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Landmarks Commission Takes First Step to Preserve Beach Pads

By Jorge Casuso

Tenants of a World War I-era bungalow complex that has served as a beach pad for generations of Santa Monicans won an initial victory Monday night when the Landmarks Commission voted to nominate the structure for landmark status.

The 6 to 1 vote, however, likely will do little to delay the evictions of tenants from the 20-unit rent-controlled complex a block from the beach. The tenants must be out of their Ocean park apartments by Oct. 6 because the owner intends to go out of the rental business under the state Ellis Act.

After listening to heartfelt testimony from tenants and their supporters -- including former mayor Dennis Zane and former Planning Commission chair Ken Breisch - the commission voted to hold a hearing Sept. 11 to determine the status of the structures.

"It seems to be quite obvious that this deserves designation," said Commissioner Ruthann Lehrer, an architectural historian. "It's a very unique oasis. I'm very strongly in support with proceeding with the designation."

"We do landmarks because we want to resist the pressures of chaos and entropy," Zane said after the meeting. "Landmarks are about finding those things that keep us grounded and enduring. These buildings do that."

Rosario Perry, the attorney who represents the owners of the wooden vine-covered cluster of buildings at 137, 141, 145 and 147 Bay Street, asked for a 60-day delay to prepare a rebuttal and indicated he would appeal any landmark designation.

"We don't feel it should be designated a landmark," Perry said. "We need time to put together a presentation. We feel we have some very serious questions to consider about the landmark status."

Perry - who has characterized the apartments as "junkers" -- urged the board to separate the Ellis evictions from the landmark consideration, which he has said is being used by tenants to hang on to apartments that go for between $292 and $678 a month.

"I would like to separate the two issues," Perry said. "No demo (demolition permit) has been filed, so there's no rush to judgement needed."

But if Monday's comments were any indication, the bungalows -- which were declared eligible for inclusion in the California Register of Historical Resources in 1994 -- will likely qualify for local, and perhaps national, landmark designation.

"They represent a remarkably intact survival of early Santa Monica history and clearly reflect the progressive and populist side of the Craftsman movement during the early 20th Century," said former Planning Commission chair Ken Breisch.

"Given the new evidence that has been unearthed in the process of preparing this nomination, I would now say that they are quite probably eligible for the National Register of Historic Places as well," said Briesch, an architectural historian who is the director of Programs in Historic Preservation at USC.

According to a report prepared by Chattel Architecture, Planning & Preservation, Inc., the structures are "excellent examples of Craftsman, multi-family residential buildings that satisfy all criteria for landmark designation."

The report calls attention to the predominant exterior features, which include low-pitched, overhanging roofs with wide eaves, simple decorative gable vents, porch compositions including sleeping porches and three-part windows.

The interior of most of the units features built-in dining buffets and rollout beds, and many of the bathrooms and kitchens also have original fixtures, such as claw-footed tubs, hexagonal tile floors and counters, built-in ice boxes and decorative hardware.

"In this case the interiors are even more stunning than the exteriors," said Landmarks Commissioner Stephen Frew, who is an architect.

According to the City staff report, the structures meet six of the required criteria for landmark status. The criteria include distinguishing architectural characteristics, a unique location and historic value.

After Monday's vote, the tenants, who have spent several thousand dollars fighting for the buildings, held a party in the leafy courtyard between the old structures. The party was attended by Councilmen Michael Feinstein and Kevin McKeown and Michael Tarbet, a tenant activist with Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights.

Though the mood was upbeat and sometimes exuberant -- "We're going to buy this place," one tenant said - some residents are not sure where they will go when the eviction deadline comes.

"It's expensive to move," said Tim Falguiere, a health food store worker who has lived in the building for two years. "Hopefully we won't have to move."

"We're scared," said Susan Bannout, who lives there with her 11-year old daughter and who was recently laid off.

Tenants, who hope the owner reconsiders his decision to go out of the rental business, have said that they will continue to fight for landmark status even if they are evicted.

City planning officials say the Landmarks Commission has three and a half months to make a decision. If the structures are designated a landmark, then an Environmental Impact Report that explores all the options for the site must be prepared, a lengthy process that can takes months. The final decision would rest with the council.

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