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Bungalow Complex Denied Landmark Status

By Gene Williams
Staff Writer

July 28 -- The City Council found itself having to choose between developers and preservationists again Tuesday night and, once again, the developers won.

The 4 to 1 vote came despite the poignant pleas of residents of the 81-year-old Mission-style apartment complex in Ocean Park, who argued that the seaside rent controlled units many have called home for years were rich in history.

But council members took a less sentimental, no-nonsense approach. They noted that age alone was not reason enough to preserve a building and that decades of alterations to the complex -- known as Christie Court -- had compromised its chances for City landmark protection.

“When you’re looking at a building, any building, it has some history behind it,” said Mayor Pam O’Connor, who is a historical preservation expert in her day job. “It has to have a certain level of architectural integrity,” she added, “and this one has been altered very much.”

Tuesday’s vote comes two weeks after the council upheld an appeal of a Landmarks Commission decision to designate a single family bungalow in the northern part of the city for preservation.

The recent council decisions will almost certainly mean the loss of two of Santa Monica’s oldest residences. But, perhaps more importantly, it may also indicate a weakened confidence in the Landmarks Commission, whose actions have recently come under criticism from City staff.

Tuesday’s hearing came shortly after the council met behind closed doors with the City Attorney, who discussed possible legal action that could result if the council decided against the developers, who were prepared to put up a fight if the council blocked plans to replace the 24 rental units at 125 Pacific Street with condominiums.

During more than an hour of public testimony, the developer’s lawyer was backed by architectural experts and a City staff report recommending that the council uphold the appeal, while two Landmarks Commissioners were joined by a dozen Christie Court tenants who presented an extensive slide show in an effort to save their homes.

But neither fear of lawsuits nor pity for the renters -- who pay between $683 and $1,175 a month -- were allowed to influence the council.

The only question for the elected officials to consider was whether or not the modest courtyard bungalows deserved landmark status -- a designation reserved for the city’s most architecturally and historically important buildings.

Attorney David Moss hammered away at the issue.

“We understand that the residents here would prefer to stay in their apartments,” Moss told the council. “But the issue this evening before the council is the City standards that have been reviewed by numerous professional consultants hired by the City.”

Of the 25 Ocean Park bungalows surveyed by a City-contracted firm, 10 had been found to be worthy candidates for landmark status, Moss said, adding that Christie Court was not one of them.

“Significant modifications over the years has caused it to lose its original integrity,” he argued.

Moss urged the council to follow “independent third party consultants” and City staff advice to uphold his client’s appeal.

Landmarks Commissioner John Berley countered that the staff report -- which sided with the developer -- was “incomplete and incomprehensible” because it failed to “represent anything that went into the landmark decision.

“Without that, you are being asked to evaluate the actions of your Landmarks Commission in the abstract and, most certainly, without all the facts, ” Berley added.

Commission Chair Roger Genser said he too was “very disappointed in the staff report” as well as by another report by a City consultant that “never responds to the commission’s points.”

Without that information, he said, it was “ludicrous” to think the council could make an informed decision.

“I was originally a skeptic,” added Genser, who is an antiques dealer. “I walked by (Christie Court) and said, ‘No way, this is not a Landmark.’”

But hours of research, discussion and observation caused him to change his mind, he said.

The court’s density, design, location and cultural importance make it “unique” and fulfill three landmark criteria, Genser said.

“This court is the soul of my neighborhood, and it represents the social interaction that is unique there,” he said.

The residents presented a lengthy cultural history of the court, defending the working class and bohemian roots of their home, which one called “the poster child for Santa Monica’s affordable housing movement.”

“What we consider important is subjective,” said court resident Michelle Katz, noting that, although landmark status had been given to numerous homes of the “rich and famous,” only one working class home had achieved the designation.

“Do you think the history of the working people is important?” she asked the council.

“I’m torn both ways on this issue,” said Councilman Richard Bloom as deliberations began.

“There was really some touching irony in the presentation we heard from the residents of this courtyard about all of the people who preceded them in the building and the people living there, whom I think we would describe as having lived ordinary lives,” Bloom commented.

“Every individual brings something special into the world,” he said. “The irony is that the residents who are there now, who have spent the last year-and-a half or so carrying this battle…..are really adding to that history as we hear tonight.”

Although Bloom concluded that he would have to vote for the developer, he thanked the residents for “bringing that huge piece of information to us.”

Mayor O’Connor found the decision easier to make.

“To use the story behind the house, or home, or building as the sole criteria for historic designation, means, frankly, we would be designating most buildings more than 40 years old as landmarks in Santa Monica.,” O’Connor said.

The appeal was narrowly upheld after garnering only the necessary four votes. Council member Bobby Shriver cast the lone dissenting vote.

Not voting were Council member Kevin McKeown -- who was absent -- and Council member Ken Genser -- who excluded himself due to a conflict of interest.

Two weeks earlier, McKeown and Genser vocally defended the Landmarks Commission during a similar hearing that turned tense. (see related story)

A modest craftsman-style bungalow at 921 19th Street met the same fate in the council chambers that evening; it too will be torn down to make way for condos.

As was the case with Christie Court, the council was following the lead of City staff, who said the residence wasn’t worth saving and that the appeal should be upheld.

But while the council agreed that the commission had set the bar too low when it designated the house as a landmark, staff went a step further, not only disputing the worthiness of the structure but also calling the motives behind the commission’s decision into question.

In a report to the council, staff indicated that the Landmarks Commission was using its power “to halt development rather than as a means to protect and recognize the City’s cultural heritage… a significant policy choice and a departure from widely accepted standards.”

After the session, commissioner Genser flatly denied the charge. “We do our best job,” Genser said. “It’s not an anti-development position. We just look at the facts.”

But the question resurfaced days later when Colin Maduzia -- the only real estate agent on the commission -- resigned his position. (see related story)

Although Meduzia cited personal reasons for leaving, he had some critical words for his fellow commissioners.

“My feeling is the Landmarks Commission is heavily weighted….with people who seem to be against development,” Meduzia said. “If we overstate our reach and landmark every cute house and bungalow, then we are inhibiting change and progress.”

Meduzia’s and staff’s words bolster charges from developers, who have long accused the commission of an anti-development agenda.

The Landmarks Commission’s website lists 16 structures that were landmarked between 1975 and 1988, of which five -- fewer than a third -- appear to be residences.

Since then, 44 additional structures were either landmarked or listed as “structures of merit,” of which 33 -- or three-fourths -- appear to be residences.

Before voting in favor of Tuesday’s appeal, Councilman Bob Holbrook -- who grew up in a blue-collar family in the neighborhood near Christie Court -- said it was one of those “tough decisions” the council has to make “week after week after week.”

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