Throwing Out the Baby with the Bath Water
By Barbara Schnitzler
As a Landmarks Commissioner, I read the guest commentary by Paul DeSantis
with great interest ("Historic
Preservation -- A New Paradigm," Nov. 25). In it he suggests
that Santa Monica follow Pasadena's "pro-active" preservation
program which "proves that voluntary programs do work."
Discussing the similarities between the two mid-size Southern California
cities, he writes: "The people of Pasadena deeply care about their
rich historic, cultural, architectural and esthetic values and want
to preserve them as part of their heritage."
Unfortunately, Mr. DeSantis has his facts wrong. Pasadena does not
voluntary ordinance. After years of study, it was rewritten to allow
designation without owner consent. According to the senior planner who
drafted the recently revised ordinance, the change was "crucial
our most significant historic buildings." In crafting the ordinance,
added, "Santa Monica was one of the cities we looked to."
When evaluating potential landmarks, both Pasadena and Santa Monica
national standards developed by the Secretary of the Interior. Like
Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Jose, South Pasadena, Oakland,
Oceanside, Santa Barbara, Long Beach, Fresno and 20 other California
Santa Monica does NOT have a voluntary ordinance. Nor do Ann Arbor,
Chicago, Dallas, El Paso, New York, Nashville, Orlando, Philadelphia
Portland, to name just a few of the cities nationwide that do not require
owner consent to confer landmark status.
Mr. DeSantis is correct in noting that, unlike Pasadena, Santa Monica
been slow to provide incentives for landmarking and education about
merits. Sadly, there is still no mechanism to provide the public with
information or to clarify the inflammatory distortions that have circulated
in recent months. (To this day, many people still believe the Landmarks
Commission must approve interior changes to historic homes. FALSE! Nor
designated homes lose value. In fact, studies show they gain value
disproportionately to homes in similar neighborhoods.)
Seeking to address some of these shortcomings, a subcommittee of the
Landmarks Commission last year submitted a list of recommendations to
Council. Currently before the council is an updated list that includes
community outreach, clarifications of ordinance language, zoning waivers
make remodeling more flexible, and streamlined city review at no cost
owner/applicant. Existing incentives, such as property tax relief of
50 percent, remain intact.
After listening to homeowners citywide, it is clear to me that many
notion of imposed districts yet care deeply about preserving the few
best examples of our city's heritage. Unfortunately, those who drafted
Homeowners for Voluntary Preservation Initiative have both created and
co-opted the fear of historic districts to undermine the entire ordinance,
essence, throwing out the baby with the bath water.
Had Santa Monica had a voluntary ordinance in place, would we still
have the Pier, the Carousel or homes by Oscar Neimeyer, John Byers,
Paul Williams, Lloyd Wright or Frank Gehry? Would we still have the
Gillis house, or the two homes built by our
founding father Roy Jones? Sadly, the answer could be no. Most landmarked
properties in Santa Monica -- there are 42 to be exact -- have been
Last month, the Merle Norman building on Main Street came before the
commission and this month a private home on Georgina will. Both owners
have sought to distinguish their properties by requesting landmark designation.
VOLUNTARY IS WONDERFUL. But it is not enough. Despite an international
pedigree, the only reason the Neimeyer house on La Mesa Drive still
stands is because Santa Monica has an ordinance with the authority to
designate without owner consent.
At the behest of City Council, the Landmarks Commission has held two
meetings to come up with recommendations for another initiative. Significantly,
the alternate proposal would assure that landmarking continue as it
has for 25 years, but require the consent of 51 percent of involved
property owners to create a district. Just like Pasadena!
In the end, landmarking has nothing to do with "good renters/bad
apartment owners" or "good workers/bad business leaders,"
or any combination of the above. In suggesting that it does, Mr. DeSantis
perpetuates the "sick, divisive paradigm" he says has warped
If City Council decides to put a second initiative on the ballot in
March, it will not be about who wins the initiative race. It will be
about giving the voters a well-considered option that promotes both
personal prerogatives and the
Barbara Schnitzler is a Santa Monica homeowner and Landmarks Commissioner.
time-honored landmarking process.