May 28, 2014 - From the June, 2014 issue

LA Conservancy’s Linda Dishman Chronicles Preservation Successes/Priorities in LA County

The LA Conservancy, charged with recognizing, preserving, and revitalizing historic structures throughout LA County, debuted its new digital report card to evaluate the 88 cities and county on preservation. TPR spoke with Linda Dishman, the Conservancy’s executive director, to learn more about the report card process and discuss the organization’s current priorities. Dishman shared the Conservancy’s perspective on Mayor Garcetti’s budget, the status of Bringing Back Broadway, and the health of her organization.


Linda Dishman (by Shari Belafonte)

“Los Angeles was such an optimistic, growing, city-of-the-future. ’60s buildings really exemplify that attitude.” -Linda Dishman

“More than 15 neighborhoods are in the process of becoming [Historic Preservation Overlay Zones], and some of them have been waiting for up to 12 years to become locally designated. Without additional staff, that can’t happen.” -Linda Dishman

The LA Conservancy chose this year to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Union Station by holding its annual dinner in the restored station.  Elaborate on the synergy of that choice of location, as well as the Conservancy’s mission to preserve and revitalize LA County historic architecture and cultural resources.

Linda Dishman: The Conservancy has worked very closely with Metro since they bought Union Station. We’ve been really pleased, first of all, with their enthusiasm for Union Station as the centerpiece of the new master plan they’re going through the process of creating right now. I think Metro really understands and celebrates what makes Union Station so special. They have designed what’s going to happen in the space, and beyond it, to include higher-speed transportation and hopefully increased numbers of people coming through, with the station as the centerpiece of this great new vision.

Metro is also investing in the building itself. If you go to Union Station now, one of the great things you’ll notice is that the glass windows and doors in the ticket concourse have been beautifully restored. They just sparkle. It’s always a great thing for an owner to take care of buildings. But especially at the 75th anniversary, they really did a careful and thorough job of restoring the building and bringing all of its best qualities out.

Linda, since so much of Los Angeles’ growth occurred post-World War II, including the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, how does latter building stock affect the Conservancy’s historic preservation priorities? 

One of things that we found in trying to save the Century Plaza Hotel is that people aren’t quite sure that buildings from the ’60s can be historic yet. I think it has to do with the fact that many people saw these places being constructed, so they think, “These buildings can’t really be old, because that means I’m old.” Appreciation is not always as rapid as it would be for an Art Deco building or a Craftsman bungalow. 

What we found about the Century Plaza is that these mid-sixties buildings—not all of them, but a lot—tell a really important story about Los Angeles. I think this is really significant. Los Angeles was such an optimistic, growing, city-of-the-future.’60s buildings really exemplify that attitude. 

When we’re getting into the ’70s and ’80s, there’s a different dynamic taking place. One of the things I found really interesting in Survey LA is that they’re not picking up that much from the ’70s—either it’s been altered or demolished. 

When we last spoke in late 2012, you noted the Century Plaza as a top priority. What today—a year and a half later—are the historic preservation priorities for the LA Conservancy?

Linda Dishman: I think that one of the really significant priorities for us is trying to get more ordinances in cities across the county. This is something we’ve been working on for the last 10 years, but we really want to amp up our efforts. 

One of the ways that we’ve done that is to revamp how we create a preservation report card for the cities throughout Los Angeles County. This year we did a digital report card that just came out several months ago on our website. It features all 89 local governments—that’s the 88 cities and the county government—and evaluates them on such things as whether they have a survey, whether they have an ordinance, whether they have the Mills Act preservation incentive, and whether they’ve designated any local landmarks. 

The report card is a great way to get a read on how places throughout the county are doing on preservation. The bad news is that more than half of the cities in the county have nothing. There are absolutely no protections.

Could you share the metrics of your report card, and the importance of preservation to the building fabric of cities in metro Los Angeles?

One of the things we did with the new report card was to create very standardized results. In the past, it was a little less clear to the cities being evaluated why they got the grade they did, so we wanted to make the evaluation very transparent. 

A new point-based scoring system makes all the grades clear and consistent, so cities can see where they’ve made progress and where they can improve. Let’s look at Beverly Hills—one of our most improved candidates on this current report card. Previously, they had done a survey but they didn’t have a preservation ordinance, they had never designated any buildings, and they didn’t have the Mills Act. That gave them a very low grade in the past. But in the intervening years, they have adopted a very good preservation ordinance, they designated over a dozen landmarks in their first year, they’re updating their survey, and they have the Mills Act. The City of Beverly Hills got an A+ this year. The report card looks at the components of local preservation that give people the tools to save buildings in these communities. 

As you noted, the Conservancy’s report card gave very good grades to Beverly Hills, Culver City, the City of LA, Pasadena, Santa Monica, and West Hollywood. On the other hand, failing grades were reported for: LA County, Malibu, Palmdale, and Norwalk, among others. To shed light on your grading, what distinguishes West Hollywood—which used to be part of unincorporated LA County—and LA County on your report card?

