May 11, 2018 - From the May, 2018 issue

The Future of Historic Preservation in Los Angeles

A recent Los Angeles Conservancy event focused on the role of historic preservation in the changing LA landscape—balancing neighborhood histories, architectural styles, and density pressures in transforming communities. Hosted by KPCC’s Larry Mantle at the Downtown Central Library, the conversation brought together Margaret Bach, founding president of the Los Angeles Conservancy; Christopher Hawthorne, new chief design officer of the City of Los Angeles (and former architecture critic of the Los Angeles Times); Luis Hoyos, professor of architecture at Cal Poly Pomona, and Michelle Magalong, executive director of Asian Pacific Islander Americans in Historic Preservation. TPR presents an excerpt of the conversation. 

Margaret Bach

“One challenge of my new job is to think about how to search relentlessly for sites for new housing while paying attention to questions about architectural history and preservation.” – Christopher Hawthorne

Larry Mantle: The tremendous challenges we face today will inform critical decisions about what buildings we’re able to keep, what sort of sense of community we’re able to have, and what sort of competing pressures we’ll be able to resolve.

Margaret, you were there at the beginning of the Conservancy, which is now celebrating 40 years. What was the city like then for preservation? 

Margaret Bach: In the 1970s, Los Angles was fresh off the losses of iconic buildings like Irving Gill’s Dodge House and the Richfield Building. There was a recognition that LA did not have an organized voice for historic preservation.

Preservation was an up-and-coming field—nationally, with the National Trust and the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966; statewide, with Californians for Preservation Action; and in Southern California, with Pasadena Heritage starting to stir the pot in community activism.

A small group of us—idealists fresh off the protests of the Vietnam War, and concerned about the built environment and the environment more generally—came together around the threat to the Central Library. The city of Los Angeles was seriously considering selling off this land to the highest bidder and moving the library facility elsewhere. We came together to create a voice for preservation in the Los Angeles area. 

Larry Mantle: Chris, talk about the ongoing inherent conflict between new architecture—risk-taking buildings that stand as works of art on their own—and preservation, a sense of history in a community. Where is the balance between allowing creative development and keeping a sense of history?

Chris Hawthorne: I come to this issue with a personal connection: I grew up in Berkeley in a 1920s house designed by Julia Morgan, and my mother was one of the founders of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association—also founded in the 1970s, coming out of the same concerns about what was happening following the 60s political protests and urban renewal.

I’ve also seen Berkeley—given the complex causes of the ways that cities change and the housing crisis that cities face—really foreclose the possibility of new architecture to a large degree, and I’ve seen the housing crisis skyrocket in neighborhoods like the one I grew up in.

I’ve been acutely aware of this tension. In my role as the architecture critic at the Times, one of my first big pieces was about the controversy over the Ambassador Hotel, which gets at some of these complexities. Donald Trump even owned that piece of land for a time, and wanted to build the tallest building on the West Coast there.

But by the time I was writing about it, it was not a black hat-wearing developer versus preservationists; it was a school district wanting to knock down the building in order to build schools in an area that desperately needed new public schools, where kids were being bussed all over the city and spending two or three hours a day getting to schools outside of their neighborhood.

On the other hand, that building was a really significant piece of architecture by Myron Hunt, but it was also important for other reasons: It was the site of many early Academy Awards, to say nothing of being the spot where Bobby Kennedy was shot.

I tried to tease out how to measure this calculus of architectural importance, political or cultural importance, versus the needs of a community in terms of educational space. These problems have only grown more complex since then.

The critics that I looked to as models when I was coming up as an architectural critic—figures like Ada Louise Huxtable—were those who balanced a desire to be a champion for historic preservation with a desire to be supportive of younger architects doing innovative work. That’s the same balance that cities are trying to strike, and it will be part of my new job, too.

Larry Mantle: It is by definition so subjective that finding consensus is a challenge. You mentioned these very practical conflicts; there are also aesthetic ones. Look at San Francisco: beloved for its architecture by tourists from around the world, yet in many ways stagnant when it comes to dynamic new architects. It’s like a museum city. That’s its own kind of a balancing act.

Chris Hawthorne: Absolutely. Cities that have had very strong preservation groups have sometimes—but not always—tended to be cities where it’s more difficult to execute new architecture. For me, it’s more interesting and useful to look at the models of cities that have struck that balance more effectively. I think Chicago is the best American example.

