July 30, 1993 - From the July, 1993 issue

Conservancy’s Amy Forbes Reflects on 15 Years of Preservation Advocacy

The Los Angeles Conservancy was formed after a proposal to demolish the Central Library in the City of Los Angeles. Amy Forbes, president of the Los Angeles Conservancy and a land use attorney for the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher reflects on the 15 years since its formation — from the victory of Sheraton Townhouse to efforts in building a preservation consitituency. 


Amy Forbes: With a motto of "action, awareness, and assistance," the Conservancy is determined to put preservation on the City of Los Angeles' planning agenda.

The Los Angeles Conservancy turns 15 this year. Formed in response to a proposal to demolish the Central Library to make way for yet another office project in downtown Los Angeles, the organization has grown from a group of concerned citizens meeting in living rooms, to the largest historic preservation organization west of the Mississippi. 

With a motto of "action, awareness, and assistance," the Conservancy is determined to put preservation on the City of Los Angeles' planning agenda. 

As the Conservancy has matured, we have attempted to move away from building-by-building fights toward a more global approach to preservation issues. We have strengthened ties with individual policy makers, worked more closely with neighborhood groups, and expanded our education and outreach efforts. The Conservancy is also blessed with a team of very able volunteer lawyers.

Sheraton Townhouse Victory 

The City Council's unanimous decision on April 7th to designate the Sheraton Townhouse as a Los Angeles cultural monument evidences the Conservancy's growing impact. In the three weeks following a 3-2 vote by the City's Cultural Heritage Commission against designation, the Conservancy had organized a rally attended by more than 300 people, met with representatives from each of the Council offices, and located developers interested in reusing the building. Despite the building owner's full political press in favor of demolition, the Council held firm for designation. 

The fight to save the Sheraton Townhouse highlighted one of the major deficiencies in the Cultural Heritage Ordinance. The ordinance, as presently drafted, does not prevent demolition of significant resources. It merely assures no demolition without a prior environmental impact report. Councilman Nate Holden had expressed a strong preference for avoiding designation with an agreement in which the owner would agree not to demolish the building until plans for the new project had been approved by the City. Arguably, such a side agreement would have afforded the building more protection than designation. 

The Conservancy analyzed the Councilman's offer and concluded that even though a specifically negotiated agreement could possibly provide a better result in the short term, it would perpetuate resolution of preservation issues on a case by case basis. The Conservancy declined Councilman Holden's offer, recognizing that refusal to accept the agreement could mean loss of the Councilman’s support for designation, or (even if the building were designated) loss of the building if the owner prepared an adequate environmental impact report. 

Fortunately, the building's owner also declined Councilman Holden’s offer for a side agreement, and decided to fight its battle on the floor of the Council. By a 12-0 decision, the Council found in favor of designation. Presently developers and other organizations have expressed interest in buying the Townhouse and converting the building to housing (ironically, its original use). 

Citywide Approaches

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In response to the Sheraton Townhouse fight, the Conservancy has renewed its efforts to develop citywide ordinances which will apply evenly and fairly to historic resources. One proposal has been to follow the City of Pasadena's model, which prohibits demolition of any building over 50 years old, absent discretionary review by the City. Alternatively, along the lines of Councilman Holden's approach, the City could prevent demolition of any designated historical cultural monument or national register-eligible building, until the City has approved plans for whatever new project is proposed. 

The point is not to clog the City’s planning process further, but to make the choices between old and new more focused and systematic. Under the present structure, there is every incentive for a developer to demolish whatever significant resources are on a site, because it is easier to approve any project if the alternative is a parking lot. 

For its part, the Conservancy recognizes how damaging it is for the Conservancy and developers to be fighting preservation battles at the last minute, often after investment decisions have been made. Consequently. the Conservancy has initiated a concerted effort to identify and catalog the City's historic and cultural resources. This summer, a Conservancy intern will be devoting 100% of her time to monument designation. We are in the process of connecting various councilmembers' offices to find out what resources they would like to see preserved in their districts. Another intern will be devoting his time to compiling a register of all the surveys of historic resources that have been completed throughout the City. Our goal is to prioritize those areas which have yet to be surveyed so that we can systematically identify the resources that should be preserved as part of any planning process. 

Building a Constituency

Other agenda topics include a continued focus on heritage education as a means of building a preservation constituency. Last February, the Conservancy sponsored an enormously successful tour of Central Avenue, tracing the development of African-American culture and population, starting at the Biddy Mason Wall and continuing down to the Dunbar Hotel. We have also been training junior high students at the Markham Middle School in Watts to be docents for our Blue Line tour of Watts Towers. Scheduled to be a one-time event, this tour has proved so popular it is now held quarterly. Our student docents are so excited by the project, they will continue to work with us even though they have graduated to high school. 

At a time when the City is facing law enforcement, garbage, and budget crises, historic preservation may seem like a low priority, a frill rather than an urgent need. However, in recognizing, celebrating, and preserving the diversity of our architecture and our heritage, we bring our City together and create a vital sense of place. 

Great cities are not known only for their municipal services. In the absence of the intangible qualities such as cultural opportunities, there are fewer incentives to attract or retain tourists and residents. How the City of Los Angeles utilizes its historic and cultural resources is very much a factor in the City's economic future. Do we "throw away" buildings or do we make them part of the new city?

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