At its January 14 meeting, the Landmarks Commission dealt with two controversial issues, denying designation for the ficus trees on 2nd and 4th Streets, and denying a Certificate of Appropriateness for a proposed project in the Third Street Historic District.
The battle to save the 54 ficus trees, slated by the City to be relocated or composted depending on their condition, was brought before the Landmarks Commission in November by the Treesavers group. The decision to vote on designation was postponed at the request of Treesavers, to allow the group time for research that could be presented to support landmark status for the trees.
Treesavers gave a PowerPoint presentation that told the story of how the trees came to be planted in the downtown area. In 1961-62, a woman named Jacqueline Girion, a community volunteer and mother of five, organized a “beautification” effort in Santa Monica, initiated by the Chamber of Commerce, to which she belonged. Girion’s committee of women succeeded in getting the City to plant the trees as part of the downtown rebuilding plan approved by the City in February 1961.
Two of Girion’s sons, Shephard and Woody Girion, spoke about their memories of accompanying their mother as she campaigned for the planting of the trees.
“Many people have vision,” Woody Girion told the Commission, “but it’s another thing to follow through on that vision.” He described the beautification committee as “part of the community’s soul.”
About 30 tree supporters spoke to the Commission, several of them pleading for recognition of Girion as a pioneering environmental crusader and activist at a time when women were still mostly confined to the role of housewife.
One tree supporter brought out a guitar and sang “Trees,” the musical setting of the poem by Joyce Kilmer.
Representing the City, Assistant City Manager Gordon Anderson reiterated the position that the City needed to move forward on the removal of the trees because of a timeline on federal funding for downtown redevelopment.
While the Commissioners admitted that they were “moved” by the Treesavers’ presentation and the new information about the history of the downtown beautification process, they were not convinced that the research proved that the ficus trees, as a group, were worthy of designation.
Ruthann Lehrer thought that it would be possible to designate the trees because Jacqueline Girion could be regarded as a “historic personage” and because of the association of the trees with the development of the Third Street mall.
The other Commissioners were inclined to agree with the City staff report’s finding that Girion and her committee were not linked to the larger women’s or environmental movements, and that the 2nd and 4th Street ficus trees were not unique to the City nor was their presence on the two streets an especially unique feature. The Commission voted to deny designation, with Lehrer as the sole dissenter.
Treesaver activist Jerry Rubin met with supporters outside the meeting chamber after the decision and told them “we’re not through yet.” Rubin said he was planning to appeal the Landmarks Commission’s decision to the City Council.
The Commission then took up the matter of the proposed project at 2617 1/2 3rd Street. The plans of owner Mark Woollen to build an addition to a non-contributing structure in the rear of his property, a Third Street Historic District contributor, were strongly opposed by a number of area residents, who maintained that the proposed design of the rear structure was too modern and too visible from the street.
The project’s architect, Michael Folonis, had been before the Commission several times, refining his design for the project. At the January 14 meeting, he presented his most recent modification of the design, incorporating suggestions made by the Commission. The height of the structure had been reduced by 1-1/2 feet; a cantilevered section had been reduced in size from 19 feet 2 inches to 16 feet 1 inch. Changes had also been made to the windows, siding, and roof overhangs to make the building more compatible with other structures in the neighborhood.
Still, the Commission heard from almost 40 residents, most of whom were against approval of the project.
One opponent, Richard Orton, said that to claim that the proposed design was compatible with the other houses in the area was like “putting a goat in a chicken coop and putting feathers on it.”
A few speakers supported Woollen’s efforts to get the project approved. He was described as a “sensitive and caring person” and one who had made a “tremendous effort to comply with the City.”
Commissioners John Berley, Barbara Kaplan, and Ruth Shari expressed their support for the project. Commission Chair Nina Fresco sided with the opponents. Despite the improvements made to the design, she said, “I just can’t get there.” Margaret Bach also was unable to support the project, as she said it seemed to her that it would be too visible from the street.
Commissioners Roger Genser and Lehrer had recused themselves from voting on the issue. The vote was 3-2 in favor of the project, but since four votes are required for passage, the Certificate of Appropriateness was denied.