Certainly, Chicago has knocked down some important buildings, most recently in the Loop. But it has managed to say that historic architecture is part of its civic identity—even its civic brand—in terms of how people understand themselves as Chicagoans, while promoting the idea that the spirit of experimentation and innovation that produced those buildings in the first place is also important to preserve. 

Larry Mantle: Luis, how do you weigh those issues of community need against buildings with so much history? 

Luis Hoyos: Because of the many hats I wear, I have been able to see how other people in other parts of the country see Los Angeles and the Conservancy. I was very gratified to see how people look to the West for innovation and for risk-taking. Our city is not pure; a lot of things got built here that, well, we had to get used to. And now we love them.

It’s also been gratifying to see how many organizations are willing to partner with the Conservancy on projects, and how the Conservancy is listened to and respected—and how the Conservancy, like other organizations, mature through diversity.

We’ve admitted that diversity is who we are and who the city is, and that the pathway to keeping the organization fresh and relevant is to go out into neighborhoods, communities, and HPOZs. Los Angeles is now a global city; the changes that happen here will be along the lines of diversity and sustainability.

Larry Mantle: But within that, there are also big generational differences. People who came up in the Chicano movement of the 1960s might want to preserve a building—like Roosevelt High School—because they or their friends walked out, [while today’s students might have other priorities.]

Luis Hoyos: A long time ago, the National Parks Service, which embeds most historic preservation, did study on what to preserve in California. Right away, the four high schools that were part of the East LA walkouts were the blowouts.

I teach young people, and I try to teach them what matters. I emphasize that buildings are important, not just because of architecture, but also because of the events that happened in them. At Roosevelt, and at the other three high schools, there is both architectural merit and an event that happened.

I hope that cooler heads prevail. I think they should honor their history—the history of their faculty, who led them out onto the streets—and keep the buildings. 

Larry Mantle: Michelle, tell us the story of how you got into this issue, and how younger people and people of diverse backgrounds are coming to this cause. 

Michelle Magalong: In 1999, I was a student of Royal Morales, or “Uncle Roy.” He was a Filipino-American activist—and I would call him a historic preservationist—as well as an adjunct lecturer at UCLA. On the first day of “The Filipino-American Experience,” he’d take the students on a trip to Little Tokyo—and say, “Welcome to Little Manila.”

He’d explain, “There were Victorian houses here. After my father came from the Philippines as a pastor, he went back to the Philippines, got married, brought his wife here, and had me in a Victorian house—here at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.”

He told me at the end of the tour, “My dream is for this neighborhood to have our own signage—like what Little Tokyo, Chinatown, Thai Town, and Koreatown have.” He passed a year later.

I began a Master’s program in the UCLA Planning Department in 2001. Eric Garcetti had just been elected as a city councilmember for District 13. And he had promised the neighborhood that he would work on this designation. It had been a long, fraught process for decades, and some folks identified me as someone who could help.

At that time, there was no procedure. It was all about political ties and the influence you had with your councilmember—as well as what could be seen in the landscape. But Garcetti said that for this neighborhood to get a designation, we were going to create a process.

That meant community engagement. It meant researching the community plans that existed—even though they were outdated—to understand, when we got this designation, what would it mean to the landscape? What would it mean in terms of representation? What are the politics of this designation?

Larry Mantle: When communities are designated, does that inform the development that comes in afterward? 

Michelle Magalong: That was our hope. Developers were not clamoring to come into the neighborhood at this time. It was not a hotspot. Today, there’s a “design district” proposed for the neighborhood.

People ask me, “Back when you were designating this area as Historic Filipinotown, did you think gentrification would be an issue?” No. The mass redevelopment of the neighborhood is changing its character—not only its design, but the people who inhabit the place. There are third- and fourth-generation Filipinos living in the neighborhood who have been priced out.

The reason we chose the name Historic Filipinotown was that the neighborhood was a port of entry for Filipino Americans. You landed at LAX, and you knew to go there. That’s where you were going to get services, leads on employment, and even temporary housing. It was a hub for social services for a long time.

Now, all of that has been driven out. Families are being driven out. The institutions that shaped the neighborhood are being driven out. 

Larry Mantle: Chris, the mayor has an ambitious plan to house tens of thousands of people. How do you proceed with a plan like this when, almost by definition, it adds to gentrification, and means that structures with importance to communities are knocked down to put up higher density? 

