August 16, 2006 - From the August, 2006 issue

New L.A. Planning Dept. Unit Champions Historic Preservation

For decades the most ardent steward of L.A.'s historic urban fabric has been the L.A. Conservancy. But now the city of L.A. is finally getting in on the act, and it has hired one of the Conservancy's own, Ken Bernstein, to head the L.A. Planning Department's Office of Historic Preservation. TPR was pleased to speak with Ken, a former TPR editor, about his goals of surveying the city's historic resources and making preservation an integral part of L.A.'s planning process.

Ken Bernstein

Two months ago you assumed a new position created by L.A. Planning Director Gail Goldberg. Elaborate on why the Office of Historic Resources is needed.

The Office of Historic Resources was created in part because Los Angeles has never had a full-fledged preservation program. Our Cultural Heritage Ordinance and preservation program dates back to 1962, which surprises many people, as that was actually three years before New York City passed its Landmarks Ordinance in the aftermath of Penn Station's demolition. But Los Angeles never quite took the next steps necessary to develop a comprehensive preservation program.

As a result, Los Angeles is today the only major city in California that is not a "Certified Local Government" for historic preservation. The State Office of Historic Preservation and the National Parks Service set standards for local historic preservation programs, and we are the only large city in California that does not meet those standards.

The other catalyst for the creation of this new office was the important groundwork of the Getty Conservation Institute in underscoring the need for a comprehensive citywide survey of historic resources. The Getty's work over the past several years found that only 15 percent of Los Angeles has ever been studied to identify potential historic resources.

The goal of a citywide inventory was actually called for in Los Angeles' original 1962 ordinance, but, given the size of our city, it had always seemed a daunting task, and there was never any follow-up. The new office was created in part to carry that survey forward and use it as the centerpiece of the comprehensive preservation program that the city has long deserved.

Leaving the L.A. Conservancy-where you were an unabashed advocate for preservation, for City Hall-will it be difficult to change roles and to represent broader public and civic interests regarding city planning?

In many ways it's a natural continuation of my work at the Conservancy, though I understand that I am moving from a position of advocacy to one where our new office has to balance the many interests that weigh in on historic preservation issues. Because Los Angeles lacked a comprehensive city office of historic preservation, local grassroots activity had long helped fill that vacuum. The Conservancy, for example, has grown to become the largest local historic preservation organization in the country.

Over the last ten years or so, historic preservation has taken hold in Los Angeles in a way that we hadn't experienced before, and the level of grassroots preservation activity has become quite remarkable. We now have 22 Historic Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZs) with the recent approval of the Hancock Park HPOZ. We've seen an incredible boom in adaptive reuse projects downtown and in other portions of the city, and the growth of an impressive cadre of new developers and private sector players in historic preservation and adaptive reuse.

Preservation has truly gone mainstream and has become an important part of life in Los Angeles, not just a side issue or secondary aesthetic concern. The creation of this new office builds on all of this new activity and begins to weave preservation more fully into the fabric of Los Angeles and of city government.

Now that you are part of the Planning Department, which has responsibilities to an array of constituencies and interests in the city, how will you balance the value of historic preservation with demands for greater density and new development?

I think what is exciting about the position is how to help make historic preservation part of the essence of Planning Department decisions. Certainly there are tough decisions on individual land-use cases, but the opportunity is to ensure that preservation is part of the conversation and that we make the key connections: that we ensure that historic preservation becomes a core policy of our 35 Community Plans, of our environmental review process, and of the way we coordinate with other city departments, including the Redevelopment Agency.

We also need to be doing more to make certain that preservation is relevant and economically viable within lower-income historic neighborhoods-through multi-lingual outreach and the development of new financial incentives.

But I believe it's a false construct to think about historic preservation as an opposing value to growth or intelligent density in the city. As Gail Goldberg has articulated, we need to plan for growth, and we need to do that in a way that protects and enhances the distinctive character of our neighborhoods.

