named the Modernist Neighborhood District because it contained so many such structures and some were designated as Modernist Landmarks. It was a happy and very popular area for years. Neighbors knew each other. Indeed, its visual atmosphere was known to put passersby into a reverie of Modernist appreciation. Weekend walking tours were organized.
Then, one day it was announced that two new Period homes would probably be built in the middle of the unique Modernist neighborhood. They would be a Craftsman and a Victorian. They would be in sharp contrast to, and very unlike, the Modernists. District organizers were shocked. The new homes’ very design would destroy the integrity of the District’s atmosphere by ignoring or, at best, giving lip service to the carefully crafted and approved guidelines for additional homes. They would feature peaked gables and dormers, shingled roofs with vented attics, and open porches with turned columns. The plans showed antique wooden doors, clapboard siding, earthy handcrafted hardware, ornate wood windows along with “carpenter’s lace,” and other fancy wooden trim.
Only one or two houses were planned, but the original organizers knew that this precedent would prevail in the future. Other Period homes would rise up in this previously protected Modernist enclave. Homeowners who were attracted to and wanted to live in this clearly designated Modernist area would nonetheless continue to approach architects dealing only in Period style designs. After all, Period designs were a very popular trend. The District’s organizers protested vehemently to the officials at every opportunity.
Despite the citizens’ outrage at these unseemly plans, the current group of officials apparently wanted to approve the new trendy projects despite the fact that they were strongly rejected by those who helped to make the neighborhood a special and unique district for Modernism.
Well, that is where the unfinished fable hangs, with unresolved problems abounding. Would it really be appropriate to place 19th and 20th century homes in a preserve of special Modernist structures? Will the story continue to take an inappropriate, degrading, and unseemly turn? Will it have an unhappy ending after all the organizers’ years of unpaid work? It seems very probable to the author and his associates.
Now, dear reader, please reverse, in your mind, the architectural styles with their opposite counterparts in the story. What appears is the current, very real, horror story faced by residents of Santa Monica’s beloved Third Street Neighborhood Historic District. (That’s “Historic District,” not “Modernist District,” remember).
We “Friends of the District” can’t seem, despite months of recent efforts, to convince the current Landmarks Commission to simply deny the two proposed Modernist projects appearing once again on the agenda on Monday, November 12, 2007, at City Hall. Both projects have been “continued” from previous meetings, one has been multiple times.
The Commission just keeps politely asking the applicants for revisions to their Modernist proposals. What they get, of course, are Modernist revisions. Apparently, the Commission lacks the willpower or the common sense to say a simple “No” to these projects and to Modernism, period. Perhaps the Commission is enamored by other trends, personal preferences, elements, or factors specifically excluded in the Historic District Guidelines and in the permanent vision clearly delineated by its founders.
This District is a special collection of superb, warm, and inviting turn-of-the-century Craftsman Bungalows and Victorians, including even a Gothic church. Three official Landmarks sit within a stone’s throw of the Modernist proposals. Simply put, the proposed Modernist projects, as well-designed as they may be, just don’t belong in this particular and special District full of historic homes and churches. It’s as obvious as the front porch on a Craftsman.
Dear readers, please phone 310.458.8341, email, or write the Landmarks Commission and/or the Planning staff ASAP! Urge them to just say “NO” to any Modernist structures in the District, now or in the future. Let them be built in more appropriate neighborhoods.
Commissioners, please perform your designated duty to preserve and strengthen the Historic District’s fragile integrity. Future Historic District organizers are watching. Give a “thumbs down” to the two “sore thumbs” before you!
Tony Haig, property owner, resident and District co-organizer
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Our Historic District Protection Process Is Broken
Neighbors, Santa Monica residents, and others who have seen the plans for new buildings at 2617 Third Street and 2642 Second Street in Santa Monica’s only Historic District ask, “What’s the point of having an Historic District if these projects are approved?”
Currently it appears the Landmarks Commission and staff are prepared to encourage and permit any architectural styles in the District. This includes Modernist rectilinear and cantilevered boxes whose massing, style, shape, roof-lines, and location on the lot are incompatible with the District’s overall character and architectural styles. Recently the standard for project review increasingly seems to be staff’s and the Commissioners’ personal architectural preferences, not the Secretary of Interior Standards or the Third Street Neighborhood District Guidelines.
Staff and Commissioners argue that the Standards and Guidelines are discretionary, not mandatory. True. But if rigorously applied, instead of stretched, both provide a more objective evaluative framework than the subjective individual tastes of current staff and Commissioners, tastes which may differ radically from those of future Commissions and their staffs.
The Modernist boxes of 2617 Third and 2646 Second are not compatible or harmonious with the District’s defining characteristics identified by a preservation consultant hired by residents. Nor are they compatible with the District’s aesthetic characteristics and building styles called out by the 1990 City Ordinance designating the District, or with the District Design Guidelines. Both projects should have been discouraged by staff at the outset and denied by the Landmarks Commission at their first hearings.
It is the job of staff and the Commission to push applicants and their architects to design creative imaginings of traditional District massing, lines, styles, siding, and use of materials. District neighbors should not be expected to do these professionals’ jobs.
None of us wants kitschy copies of District contributing buildings for new construction or remodels. There are other architectural alternatives besides kitsch and Modernist boxes. It is unreasonable for the Commission to expect neighbors and other City residents to go around the country to find examples of other acceptable design options. That should be the job of paid staff and Commissioners with professional preservation credentials and experience.
The recent repetitive redesign and re-review process for inherently incompatible projects is a process of attrition damaging to the District, to resident involvement, and to “property rights.”
Historically the Landmarks Commission reviewed projects and denied or approved (possibly with conditions) on first hearing, or at most on second. The current practice of giving applicants repeated “bites at the apple” shuts down community involvement. Residents simply can’t be expected to keep reviewing revised plans, holding revision review meetings which the City says applicants and their architects need not attend, writing additional letters and petitions, educating and organizing neighbors, raising funds to hire their own professional preservation consultants, and attending Commission meetings which last deep into the night. The District was initiated by residents, not the City. Respect for resident involvement has been lost in the new re-cycle process. Long-term resident property owners can no longer look to the City to protect their property rights – the character and stability of their chosen neighborhood.