The LookOut Letters to the Editor
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Historic Preservation -- A New Paradigm

By Paul DeSantis

On Tuesday, the Santa Monica Landmarks Commission held a quasi-secret meeting with City staff to prepare an initiative to thwart the recently qualified homeowner initiative. The unanswered question is: Will the program be voluntary?

Pasadena's successful preservation program proves that voluntary programs do work. Pasadena, like Santa Monica, is a mid-size Southern California city. 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.

Pasadena created a Design and Historic Preservation program with Cultural Heritage Review for demolition of structures 50 years or older. The definitions of what constitutes landmarks and historic districts are similar in Pasadena and Santa Monica, but the philosophies and policies of these two cities are worlds apart.

Pasadena's pro-active program relies exclusively on education and incentives. Pasadena will not designate a house as a landmark without the owner's consent nor designate a neighborhood as an historic district without a majority vote of the owners.

Pasadena's hard work on public education has produced abundant information, available in several city publications, including some in Spanish, and an excellent preservation web site with extensive, useful information. Pasadena's voluntary system works. It has preserved nearly 50 landmarks and created several historic districts.

Santa Monica relies on government controls and penalties. Santa Monica may designate a house as a landmark without the owner's consent and designate historic districts without the consent of the homeowners. It is revealing that Santa Monica does not have a strong education program -- or even a preservation Web site -- although our government is wealthier per capita than Pasadena and could afford these services.

The Landmarks Commission's quasi-secret Tuesday "working meeting" used City resources at taxpayer expense to create a proposal to defeat the homeowners initiative. The Commission's decision to reform its Byzantine bureaucratic process is welcome but why did it take a homeowners' initiative to correct these well-known defects?

Apparently, the Commission will recommend a few incentives, which is also welcome. Philosophically, however, the Commission appears unprepared to embrace a voluntary program, despite Pasadena's obvious success. What is anathema about a voluntary program?

Santa Monica's collective consciousness has been warped by over two decades of negative indoctrination. This has created enormous distrust. For a generation, we have been bombarded with a sick, divisive paradigm with messages like these:

Renters=Good/Apartment Owners=Bad
Workers=Good/Business leaders=Bad
Compulsion=Good/Incentives=Won't Work
and the zero-sum classic, "Good for Homeowners=Bad for Santa Monica."

Ironically, Santa Monica's only historic district was voluntary! The homeowners voluntarily asked to become an historic district. Unfortunately, even our own success with voluntary participation cannot overcome two decades of zero-sum indoctrination that "Good for Homeowners=Bad for Santa Monica."

Anyone who dares to say that voluntary programs are better, is automatically dismissed as a "selfish homeowner, greedy developer, carpetbagger or irresponsible real estate interest." Undisputed facts, such as Pasadena's success and the success of our own voluntary historic district, mean nothing to those trapped within the old zero-sum paradigm that "Good for Homeowners=Bad for Santa Monica."

The truth is terribly unsettling: Santa Monica does not know how to design a voluntary program. It takes a very different mind-set to make a voluntary program successful. Our non-consumer-friendly City Hall is enmeshed in the old paradigm of penalties and coercion, which is rooted in fear of the people. City Hall views the call for a paradigm shift to a voluntary approach as an alien, even threatening idea.

Fortunately, Pasadena operates within a positive paradigm. Pasadena has a strong, healthy, democratic government and a "politically legitimate" City Council that takes pride in being a consumer-friendly City Hall. Council members are independent thinkers who look for pragmatic solutions, which balance the good a policy will achieve against the harm it will cause to others.

Let us learn from Pasadena's successful, voluntary Design and Historic Preservation program. When people trust people and trust in their own ability to work with each other, people can create successful voluntary programs.

It is time to take courage and bravely embark on a new, positive paradigm based upon trust and mutual respect, where "Good for Homeowners and Good for Santa Monica" prevails.

Paul DeSantis is a real estate attorney and local activist.

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