The LookOut columns What I Say
The Grade is Gradual, but It’s Icy Up There
By Frank Gruber
June 20, 2011 -- Last Monday night the slope was slippery when the Landmarks Commission considered the fate of 316 Adelaide Drive, the pink Spanish Colonial Revival house overlooking Santa Monica Canyon that renowned architect Frank Gehry wants to turn into a new house for his family. Would the commissioners slide down the ridge and lower further the standards of what qualifies as a landmark in Santa Monica?
First, a few words about the house. It was constructed in 1919, but in 1980 it was substantially remodeled, and only the north wing facing Adelaide survived historically intact. Among other things, the remodel changed the original courtyard; which was unfortunate, given that the architects of the building were known for their interpretations of the Spanish courtyard.
Echoing a consultant’s report, planning staff recommended to the commissioners that they landmark the north wing. This would have had the effect, however, that any future work on the property, even work that did not touch the north wing, would require review by the commission to determine its “appropriateness.”
This put the commissioners in a quandary. Although Mr. Gehry was willing to covenant that his work would not touch the north wing, he wanted freedom to do what he wanted on the rest of the property. In turn, commissioners, no doubt reluctant to have to determine whether Mr. Gehry’s work in any context would be “appropriate,” said they had no desire to “do design review” on his house.
But the commission’s precedents made it difficult to landmark even part of the building and forego the review process; as Commission Chair John Berley reminded his colleagues, they couldn’t make an exception to their policies based on the renown of the property owner.
So there they were, perched on an icy ledge. Maybe a north wind was howling, too. Planning staff advised creating another landmark, to preserve the north wing until the end of time, and Commissioner Nina Fresco made a motion to do that. But something happened; the motion died without a second.
What happened was that the commission applied some judgment. Call it strapping on crampons. The break occurred when Commissioner Barbara Kaplan screwed up her courage and told the other commissioners that given the alterations that had occurred and its resulting lack of “integrity,” she could not see the house or any part of it as a landmark.
Hallelujah. One-by-one, the other commissioners, including Ms. Fresco, agreed; the most telling comments came from longtime commissioner Ruthann Lehrer, who said she could not recall any prior instance of the commission landmarking such a compromised building, and that she didn’t see the need in this case to lower the standard.
This case is just one of many, but it shows the problems with the current landmark system. The commission has to rely on the expertise of staff and outside experts, but psychologically it is difficult for a consultant in this situation, where the commission has asked for a review of a property, not to find a landmark. Who wants to be the consultant who says an old building is not worth preserving forever, who then finds out that the commission disagrees?
I am not saying that consultants (or commissioners) always succumb to the pressure. One of the saving graces of landmarking in Santa Monica is that decisions of the commission can be appealed to the City Council, and one of our council members for many years, Pam O’Connor, is herself a historic preservation expert who, in the interest of preserving the validity of historic preservation, has preserved for herself a skeptical eye. She’s often persuaded her colleagues to reverse the commission.
But the pressures are there. In most cases, there is no “cost,” political or otherwise, not to landmark a building that someone finds charming, and there’s also a sense that doing so is evidence of civic virtue. Once a consultant says something should be a landmark, who wants to be the commissioner who says no? People don’t volunteer to serve on the Landmarks Commission to not preserve landmarks.
It is a serious business, however, to tell the future what it can’t do.
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As, of course, the Landmarks Commission found out Tuesday night when the City Council told James Corner and the other designers of the Town Square in front of City Hall to ignore the commission’s instructions about what was “appropriate.” I don’t have much to add to The Lookout’s story on the hearing ("City Council Sends Town Square Back for Redesign," June 20, 2011), except that I want to emphasize how the council members made it clear that the Landmarks commissioners had missed the point of the historical meaning of the City Hall site.
While the commissioners focused on aesthetics, both in general, by invoking the City Beautiful movement, and in particular, by obsessing over details like the color of paving or the species and locations of trees, the council members focused on purpose. Their view was that the historical legacy of the site involved how it engaged, or should engage, the public more than how it looked. If the site was doing a bad job of civic engagement, it was okay to try something new, even if that means finding a new location, other than the rose garden, for honoring Santa Monica’s war dead.
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Longtime readers of this column may have guessed why I haven’t written much about the pending deals between the City and the owners of Yahoo! Center and Saint John’s Medical Center to amend their respective development agreements to allow the former to provide parking to the latter so that the latter does not now have to build a parking structure. ("City Council Amends DA for Yahoo Center Parking," June 16, 2011 and "Planning Commission Approves Saint Johns DA Amendment," June 17, 2011)
The reason is that anyone who has read this column even casually knows that the last thing I would support is the building of unneeded parking. One of the reasons the U.S. is broke today is all the money we’ve wasted over the decades on parking. It’s ironic that the “no-growth” community in Santa Monica is against this deal -- why is it that they’re against all development except parking structures? And if they’re so much against traffic congestion, why do they want to build more parking anyway?
As I listened last Tuesday night, when the council voted to support the amendments to the Yahoo! Center development agreement, to all the angry residents wondering about how much money the greedy owners of the property were making from leasing out their surplus parking spaces, I wondered if any of them ever stopped to think that maybe we wouldn’t be having this problem if 30 years ago, when the City approved the project, the City hadn’t required the original developers to spend a ton of money building 1,000 more spaces than they needed?
I don’t know what an underground space cost then, but today the estimated cost is a minimum of $40,000; 1,000 spaces would cost $40 million. The cost of amortizing a $40,000 space is more than $200 a month. According to information provided by the attorney for the property owners, car dealerships today pay between $60 and $100 a month to park a car at Yahoo! Center. For years these spaces were unused.
Today the money the car dealerships and Saint John’s are paying for parking at Yahoo! Center looks like found money, but do we expect that the owners of what was originally called Colorado Place ever made back, from parking fees, what it cost to build the spaces?
Does it make sense to require Saint John’s to spend that kind of money now?