Chris Hawthorne: That is the most crucial question facing Los Angeles at the moment. We have systematically underbuilt housing here for almost 40 years, and that is one of the many causes of the housing and homelessness crisis we now face.

I don’t think we can talk about any question connected to urban design without confronting the housing crisis, and thinking about all the ways—at every level of production—to create new places and new ways to create housing. There is no easy answer. We have to be thinking about every possible potential site for new housing.

Some economic and technological changes will help us here. Autonomous vehicles will affect the urban fabric, and a whole bunch of parking infrastructure and space will become usable because parking demand is expected to fall away. Sites that used to hold important buildings that turned into surface parking lots sometime last century are now turning back into sites of production because that economic calculus is shifting.

We have to connect all these dots. One challenge of my new job is to think about how to search relentlessly for sites for new housing while paying attention to questions about architectural history and preservation.

Luis Hoyos: You can’t have a city this big of single-family homes; it’s just not sustainable.

In Europe, especially Paris, there are new eco-districts—pieces of the city where, by agreement, there has been building adaptation occupying former industrial sites. Los Angeles has a lot of land like this; think of our rail system. These eco-districts accept density, generate their own electricity, and take care of their own waste.

Los Angeles has taken the initial steps in preservation policy: We adapt buildings, we have preservation districts, there’s a preservation component in EIRs; urban planning now accepts that historic preservation is always at the table. The next step starts with enlightened government, evolving zoning policy, and better community plans, to help us accept these exceptional little areas that might hold the key.

Larry Mantle: The implication of your first point is: Wealthy people can live in single-family homes, but the middle class can’t; people just have to accept that the middle class is going to have to go to the Inland Empire and Orange County.

Luis Hoyos: No, not necessarily. I think the secret is in more enlightened, granular zoning.

Chris Hawthorne: The idea that the middle class can afford single-family houses hasn’t been true in this city for 30 years. That is an important part of our history: There was a time when the single-family house was an engine for middle-class, and even working-class, arrival. It was part of the LA and California dream that you could have a piece of this city, even as a working-class family. In many parts of Los Angeles, that hasn’t been true for a long time.

Larry Mantle: You wouldn’t call the housing in South Los Angeles working-class housing?

Chris Hawthorne: Single-family houses across Los Angeles are out of reach for many people. In San Francisco, too, the median price of a single-family house is rapidly approaching $1.5 million.


Larry Mantle: But that’s a tech perversion.

Chris Hawthorne: The figures in Los Angeles are depressingly similar, and moving in the wrong direction.

Luis Hoyos: Perception is everything. Most people equate density with high-rises, but there are many gradations of building type that lead us, gently, to higher densities. I think the Sunset Plan and the Hollywood Boulevard Plan were rejected because of people’s perception that all of a sudden every intersection would have high-rises, and that’s unfortunate.

Larry Mantle: And traffic, of course. We’re a long way from autonomous vehicles. People are very positive about the future of autonomous vehicles, but they’re a ways down the road.

Chris Hawthorne: There are models of other kinds of density and an intelligent approach to architecture. I lived in an Irving Gill project in Piedmont that was 10 or 12 units on half an acre—all, with one exception, one-bedroom single-story units. All had access to a communal garden. It was much denser than the typical single-family neighborhood, yet a long way from the Manhattanization that we’ve come to fear.

Margaret Bach: Los Angeles has a legacy, and existing models, of garden apartments that generate a level of density. We should do an analysis of a modest increase of density, in designated areas, that is respectful and has less impact on existing single-family neighborhoods. 

Larry Mantle: Let’s move on to SB 827. Scott Wiener’s bill has been a great cause of concern because it would override the ability of many communities to defend their local plans and to fight back against larger-scale and denser developments. Chris, what’s your view on the bill? 

Chris Hawthorne: It’s a blunt instrument. The mayor has raised some concerns about its applicability in the diversity of neighborhoods that make up Los Angeles, and I share those concerns. But the conversation about what we are going to do to produce more housing is an important one.

From a political point of view, the lack of local control is what may doom the bill. The City Council of Los Angeles and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors have already voted against it. There is opposition at the level of local city governments.

Some of the amendments that Senator Wiener has made have been helpful, but I think there needs to be more of a conversation. If we, as a city, think SB 827 is too blunt an instrument, then the follow-up question is what measures we are going to take to produce housing. 

