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History: There's No Escape

By Frank Gruber

I have joined two organizations recently, one new, and one that's been around awhile. The new one is the Santa Monica Conservancy, which has been formed to "help preserve Santa Monica's cultural and historic heritage."

The older organization is one I should have joined years ago, but somehow neglected to do so -- the Santa Monica Historical Society, which has recently reopened its museum on Euclid Street with an exhibition of old photographs from the archives of The Outlook.

Santa Monica's pre-history has been obliterated. It has less than two centuries of history, and only 127 years of history as a city. Its candle, however, has burnt bright. It has experienced remarkable transformations, significantly changing every generation or even every half-generation.

One reason it's important to preserve meaningful artifacts of Santa Monica's past is because so often those who love Santa Monica choose only one Santa Monica to love. We need reminders that Santa Monica has never been one thing for long, and is likely to be more things in the future.

We preserve the past because we believe in the future, not because we fear it.

The legal basis for preservation has been established in the past 50 years, since the destruction of Penn Station in New York stimulated the enactment of landmarks legislation. Landmarking is, like zoning, regulation of the use of real property.

No zoning -- or other economic regulation -- will be effective if compliance is voluntary. Because voluntary preservation will mean, in tough cases, no preservation at all, if the "Homeowners' Freedom of Choice Initiative" promoted by Homeowners for Voluntary Preservation reaches the ballot, I will vote against it.

I will not, however, be joining the political organization some members of the Santa Monica Conservancy are forming to campaign against the anti-preservation ordinance. Unfortunately, it's common for no-growthers and other people fearful of change to hijack landmarks preservation for their own purposes, and this trend has become evident in Santa Monica.

Consider the name the preservationists chose for their political organization: not something to the point, like "Save Our Landmarks," but "Save Our Neighborhoods." Also consider their rhetoric, which invokes bogeymen like "developers from outside our community" and "real estate speculators."

Santa Monica's landmarks law and the Landmarks Commission have been around for almost 30 years, and until recently they had not aroused much controversy. The Commission has been responsible and careful, even cautious, in designating landmarks, and its decisions garnered general respect.

In all the hysteria of the past year about landmarking, the Commission and its supporters could correctly point to a history of designating only a few residences as landmarks.

I haven't covered the Landmarks Commission closely enough over the years to be able to say when the change occurred, but at some recent moment landmarking became confused with "neighborhood protection." Specifically, in the north of Montana neighborhood, people on both sides of the issue started to identify landmarking as an extension of the anti-development campaign the North of Montana Association (NOMA) conducted in the late 90's against "monster mansions."

It's illuminating that in a flyer NOMA distributed to rebut claims made by the "No Historic Districts" people, NOMA said, with respect to the origin of landmarks ordinances, that "[t]hese ordinances are usually the result of local residents coming together to protect their neighborhoods from what they perceive as overdevelopment."

This hardly reflects the origin of landmarks preservation, but, in any case, north of Montana neighbors started turning in neighbors -- using the landmarks process to stymie new construction or remodels and additions.

One has to ask: are some proponents of landmarking more interested in enacting sumptuary housing laws than in protecting our historical and cultural heritage?

When I was on the Planning Commission, I supported the new zoning standards designed to reduce the size of houses north of Montana. In fact, I didn't believe the new rules went far enough to be effective, because they did not include any design controls. People do not have the right to build anything they want on their property, and the process then -- reviewing and amending development standards -- was the appropriate one for dealing with development issues.

Landmarking, however, is not the appropriate process for dealing with development.

Whether the new rules were not having the desired effect, or the people who don't want their neighbors to have big and ugly houses wanted to push their advantage, at some point anything old -- even just 40 years old -- became fair game for landmarking, regardless of its other merits, or lack of same.

If archaeologists should unearth the remains of a 700 year old Chumash refuse pit, then it should be preserved as a landmark, but given the few years of history Santa Monica has, "old" by our standards is not enough. To qualify something as a landmark, you need really old, or old plus rare, or old plus beautiful, or old plus historic.

In some cases, such as the Niemeyer house on La Mesa, you don't even need old, if you have rare, beautiful and culturally significant, but in most cases, part of being a landmark is being valuable enough to survive the decades.

If the Homeowner's Choice Initiative passes, the overreaching misuse of landmarks preservation in Santa Monica will have dealt preservation a terrible blow.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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