Business & Economy

New rules seek to spare LA's historic homes from wrecking ball

The Abbott Everett House before it was demolished to make way for apartments.
The Abbott Everett House before it was demolished to make way for apartments.
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Last year, some Echo Park residents tried to save a 110-year-old hilltop house from being razed to make way for an apartment complex. They nominated the building for historic status in hopes of preserving it.

But before city official had time to take up the nomination, the developer had razed the building.

"Sometimes owners preemptively demolish a building before it can be considered by the Cultural Heritage Commission," said Ken Bernstein, the city's senior planner.

On Tuesday, the City Council's Planning and Land Use Management Committee voted to advance a proposal that could buy more time for some of these buildings. City staff is recommending that buildings nominated for "historic-cultural monument" status be granted a stay from demolition as soon as an application is complete. Right now, protections don’t kick in until city officials hold a hearing.

Bernstein says this change could extend the stay from demolition by up to 20 days.

The proposal would also alert property owners sooner to their neighbors' preservation efforts. Instead of being told after the first hearing on the nomination, owners would be notified after staff deemed an application complete.

"Many property owners feel blindsided not only by the nomination itself but also by the later realization that they weren't able to participate in the first public hearing that was affecting their own property," Bernstein said.

Following the vote by the council's planning panel, the proposal will head to the full council for a vote.

Fred Sutton, who represents landlords for the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, said the group had not taken a position on the proposal other than being committed to an "open and transparent" review process. He added that the group's focus is creating more housing to meet the region's shortage.

"Really, as an organization, we're trying to bring supply to this market," Sutton said.

Bernstein said there have been several instances during his tenure in which developers demolished homes under consideration for historic status. In Van Nuys, the oldest house was razed in 2007 to clear space for condos.

A more recent victim of the wrecking ball was the Abbott Everett House in Echo Park, built in 1905. Neighbors were worried about the proposed apartment project that was to be built in its stead, something they feared would be too big and out of character. Their hope was that historic status would protect the building for at least a year if not more.

Historic status gives the city's Cultural Heritage Commission the right to grant a 180-day stay of demolition. The City Council can stay demolition for another 180 days. The city could also order an environmental report looking at the impact of a demolition, which could bolster arguments to save the building.

But in the case of the Abbott Everett House, developer Brad Weinstock had the building demolished before the city could hold a hearing. 

Planning staff had actually recommended against granting the building historic status.

"Nevertheless," Bernstein said, "we want to see any nomination have its day before the commission and have both sides be considered."

This story has been updated.