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Frank Gruber

Historical? Hysterical?

By Frank Gruber

For the second time in two weeks the Santa Monica City Council was asked not to make a decision.

Two weeks ago it was Superintendent of Schools Dianne Talarico who asked the council not to decide whether the school district was entitled to that well-chronicled $530,000 until she could investigate whether the District had complied with the council's conditions. []

Then last week it was Michael Folonis, architect for Third Street homeowner Mark Woollen, who asked the council not to decide whether Mr. Woollen's proposed addition to his property in the Third Street Historic District was compatible with the district's guidelines, but rather to remand the case back to the Landmarks Commission. []

I hope the council members don't take this personally. But not to worry: from the attitude four council members expressed toward the sponsors of the RIFT initiative (who in effect want to take away the council's decision-making power over land use planning by outflanking the process to update the land use and circulation elements (LUCE) of the general plan), it appears that the council is going to defend zealously its role in that area. (See story

LUCE may be the most important land use issue in the city, but just to show that even all local politics is really really local, the more than 65 people who showed up two weeks ago to testify about Mr. Woollen's project were by my recollection at least 20 more than the biggest number who have ever shown up at a council meeting to testify about LUCE.

I've been following the Woollen project ever since last fall, when I attended a Landmarks Commission meeting expecting that the main issue would be the downtown trees. I found, however, even more fury about Mr. Woollen's proposed contemporary re-do of the building in the back of his property. The fury was aimed not only at the project, but also at the commission, because some neighbors had been mightily vexed by encouragement the commission had previously given Mr. Woollen to continue developing the project.

I attended another commission meeting about the project, and I also watched most of the testimony at the council meeting two weeks ago. I have to agree with those council members, such as Richard Bloom, who have said that the anger between the neighbors overshadows the substance of the issues.

I don't pretend to know whose fault the anger is -- "who started it." But compare the vehemence over this project with the comparative sweetness and light that characterized a more stark dispute over the commission's recent decision to permit a contemporary home to be built on Second Street [], and the council's subsequent approval of that decision.

You have to think that Mr. Bloom was right to suggest mediation between Mr. Woollen and his neighbors.

This doesn't mean that the substantive issues implicated by the Woollen project aren't important and complex. As Council Member Pam O'Connor said last week, historic preservation is not the field to be in if "you want things to be black and white."

The project is particularly "gray." Watching the testimony at the April 22 meeting, I went back and forth. Numerous people I respect spoke on opposite sides -- for example architects and public-minded residents Hank Koning, who supported the project, and Mario Fonda-Bonardi, who opposed it.

Last week I cited Landmarks Commissioner John Berley's analysis to support the project. Both of Mr. Berley's reasons for approving it -- that standards in historic districts had to be flexible to encourage property owners to form them, and that this project was removed far enough from the street not to have much of an impact to the district -- were disputed by some neighbors and council members.

But to me both reasons hold up after more scrutiny.

Actually, I can't speak for what motivates a property owner in a potential district, but I know what I believe as a resident of the city. I'm all for the City creating historic districts where the existing buildings justify it, but when I walk in that district I want to know that I'm not going to be fooled by what's historic and what's not. And no, I don't live in the district -- but I don't consider myself a "carpetbagger" because I have an opinion about what gets built there.

It's not that I would support new buildings that overwhelm or distract from the old buildings, but I want them to be clearly different. To me, this means the standards have to be "flexible," at least if, as some testimony indicated, some preservationist neighbors would only accept neo-traditionalism.

But there is a big difference in potential "compatibility" between the contemporary architecture of, say, Frank Gehry's use of chain-link on his house and the neo-modernist wood siding that characterizes Mr. Folonis' design for Mr. Woollen.

Yet I also believe that the defenders of the Woollen project made too much of a presumed antipathy towards contemporary architecture that I don't believe predominates among the neighbors.

For instance, take Bea Nemlaha, one of the leaders of the neighbors involved in the district. Back in 2004 I attended a commission meeting (and wrote a column about it
) where Ms. Nemlaha herself proposed a contemporary replacement for her old garage. [Jorge -- could you look at this link -- for some reason my bio is included on the page before the column])

As vehemently as Ms. Nemlaha has argued against the Woollen project in her letters to the Lookout, it seems simplistic to take her argument as one categorically against contemporary architecture, since suggested it for her own project.

Nonetheless, the role of contemporary architecture in historic contexts is one that preservationists debate extensively all the time. While most of the neighbors may not want only imitative, traditional architecture in the district, it might help with developing standards if they would point to instances where a contemporary architect added something they admire to a historic context.

As for the location of the Woollen project in relation to the district, the more I studied the project the more convinced I am that Commissioner Berley's analysis was correct.

Council Members Ken Genser and Richard Bloom were both troubled by the impact of the view on the neighbors to the north, but looking at the plans I don't get their concern, unless it's based on a misreading of the north elevation. The problem with elevations, such as the north side elevation included in the Lookout's story about the meeting, is that they make everything look equally large notwithstanding how faraway they are. I.e., there's no perspective.

Most of the proposed building that is close to the north property line has the size and shape of the existing two story building -- it runs about 20 feet east-west and in fact has a slightly reduced height.

Mr. Folonis' design added about eight feet along the setback line, about half of which is window, but the bulk of the new addition to the building is a second story that may appear massive from the elevation, but which is almost 30 feet south of the property line. At that distance this new clad-in-wood-siding second floor, which is now infamous, courtesy of Ms. Nemlaha's letters, as "the Cantilever," would not loom depressingly over anyone standing on the property to the north.

The Cantilevere is in fact a good example of an architectural feature that would not work in the district if it were on the street, but given that as designed it would not be visible from the street, it's hard to attribute the vehemence of the response it evoked to anything other than either a visceral reaction to its size or else -- as mentioned above -- a clash of neighborhood personalities.

Council Member Kevin McKeown made an argument that under the district's guidelines the project should have been evaluated as the construction of a new house rather than as an addition, but reading the guidelines I don't find a big difference. Most of the guidelines relating to new construction wouldn't apply because they address issues of how the new building would relate to the street.

The design would seem to satisfy the new-building guidelines that would be applicable, including the one that mandates setbacks, building shapes, etc., that are similar to surrounding contributing buildings, both for the reasons discussed above and because the properties on both the east and south sides have existing two story buildings close to the property lines.

Back to the drawing board. Or maybe first to counseling.

* * *

Well, the other shoe dropped regarding the school district's Tim Walker.

I talked to him last year regarding the settlement agreements. He impressed me as one who sincerely believed they were a good solution to the problem that arose when a special needs child's parents fundamentally disagreed with the district as to what services were appropriate.

But it seems that this was a case where what was meant to be the exception -- settlement agreements -- overtook the rule, which is supposed to the more transparent and collaborative individual education plan process.

Now let's hope that this management change leads to the healing that everyone says they want.

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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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