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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 have a
voluntary ordinance. After years of study, it was rewritten to allow landmark
designation without owner consent. According to the senior planner who
drafted the recently revised ordinance, the change was "crucial to protecting
our most significant historic buildings." In crafting the ordinance, she
added, "Santa Monica was one of the cities we looked to."

When evaluating potential landmarks, both Pasadena and Santa Monica adhere to
national standards developed by the Secretary of the Interior. Like Los
Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Jose, South Pasadena, Oakland,
Oceanside, Santa Barbara, Long Beach, Fresno and 20 other California cities,
Santa Monica does NOT have a voluntary ordinance. Nor do Ann Arbor, Boston
Chicago, Dallas, El Paso, New York, Nashville, Orlando, Philadelphia or
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 has
been slow to provide incentives for landmarking and education about its
merits. Sadly, there is still no mechanism to provide the public with useful
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 do
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 City
Council. Currently before the council is an updated list that includes
community outreach, clarifications of ordinance language, zoning waivers to
make remodeling more flexible, and streamlined city review at no cost to the
owner/applicant. Existing incentives, such as property tax relief of up to
50 percent, remain intact.

After listening to homeowners citywide, it is clear to me that many fear the
notion of imposed districts yet care deeply about preserving the few very
best examples of our city's heritage. Unfortunately, those who drafted the
Homeowners for Voluntary Preservation Initiative have both created and
co-opted the fear of historic districts to undermine the entire ordinance, in
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 designated voluntarily.

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 public
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 our community.

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
time-honored landmarking process.

Barbara Schnitzler is a Santa Monica homeowner and Landmarks Commissioner.

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