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Civic Still a Landmark

By Teresa Rochester

April 10 -- The Civic Auditorium is still a landmark despite an effort by Councilman Herb Katz to strip the 44-year-old building of its designation to ensure greater control of the site, as the City embarks on transforming the Civic Center area.

The City Council Tuesday night voted 6 to 1 to uphold the Landmarks Commission's November decision to grant the auditorium landmark status. Katz, who filed the appeal in December, cast the lone dissenting vote.

An architect, Katz said he wasn't arguing or doubting the architectural or historical significance of the auditorium. "I really wanted something in there for the flexibility for the interior of the auditorium," he said after casting his vote.

The basis of Katz's appeal of the Landmarks Commission decision was what he called the restrictive nature of the designation, which could curtail future improvements and modifications to a building that sits in an area targeted for redevelopment under the Civic Center Specific Plan.

"This needs to be a less restrictive designation to allow greater freedom in our Civic Center planning and use and to help conserve our citizen's monies to be used in the project," Katz's written appeal states.

But supporters of the building - including Landmark Commissioners, members of the Los Angeles Conservancy and the son of the auditorium's architect - urged the council to keep the Civic a landmark.

The landmark designation, supporters argued, only meant that any decisions to change the auditorium would be weighed carefully to make sure modifications didn't compromise its architectural integrity.

"I think what the designation means is that changes will be scrutinized," said Landmarks Commissioner Barbara Schnitzler.

The International-Style building was designed by Santa Monica-based architect Welton Beckett (whom Katz once worked with in the early 1960s) and is already under consideration for a National Designation. Beckett, known as a proponent of the jet-age style -- also designed the Capitol Records building and the Cineramadome.

"His (Welton's) futuristic themes marked a new way of thinking," proclaimed Alan Lieb of the L.A. Conservancy's modern committee.

But Katz's supporters -- who included architects, an arts commissioner and a RAND engineer -- argued that the ability to shape the building's future would be hindered by the designation and that the restrictive guidelines for renovating a Landmark would prove costly for the City.

"The building speaks to the need of flexibility and the need not to straightjacket what we can do to this building," said former planning commissioner Eric Parlee. "We're not advocating tearing it down altogether, except as a last resort."

Greg Spotts, who sits on the Arts Commission, pointed out that uses for the auditorium are still up in the air and that while the building at one point served as a lightening rod for top entertainers, "the current use pattern is not at an all time high."

Council members quickly shot down the appeal. They argued their vote could only be cast if they felt the building was not historic.

Councilwoman Pam O'Connor, who represents owners of historic buildings, said there was a tremendous misunderstanding of what the designation meant. In an uncharacteristically long speech, O'Connor gave numerous examples of landmark buildings - including City Hall - that have undergone renovations.

"It's not about freezing a building in time," O'Connor said. "We're just saying it's an important building, and we're just making thoughtful choices."

Katz again reiterated that he just wanted the City's options to be flexible when it came to modifying the inside of the building, whose hydraulic floor and lobbies were designated as landmarks as well.

"I want to make sure we have flexibility within this building," Katz said. "I want it to be able to change within itself."

Katz tried to attach an amendment ensuring that features could be modified, but Councilman Ken Genser pointed out that the council could not just waive the landmark law.

Before public testimony could begin, the council debated the appropriateness of Katz staying on the dais and voting on the appeal, since he had filed it. Ultimately it was decided, with the City Attorney's input, that Katz could vote on the appeal if he waived his chance to give an oral argument.

Genser, a longtime political foe of Katz's, raised the issue and argued that if Katz was not going to present his appeal, then there wasn't an appeal to vote on. But it was noted that a precedent had been set by council members who filed appeals for residents who could not afford the filing fee.
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