Larry Mantle: If a community says, “We don’t want more density; we don’t want the character of our neighborhood changed,” at what point do you force that community—despite what it wants—to take on greater density?

Chris Hawthorne: First, if we were to get a cross-section of opinions across the city—and LA is a majority-renter city—there is a much wider diversity of opinion about whether density and more housing options are a good or bad thing. We need to expand the conversation.

We have too long, in this city, allowed the people who have secured housing—who are homeowners, who run neighborhood councils—to control the debate about who has access to housing and about how much, as a society, we are producing housing. That conversation, from my point of view, as someone who’s written about this for many years, has been dominated by those who are largely homeowners and very secure in their housing. We need to change that.

My parents still live in our single-family house in Berkeley. I tell them, “If your house has gone up in value by 40 or 50 times, you have a responsibility to think about how you’re going to share that great good fortune. You have a responsibility to think about the greater good.” I have that conversation with them and people like them in the neighborhood I grew up in and ones like it all the time. We need to be having a conversation about the collective good.

This is not an exaggeration: The generation of homeowners in Los Angeles who have now been in their houses for 20 or 30 years are among the most fortunate real-estate investors in the history of capitalism. And because of that, we need to have a broader conversation about the collective good when we are facing a homelessness and housing crisis of this degree.

Larry Mantle: Do you think the city can handle the political backlash to that approach?

Chris Hawthorne: I think the political backlash will be significant, and I’m certainly not naïve to it. But my sense is that the diversity opinion is greater than we sometimes give it credit for.

Margaret Bach: There are structural changes that need to happen. The fact is that we have very few incentives in our system thus far for generating housing that meets the needs of the majority of our citizens.

The second part of this is the fear factor of visualizing high-rises. We need an analysis of opportunity sites that asks: What would the city look like built up even a modest amount on various parcels? How much housing would that generate?

Luis Hoyos: After SurveyLA, we have a city that knows itself a lot more. We know everything about the built environment: We know where the historic buildings are. We know what the likely future historic districts are. We know where aging industrial areas are that could easily be proposed for new areas of growth.

We have another instrument that has not been properly used: community plans. If you pick up your average community plan, you’ll see a fairly aged document that hasn’t been refreshed. I think it’s time we put them to use.

Larry Mantle: We keep being told they’re going to be updated, but I don’t think it’s happening.

Luis Hoyos: No. It’s all general language, general aims, and no specificity.

And I would not support SB 827 because it’s such a sledgehammer of an instrument. We need research on where we could do [density] in these districts.

Michelle Magalong: But we also have neighborhoods where folks want to revisit and update the community plans, but are not being engaged. They’re just watching their neighborhoods transform. Every time I go to Historic Filipinotown, I wonder: “What else is gone? And what else is new here?”

Many of our most vulnerable communities, particularly communities of color and low-income communities, have zero voice. For these communities, the response to SB 827 is: “Again?” You’re just going to keep destroying our buildings and creating catch-all policies?  

Larry Mantle: If you had the power to craft a way of including that and other communities, how would you do it?

Michelle Magalong: Recently, Luis and I were both able to sit on national historic preservation boards for our respective communities. That has never happened on the federal level. They’ve never asked community folks and scholars to tell them what’s going on on the ground.

It’s sticky; it’s messy; ours has not been launched after many years—and maybe under this administration, it will just be deleted. But it created this legacy. States and cities are now saying, “Wait! We actually have to ask communities that are affected about what matters to them.”

This means engagement in formalized settings. SurveyLA, for example, went into communities and had engagement sessions at local libraries to talk about what’s going on, what’s at stake, and what’s important. It was one of their great innovative approaches.

In the field of urban planning, participation can happen in extremes. One is tokenism.  We’ve all dealt with city bureaucracy saying they had one meeting where the community was allowed to show up—but they don’t translate it into different languages, and they don’t post it in places that people would actually see.

What we want is the other extreme, where we are engaged from the beginning and even after a project is complete. Constant engagement is important in the work that we do. Although we do have elected officials to represent us, you have to always be directly engaged, especially when places are at risk. 

Larry Mantle: In communities I see that are empowered, it’s typically not because the city is going to them and saying, “Please tell us.” It’s because people in that community are so upset about the issue, and then have some sort of vehicle to take that grievance to the city and bring about change. 

