February 1, 2002 - From the February, 2002 issue

Without A Catalog Of Its Historic Resources, City Of Los Angeles Cannot Effectively Plan For The Future

There's a lesson taught to students: "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it." That lesson is no less important as we look to the form of our cities for it is that heritage which gives future generations of Angelenos a narrative of L.A. from past to present. But as we continue our evolution, do we even know which structures are historic? If not, can we catalog them so that our history remains integral to the vision of this great city? That concern fostered this study prepared by Kathryn Welch Howe for the Getty Conservation Institute urging the preparation of a historic resources survey so that the form of our city is not lost.

Prepared By: Kathryn Welch Howe

The Potential Of A Citywide Survey

The historic resource survey serves as the fundamental component of a preservation infrastructure. The value of a survey conducted on a citywide or regional basis is that it allows decision makers to look at resources in context, permitting them to better evaluate significance, to prioritize, and to diffuse conflicts that can occur when resources are looked at in a microcosm. Currently the public, developers, and public agencies responsible for reviewing project plans and issuing permits have extremely limited information and no systematic, official resources or method to ascertain the potential significance or sensitivity of undesignated properties.

Goals Of A Comprehensive Survey

A comprehensive historic resource survey should represent best national practices and fulfill the following requisites:

Historic Context Statement

Develop a historic context statement that articulates the broad patterns of historical development in the city.

Identify Significant Properties & Areas

Identify properties and districts that significantly contribute to the city's character or to that of its neighborhoods, or that illustrate its historical or architectural development and, as a result, deserve consideration in planning.

Establish Standards & Inventory

Develop an evaluation framework to determine whether properties meet defined criteria of historical, architectural, archaeological, or cultural significance. Develop an inventory-an organized compilation of information on those resources that are evaluated as significant.

Establish Priorities and Action

Establish priorities for conservation, restoration, and rehabilitation.

Associate Incentives and Designations

Provide the basis for using legal and financial tools to protect and enhance historic resources. These include such actions as nominations for Historic-Cultural Monument status, establishment of HPOZs, and listing in the National Register of Historic Places and the California Register of Historic Places.

Develop Accessible Database

Provide communities, planners, and investors with a database from which to monitor and channel maintenance, rehabilitation, and development.

Increase Public Awareness

Increase awareness among the public and private sectors of the value of the resources and the need for preservation or reuse.

Streamline Review Process


Enable local government and state and federal agencies to meet their planning and review responsibilities under existing legislation and procedures, more efficiently and more economically.

Although the existing system in Los Angeles may represent best efforts given resource constraints and past political support, it deprives the community of a responsible record of the city's historic resources and a compelling vision of their value. Inconsistent survey methods and evaluation standards create substantial variance in what is considered significant, and the resultant perception of inconsistency and unpredictability has led to frustration and conflict. The absence of a public database of surveyed properties can also contribute significantly to conflicts in project review and increase the planning costs for public or privately sponsored projects. Development of legal and financial tools that could yield broad economic and community benefits could be based upon the specific conditions and needs identified through the survey.

With any survey, there will be legitimate questions pertaining to judgments of significance and preservation. The cost of resolving such questions will be borne by the individual project proponent and the individual public agency. A well-developed, comprehensive survey will, however, allow the community to place questions of criteria, standards, and evaluations of merit squarely in the most capable hands to enable a resolution reflecting a balance of public and private needs-rather than one based on the negotiating power of the individual players in a particular project context.

Priorities For Los Angeles

As a result of its analysis, the Survey Assessment project has determined the following priorities for the development of an effective historic resource survey in Los Angeles.

Provide Leadership and Focus

The structure of leadership and the ongoing management of the survey will be essential to its success. The survey is only the first step in a broader process. The key leadership functions must be to support, administer, and maintain the ongoing survey; ensure its quality and use through research, evaluation, and nomination procedures; develop community dialogue and education; provide input to the GIS database; and work with other agencies and community interests to develop an effective role and integrate preservation. The following represent differing possibilities that might allow for the achievement of these ends:

Consolidation of Preservation Functions

A separate Los Angeles Preservation Commission with a strong and skilled preservation staff could be created to coordinate the survey, nomination, project review, and data development functions that are currently dispersed among other city agencies. This practice of consolidation has been consistently implemented in other United States cities that have achieved success in their historic preservation programs. It will adopt the monuments and HPOZs that have been previously designated.

Creation of an Independent Los Angeles Historic Resource Research Center

The Historic Resource Research Center-originating within the public or nonprofit sector-could be linked to the Cultural Heritage Commission and the Department of City Planning and would supplement and support the work of those agencies through research and review responsibilities. This entity might sponsor and conduct the survey.

Maintain & Grow Existing Programs

The existing alignment of responsibilities would be continued. Support would need to be built for adequate, professionally trained staffs and review board(s) with a range of expertise that would enable them to conduct the survey, maintain the data, carry out project and design review, and assure continued development.


Los Angeles has a unique opportunity to recognize its historic resources and to begin the process of incorporating them into its cultural and community revitalization goals. The caliber of resources, the compelling interest and initiative already demonstrated by the community, and the development of new technologies present the chance to realize the potential many envision for Los Angeles's historic resources.

This would include, for example, viewing such resources as the Eichler homes in the San Fernando Valley as catalysts for developing neighborhood pride in postwar housing developments or seeing the Vinegar Hill district in San Pedro as the starting point for broader neighborhood renewal. It would mean that property owners and investors who are motivated to maintain and adapt properties are meaningfully encouraged. Development projects would be informed early in the planning process-prior to the commitment of investment dollars-of the existence and sensitivities of key resources. It might also mean that challenging properties such as Van de Kamp's Bakery, the Herald- Examiner Building, or the Ambassador Hotel are assisted both with incentives and facilitation of a market context for preservation development efforts. Perhaps most important, Los Angeles could develop a responsible record of the city's past and a persuasive vision of its future. It could retain and employ significant historic properties while embracing new design and architecture as it has always done and always will.

The starting point in this process is the historic resource survey. The city simply cannot establish direction without first gathering clear data and a perspective on the resources it has. While there are technical and resource issues that must be addressed, they appear to be manageable. The central issue in achieving these goals is to establish the long-term capacity to administer the survey process and develop a preservation program for the city. To undertake the survey as a short-term project independent of other community planning, development, and political processes would perpetuate ineffectual past practices and deprive the city of the opportunity to achieve significant community, cultural, and economic benefits.

Within the community, there is substantial recognition of and support for a historic resource survey and a viable preservation program. The Survey Assessment Project identified a number of ways in which corporations, universities, preservation organizations, charitable foundations, and others might be able to assist and participate in the survey and preservation process. This support might include funding assistance, partnerships, and parallel programming. In order to develop these relationships, the City of Los Angeles will need to consider carefully the potential for a citywide survey and its support for a preservation program.

This cannot be accomplished alone. The J. Paul Getty Trust and others should work in partnership with the city to develop this opportunity for cultural heritage in Los Angeles. This report elicited the interest of a diverse range of community leaders and professionals who might form a working group to join together with the city to address and resolve the concerns and issues associated with a survey and preservation program.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.