The most substantial difference is that West Hollywood has an ordinance. Most of the cities that were identified as “F” have no ordinance whatsoever. The County of Los Angeles has no ordinance that would allow people to designate their buildings locally or take advantage of the Mills Act, but they are working on an ordinance to get the Mills Act right now.  When you look at the unincorporated parts of the county, it’s a huge, huge area—not the equivalent of West Hollywood. We’re talking about significant landmass here, with some really great historic buildings. In Altadena and View Park, there’s no ordinance. Stretches of the coastline are unprotected in terms of their historic buildings. 

Report card grades really get down to having the tools at the city to be able to recognize and protect these structures, and hopefully provide incentives for preservation by using the Mills Act. It’s important to note, though, that a high grade doesn’t mean a city is doing everything right. West Hollywood, for instance, wants to demolish an important historic building in Plummer Park, and we’re working with the community to prevent that.

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Regarding the City of LA—a new mayor has taken office and his first budget has been approved this month.  Assess for us how Mayor Garcetti is doing on the issues that matter to the Conservancy, and whether his budget prioritizes matters that are Conservancy priorities.

We were surprised that the mayor’s initial budget did not include positions that had been asked for by the Planning Department—two positions for the Historic Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZ), and two positions for neighborhood conservation. We were very pleased, though, that through the City Council Budget and Finance Committee hearings those four positions were then added into the budget that was approved by City Council. The Conservancy got very involved, as well as the residents of the Historic Preservation Overlay Zones and neighborhood associations across the city, to let City Hall know that these four positions were important for a variety of reasons.

More than 15 neighborhoods are in the process of becoming HPOZs, and some of them have been waiting for up to 12 years to become locally designated. Without additional staff, that can’t happen. We thought this was really important, particularly for neighborhoods that had done a lot of the organizing work to become HPOZs.

The second two positions deal with the anti-mansionization ordinance that the city enacted—a baseline ordinance in 2008 and a hillside ordinance in 2011. It was becoming clear that, while the anti-mansionization ordinance was a good step forward, it has not been reliable in terms of preserving neighborhood character. The City Planning Department was asking for more positions to be able to work on that. While we at the Conservancy care deeply about preserving historic buildings, it’s also about preserving neighborhoods. Since not all neighborhoods are eligible to be Historic Preservation Overlay Zones, we felt very strongly that these two neighborhood conservation positions were really critical to preserve the fabric of our neighborhoods. LA is a city of neighborhoods—we need to celebrate that and protect them.

Could you assess, after 20 years at the Conservancy, the success and health of your organization, most especially as a civic engine for preservation and built-environment revitalization?

We’ve continued to have our challenges, but I think we have made tremendous progress—both in being at the table for conversations, and hopefully creating an environment where people decide to do the right thing up front. 

For example, when the Union Station master planning process began, there was no question as to whether the station was going to be preserved. Everyone knew it was important: “How do we build the best transportation network around this great historic resource?” Our hope all along has been to change the conversation to, “What do we do with this great resource?” as opposed to “How do we get rid of this old building?”

And could you also comment on the evolution of your board and the growth of your membership?

Certainly our board continues to be very strong. We have been able to attract some high-profile people to sit on our board, which always increases people’s interest in the organization. Our budget continues to grow and our membership is growing. But I think the other part of the question is, “How are we are doing on the social media side?” Over 20,000 people get our e-news now. Our advocacy alerts reach more than 6,000. We have more than 14,000 people on Facebook and 8,000 on Twitter. Many of these people aren’t officially members, but they’re engaged. Today, I don’t know that you can necessarily characterize the health of an organization just by its members and board members. 

The Conservancy continues to be very strong on our educational efforts. This last year, we had over 10,000 people take our regular walking tours. I think it’s great that people want to come Downtown and explore. We’re really working to get people to know the stories of the buildings. It’s not just about the architecture—it’s also about the history and the cultural values that go with that. 

We had the opportunity this year to celebrate buildings that have great stories. One was Union Station, for our benefit, and the other was Wilshire Blvd. Temple, which is such a tremendous preservation story about how a congregation decided to restore their home. We were really honored to be able to do a tour there and have 550 people on a Sunday afternoon learn about the restoration efforts there, including those of Brenda Levin.

We’ve discussed with you in the past Bringing Back Broadway. What’s the status of this Conservancy initiative?

I think that Councilmember Huizar’s office has done a tremendous job advancing the agenda on Broadway. The effort to bring back a streetcar has certainly brought a lot of attention. That’s the main thing people know, but Huizar’s staff have also done really substantial things under the radar, like getting the design guidelines adopted. They’re working on a sign ordinance right now that I think is going to dramatically change how Broadway looks at night, because it’s going to encourage the restoration or re-creation of neon signage and rooftop signs on Broadway. They have advanced projects in a way that we really haven’t ever seen at City Hall, in terms of adaptive reuse. I think that there’s a lot that’s really good. Our hope would be, now that the 14th District includes most of Downtown, that Bringing Back Broadway can be expanded to Spring and Main Streets.

Lastly, this issue of The Planning Report includes commentary from a Westside Urban Forum this month on the status of LA City community plans. Does the Conservancy value community plans with updated zoning as a tool?

We think the community plans are very important, because they talk about what identifies a specific community as that community—much like the HPOZs, which each has a preservation plan that identifies the architecture and qualities specific to that neighborhood, even elements of the natural landscape. We’re strong supporters of the community plan efforts and commented extensively during the Hollywood Community Plan process.

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© 2014 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.