Michelle Magalong: Right. One sensitive issue in the API community in LA that recently came up was Parker Center in Little Tokyo. It was contentious in the preservation field, as well. Some folks were saying that architecturally it was significant, and we should save it. But communities of color were saying, “That is our least favorite building in the city of LA.”

The Little Tokyo community fought the city, particularly driven by Japanese-American leaders who have been working since the 1960s to save the neighborhood. Our strength—why we were able to fight—was that we’ve always been engaged. We’ve always been on the ground listening and making sure that, the neighborhoods that we love and that we actively preserve, we defend.

One great thing the city of LA has done, with Ken Bernstein’s leadership, is the Asian-American Historic Context Statement, which will be launched next month. This advisory board had scholars, historians, urban planners, community members; it was very grassroots. They asked us to identify key places that we might want to nominate on the National Register. For many of us, it seemed like a far-fetched dream.

Roy Morales and his father started the first Filipino Christian Church in the United States. It’s on Union and Temple, and it was designated a historic-cultural monument with the city in the late 1990s. We were able to designate it as a priority for nomination on the National Register. It will be only the second Filipino associated site on the National Register.

This is a huge deal for us! In the daily battles over our landscapes in our neighborhoods, it’s a rare gem that we get to actually celebrate. It was beyond any of our dreams, including Uncle Roy’s. And it was because of SurveyLA and long-term community outreach.

Larry Mantle: I want to go back to the idea of designing a new Los Angeles. Are people coming out of school with the kind of design expertise and creative ideas for the next generation of the garden apartment or the bungalow court? 

Luis Hoyos: Yes! School has gotten so profoundly technical that I—who teach there—wouldn’t get in today. Students are learning software that describes the performing aspects of buildings, so they can tweak a design to make it perform better for sustainability purposes. There are courses in net-zero building: buildings that do not consume energy, but generate their own energy and manages their own waste. All these things are being taught—and the students are being hired.

Margaret Bach: Early on preservation was rooted in a passion—a fire in the belly—before the professionalization of the field that has emerged over the past 40 years. Today, we have the opportunity to combine that passion and the field’s tremendous know-how with extraordinary new tools. For example, the National Trust has launched an initiative called ReUrbanism using mapping technology to identify areas in which there is potential for both preservation and revitalization.

Research and development is the challenge for preservation in the future. It is going to drive where we preserve, what we preserve, and for whom. We’ll be grappling with the intersection of historic preservation and the vital urban issues on the front page of every day’s L.A. Times.

Chris Hawthorne: My sense is that while the technical expertise in the schools is quite strong, what’s lacking is a discussion of the politics, zoning, and policy issues at play in designing—and executing—the new generation of courtyard apartments for Los Angeles.

We’re entering a period of complexity in terms of how the public views individual buildings. For the last decade or so, the buildings that are at risk, and that we are looking at preserving, are the buildings that were the products of urban renewal—or at least of a modernist idea about city-making that, in many cases, razed without much thought the neighborhoods that were there before. That makes the question about whether to preserve those buildings really tricky.

On top of that, typically, 40 years is the point at which important buildings fall into the gravest danger as individual landmarks. But those cycles of taste are spinning faster now because of the access we have through digital culture to the back catalog of every artistic medium, including architecture. I’d say that buildings now begin to fall into that shadowy area as early as age 25. Preservation needs think more proactively about education about the buildings that are between 25 and 50 years old. Right now, that means buildings from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.

For example, the Thompson Center or Illinois State Building in Chicago, by Helmut Jahn from the 1980s, is barely even 30 years old and is now threatened with demolition. The AT&T building by Philip Johnson in New York is also barely over 30 years and is having its ground-level spaces remade without much thought to the original design, form my point of view.

As the late 1960s urban renewal buildings have their own complexities in terms of historic preservation, so too, in different ways, do the buildings from the 1970s and ’80s into the ’90s. In LA, that means post-modern or “LA School” buildings, which were sometimes ironic, cheeky, or meant to challenge conventional notions of beauty—maybe even trying to be ugly. They’re not beloved in quite the same way; measuring their architectural value can be trickier. But just as talented artists don’t just want to paint beautiful sunsets—they’re trying to do something more challenging—plenty of architects feel that way as well.

This particular group of post-modern buildings across the country are going to be vulnerable now if they’re not already. My only plea is that we have a conversation about what made those buildings important, especially the ones that might be threatened, so that we can have a sophisticated conversation about which ones are worth saving.


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