Part of the value of the citywide survey is to identify for all stakeholders in the process-developers, property owners, preservationists, and neighborhood groups alike-where there may be significant historic resources so that we can know what we have and take steps to protect and enhance those assets.

What tools does the Planning Department have or need to pursue the historic resources agenda you describe? How might CLG certification aid your work?

We've had some of the tools for some time. The Office of Historic Resources oversees the city's Cultural Heritage Ordinance, which designates individual sites as "Historic-Cultural Monuments," of which we now have more than 800. The Planning Department also oversees the HPOZs, which allow for the designation of historic districts, largely residential districts; proposed alterations to the exteriors of those structures are reviewed by a five-member, community-based HPOZ Board and by Planning staff.


We've coupled that with financial incentives, because it's important that historic preservation include carrots as well as sticks. Los Angeles now has one of the largest Mills Act programs in the state. The Mills Act is a property tax reduction program for owners of historic properties, and we administer nearly 300 sites under the Mills Act; another 60 applications have come in this year, which is the highest number ever.

The state Certified Local Government (CLG) certification is important because, without CLG status, Los Angeles is not currently eligible for federal or state preservation grants. These aren't huge pots of money, but these grants can support historic preservation survey work, preservation plans for local communities, and other preservation priorities. CLG status is also important because it will validate that Los Angeles will have finally achieved the comprehensive and balanced preservation program that we've long needed.

What is the status of the L.A. Historic Resources Survey approved two years ago?

We are just beginning the process. The survey project was approved in concept by the City Council in late 2004. It was envisioned as a five-year program and that clock started ticking with my hiring in June. This program was developed collaboratively by the Getty and the city, and we are very fortunate to have an extraordinary commitment by the Getty Foundation to pledge up to $2.5 million to the survey over the next five years.

The first two years of the project are envisioned as an initiation phase and the final three years will focus on the intensive fieldwork of conducting the survey throughout the city. We will begin with the preparation of a "citywide historic context statement" -which sounds somewhat academic but is, in fact, critical to structuring the survey work to come.

It will lay out our city's patterns of growth and development, important themes in Los Angeles' history, and major architectural types. That will create a framework within which our survey teams can evaluate the significance of individual properties or buildings, rather than evaluating properties site by site in a vacuum. The other work product during this initiation phase will be probably two or three pilot surveys to test the methodology of the survey before it is rolled out citywide.

I want to caution everyone that even though the survey project is now getting underway, we are still a few years away from having detailed community-by-community results. But in the meantime we will be doing significant outreach and work with neighborhood councils, as well as other community groups, to explain the survey and to begin identifying some of the less-obvious sites, such as sites of social and cultural significance to local communities. And we'll be upgrading our city land use database to be ready to integrate this new data.

Ultimately, our Web site, which includes the city's GIS data, will offer property-by-property information that includes a historic evaluation. We'll be creating a wealth of data on properties throughout the city that will be accessible to everyone on the Web.


How does the mayor's agenda for greater density fits in with your role in advocating for historic preservation?

Today, without a comprehensive survey of our historic resources, our city historic preservation process doesn't serve anyone. Developers looking to create "elegant density" or accommodate growth on a site frequently don't know whether their project may affect a significant historic resource. Or, even worse, they may get surprised at the eleventh hour when their project generates opposition such as a last-minute historic landmark nomination. Community groups or preservation organizations may lose a significant historic site to demolition before they even realize what is being proposed or what they may be losing.

The value of a comprehensive preservation program is that it creates greater certainty for everyone in the process. A citywide inventory will identify potentially significant sites years before there's a project proposed. It will show us sites where greater density will not dramatically impact the distinctive historic character of our city, and identify other locations that should be preserved or treated more carefully as we continue to grow.

A year from now, what can we expect from your office re success?

A year from now we certainly will not have a complete citywide survey, but I hope that we will be far along toward completion of the citywide historic context statement. I also believe that we will have a fully-staffed and talented Office of Historic Resources to oversee the city's preservation work, and that we will be achieving Certified Local Government status from the state, as confirmation that we are putting in place a truly comprehensive preservation program.


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