Neighbors in Echo Park battle developer with landmark nomination — and win

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The Los Angeles City Council saved a collection of pre-World War II bungalows in Echo Park from looming demolition — the latest victory for residents fighting development they say frays neighborhood character.

Council members on Tuesday voted to grant historic-cultural monument status to Wurfl Court, named after the MGM prop man who built them. The designation gives the seven bungalows off of Sunset Avenue a reprieve from the wrecking ball for up to a year, and subjects any future building plans by owner Bixel House LLC to city review.  

"I think this is a very prominent bungalow court," said Lena Kouyoumdjian, who lives at Wurfl Court and nominated it for historic status. "A move to protect this one is a move to protect the whole area."

Bixel House, which had planned to build a dozen single-lot homes on the property, can appeal the decision. Principal Sam Mark did not return calls for comment. 

Writer Lena Kouyoumdjian successfully won historic status for the Echo Park bungalow court she calls home.
Writer Lena Kouyoumdjian successfully won historic status for the Echo Park bungalow court she calls home. Courtesy of Lena Kouyoumdjian

In recent years, residents around L.A. have helped pushed for - and won - historic designation for various residential buildings.

Ken Bernstein, senior planner for the city, said by e-mail that historic status nominations have not risen “in absolute numbers," but there's been a change in who the applicants are, “with a few more reflecting nominations submitted by active community members seeking to preserve potentially threatened properties.”

The Los Angeles Conservancy said residents have been spurred to action by a heated real estate market in desirable neighborhoods such as Echo Park. Developers have been buying up older properties, sometimes with the intent to demolish and rebuild.

Adrian Scott Fine, the group's director of advocacy, said historic nominations are probably the best tool available for would-be preservationists.

"It sends a message to a neighborhood and helps others wake up to what they have," Fine said. "Sometimes developers and property owners who didn't value the buildings, they see it in a different light." 

Fine said of late, many of the nominations have been for multi-family housing like Wurfl Court, due to a growing recognition of their importance to the city.

"A lot of people are living in these buildings,"  Fine said. "So when they go, not only do we lose a great historic building but we potentially lose really important affordable housing stock."

Fine said he's sympathetic to owners caught off guard by neighborhood preservation efforts. But he urged them to assess ahead of their purchase as to whether the property could be deemed historic, especially if they are considering demolition. 

The effort to save the bungalows follows the demolition of another Echo Park property, the Abbott Everett House built in 1905. Although nominated for historic status in hopes of preserving it, the house was razed before the city could hold a hearing on the application.

For Kouyoumdjian, the the nomination process for Wurfl Court started a year ago after she heard Bixel House planned to demolish the bungalows.

The idea "came via just Googling ways to protect historic buildings and what a random person could do to submit a nomination," Kouyoumdjian said.

The seven bungalows in Wurfl Court will be saved from imminent demolition.
The seven bungalows in Wurfl Court will be saved from imminent demolition. Josie Huang/KPCC

She quickly found support from other Echo Park residents, who signed a petition and sent written testimony to the council and commissions hearing the issue. The potential loss of Wurfl Court drove Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell in part to propose this month that the city take another look at zoning in Echo Park, he said. 

Now, Kouyoumdjian said, she’s getting requests for help from other residents around the city. Her advice has been simple.

"Just don’t be scared of doing it," Kouyoumdjian said. "I know it seems like a lot of work but it was also so rewarding." 

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