L.A. Discovers Historic Preservation, and Promptly Goes Overboard

Nobody told Ellen Alperstein her house was listed as a landmark until she tried to sell it.

 
 

The home of actor Bob Hope in Toluca Lake, Calif., 2003.
The home of actor Bob Hope in Toluca Lake, Calif., 2003. PHOTO: FRED PROUSER/REUTERS
 

Los Angeles once had a reputation for tearing down buildings without consideration of historical merit. No longer. Today only New York exceeds Los Angeles in the number of structures covered by historical designation. The trend extends throughout Los Angeles County, which contains 88 distinct local governments. That’s a victory for history, but not for homeowners, who say this patchwork of preservation programs has depressed housing prices and complicated sales.

Ellen Alperstein’s 1905 Santa Monica beach cottage has been on her city’s “historic resources inventory” for nearly a decade. But she only discovered this in January—after she accepted an offer from a buyer. (Los Angeles homeowners are not informed when their homes are listed on historic inventories, which include photos of homes as well as property descriptions.) When the historical designation surfaced, the buyer fled, knowing it would hamper demolition. Ms. Alperstein sold the home a few months later to someone with keener historical interests, though for about 20% less than the first offer.

“I believe in the importance of preservation—cities have an obligation to protect structures of historic value—but I was sandbagged,” Ms. Alperstein told me. “I realized I was going to spend my retirement fighting to save my retirement. If a home is deemed that historically valuable, you can’t expect a homeowner to donate it. Government should compensate you for the loss of your investment.”

A few states have laws requiring precisely that. In Arizona, thanks to a ballot initiative passed in 2006, landowners must be reimbursed when government regulations, such as historical designations, hit their property values. A 1995 Florida law provides similar relief.

“Your average Joe Homeowner doesn’t have the money, resources, or energy to fight city hall,” Christina Sandefur, executive vice president of the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute, said in an interview. “The scales always tip in the favor of preservation. Laws like these force the government and community to determine whether so-called preservation is really worth it—because currently, the cost is always borne by the property owner.”

The Goldwater Institute wants to take these kinds of protections national. It drafted a bill, the Property Ownership Fairness Act, that if passed by Congress would require governments to pay fair compensation for regulatory “takings,” except when they are needed to protect public health or safety. For example, a local government could compel homeowners to fix structurally unsound roofing that could harm pedestrians. The bill would also mandate that private property may be taken only for “truly public uses,” language aimed at the Supreme Court’s much maligned 2005 decision in Kelo v. City of New London.

Los Angeles is taking its own steps toward reform. One problem has been that anyone can file a landmark nomination for a house, leading to a public review hearing, without anyone ever having informed the homeowner what is happening. Ken Bernstein, L.A.’s principal city planner, acknowledged that it’s true homeowners can be “blindsided” by the process. The Department of City Planning proposed amendments to the city’s Cultural Heritage Ordinance earlier this year to fix the untoward practice. Homeowners would receive earlier notification of a landmark nomination—when it is “deemed complete,” said Mr. Bernstein. Stays on demolition and alteration permits would also be moved up to match that notification. He expects the city council to approve the amendment by the year’s end.

Backers of historical preservation can also be overzealous, Ms. Sandefur said, giving homeowners the impression that there are no set rules. Consider the fate of Bob Hope’s 1939 estate in Toluca Lake. Hope and his wife had directed that the property be sold after their deaths and the money given to charity. But last year a would-be buyer, already in escrow, applied for a demolition inspection permit for a pool house and garage. When word of the demolition permit reached David Ryu, a Los Angeles city councilman, he introduced emergency legislation to landmark the property.

 

That set off a hurried political battle. The city’s Cultural Heritage Commission, after hearing the charitable plan for the sale proceeds, voted in November against preservation. The City Council failed to override that decision in a February vote. Meanwhile, the pending sale fell through and other potential buyers were scared off.

It also must be said, however, that careless demolition by homeowners helped create today’s problems. Some cities had their preservation ordinances tightened about 15 years ago, after several high-profile homes were willfully razed. The standout example was a modernist house in Rancho Mirage, designed in 1962 by the famed architect Richard Neutra. A man named Richard Rotenberg bought the home for $2.45 million in 2002. Within weeks, without any explanation, he had it demolished. He sold the empty lot after about a year, leaving a scar on the land. The architectural world went apoplectic.

Every city ought to work to preserve its historical architecture, which does nothing less than tell the area’s evolving story. But preservation should not trample on homeowners’ rights to receive fair market value for their property. Ms. Alperstein bought her house nearly 30 years ago, and the reduced sale price put a significant dent in her savings. “I bought that house to secure my future,” she said. “My retirement is less secure because of that one step taken without my knowledge.”

Mr. Foster is a writer in Los Angeles.

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