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Tenants of Beach Bungalows Seek Landmark Status to Save Homes

By Jorge Casuso

It may not look like much - a group of four worn-out wooden buildings with rollout beds and sleep-in porches that have served as pads for Santa Monica beachcombers since World War I.

But the buildings at 137, 145 and 147 Bay Street are the latest battleground in a growing movement pitting preservationists clinging to the past - and in this case, to their homes - and developers who want to build a commercial building with parking.

Next Monday, tenants of the 21-unit rent-controlled apartment complex and their supporters will urge the Landmarks Commission to consider the craftsman-style bungalows built between 1912 and 1917 for historic landmark status. Tenants hope the commission's decision will buy them time to stave off an October 6 eviction deadline under the state Ellis Act - which allows landlords to go out of the rental business.

"We've got a living history here, a link to our past," said Morris Abram, who has lived in the complex for 19 years. "A number of people who have lived in these buildings have really defined what this beach identity is. Whether or not we were in this building, we'd be fighting for it."

Hogwash, said Rosario Perry, the attorney for the landlord. The reason the tenants are mobilizing, he said, is simple - they want to hang on to rent controlled apartments a block from the beach that go for between $292 and $678 a month.

"They're trying to blackmail the guy," said Perry, referring to the landlord. "I'm outraged that they would take an ordinance designed to preserve a legitimate landmark and warp it to deny a landlord of his rights under Ellis."

Perry contends that the buildings aren't worth preserving. "These are not landmark buildings, they're junkers," Perry said. "There's no style to these, no value to these. No one has thought these were valuable until now."

Not so, counter the tenants, who said they have spent several thousand dollars to fight for the buildings, which were declared eligible for inclusion in the California Register of Historical Resources in 1994. The costs include $1,700 for the landmarks filing fee, $750 for a survey map and a still undetermined amount to hire an attorney and consultants to draft a report.

According to the report by preservation architects Robert Jay Chattel and Francesca Smith, which will be presented to the Landmarks Commission on Monday, the structures two blocks south of City Hall exemplify turn-of-the-century craftsman architecture. The design includes low-pitched, overhanging roofs with wide eaves and extended rafter tails.

Most of the units still have original built-in dining buffets and roll-out 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.

But residents contend that it's not just the aesthetic value - "It's not fancy in any way," Abram said - but the sense of history contained in the often cramped quarters that makes them worthy of landmark status.

"This complex reflects a lot of the things that brought people and attracted people to Santa Monica," Abram said. "It's informal. There's not a lot of stuffiness. It's a place to put your head down for a night and then get out of there" and enjoy the outdoors, he said.

The buildings have always had an eclectic mix of tenants - from surfers, life guards and defense workers, to the current residents, who include a screen writer, an actor, a fabric designer, a former professional basketball player and an electrician.

"It's a place where many different kinds of people have lived," Abram said. "The people are very, very down to earth."

But few are low-income, Perry contends. He said that after the eviction notices were sent out June 8, only three tenants have called to say they are interested in receiving the $3,200 to $5,200 in relocation fees low-income tenants can receive under the Ellis Act.

"That tells me there's few poor people living there, maybe three," Perry said. "I'm sure if he (the landlord) was getting good rents, he wouldn't have Ellised."

A landmark designation, Perry said, wouldn't guarantee that the residents would stay in their units.

"I doubt very much it would stop the evictions," Perry said. "If they designate it a landmark, the owner will file for economic hardship and sue the City for damages."

If the tenants are interested in preserving the buildings, Perry asked, why try to rush the landmark designation? After all, even if the commission designates the complex a historic landmark on September 11 -- an unrealistic timeline that would give the owner little time to prepare a report --, the decision can be appealed to the City Council.

"If it's a consideration of landmarks rather than Ellis, why should they rush the hearing to meet a tenant deadline to stop an eviction?" Perry said.

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.

"If it's important to the City or to the people of the city, that overweighs everything," said Donna Jereks, the staff member in charge of landmarks.

Abram hopes the community will give the landlord a compelling reason to yank his Ellis filing.

"We expect to have the most packed meeting in the history of the Landmarks Commission," Abram said of Monday's meeting. "You cannot ignore ultimately the sentiments of the community."

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