September 16, 2019 - From the September, 2019 issue

Preservationists' Strong Reservations on SB 50: LA Conservancy's Linda Dishman & Adrian Scott Fine

In this interview, LA Conservancy's Linda Dishman and Adrian Scott Fine remind readers of the mission of preservation—to recognize, preserve, and revitalize historical architectural and cultural resources—and underscore the importance of historic housing on affordability and neighborhood placemaking. Citing creative housing solutions that are sensitive to the historic context of their surrounding communities, Dishman and Fine voice their organization's strong reservations on SB50 and legislation that cedes local development decision to the state in the name of streamlining the development process. 

Linda Dishman

“We see SB 50 as a very blunt approach to deal with an affordable housing shortage, and in many ways doesn’t allow for good planning to occur… It’s harmful, quite honestly, in terms of potential impacts to specific designated historic districts that exist now.”

What is the L.A. Conservancy’s response to SB 50, and legislation like it, which legitimately addresses the challenge of housing production, but in a way that restricts local government’s authority to protect historically significant buildings and limits input from neighborhoods.

Adrian Scott Fine: We see SB 50 as a very blunt approach to deal with an affordable housing shortage, and in many ways doesn’t allow for good planning to occur. It overrides existing planning that neighborhoods have spent, in some cases years, advocating for what they envision their neighborhood to be like and grow into in the future.

It’s harmful, quite honestly, in terms of potential impacts to specific designated historic districts that exist now. The last iteration of SB 50 didn’t even include nine of the city’s Historic Preservation Overlay Zones, and imposed an arbitrary cut-off date of 2010.

What specifically, Adrian, has the Conservancy found problematic SB 50’s impact on historic districts, demolitions, and infill construction. What work of Conservancy over the decades is  most threatened by SB 50 and like bills- such as SB 330?

Adrian Scott Fine: The designated neighborhoods—which right now have a process of design review and mechanisms to ensure that new developments are compatible—would be lost with legislation like this; a new development could be completely out of context and out of character with the rest of the neighborhood.

The bigger impact is that there are a lot of ‘historic’ neighborhoods that are not protected right now. They have been identified through SurveyLA as eligible, but not designated.   There will be many neighborhoods throughout the city that will potentially lose their eligibility with this type of wide-sweeping, blunt instrument affecting development in the city and across the state. 

Can one analogize Prop 13 with SB 50?  What should California’s have learned from Prop 13’s passage and promises?

Linda Dishman: I think we should learn that blunt forces have consequences that we don’t learn about for many years. There were dire predictions about Proposition 13 that came out during the election battle, but everybody saw it as it as a panacea to keep senior citizens in their homes. Rising property taxes were the focus.

Here we have a very similar—but different—poignant view that there’s not enough housing in our state, we have to do something about it, and this is what we do. However, we must really think through the consequences, if this legislation passes. With Prop 13, nobody knew that our entire school system—K – 12, junior college, and university—would be so disastrously impacted by the shift in property taxes in the state. 

Are policies that promote density and historic preservation necessarily at odds?

Adrian Scott Fine: We think that density and preservation go hand-in-hand. As an organization, we are pro-density, pro-affordable housing, and pro-housing in general. There are many examples where density has been added to historic neighborhoods successfully.

Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are great examples. As the state has allowed, and is creating more opportunities for ADUs in the city, we think they could help ease some of the housing shortage. Last year L.A. produced something like 4,000 ADUs, many of which are in the designated Historic Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZ). If anything, there should be a process for streamlining affordable ADUs in the city.

Linda Dishman: Years ago, in the Garvanza neighborhood near Highland Park, a developer wanted to tear down two historic houses and build a small-lot subdivision in their place. The community mobilized to save the homes.  They worked hard for many years and were able to add Garvanza to the Highland Park HPOZ, protecting the two houses and other contributing homes in the neighborhood.

What’s so remarkable about this story is that after the homes were saved, a preservation-minded developer stepped in and turned the two single-family homes into six units that blend beautifully with the historic district. The two historic houses were rehabilitated. One residence was divided to include a studio and the other’s garage was converted into a living unit. On the empty lot adjacent to the homes, a complementary new house was built with an ADU in the backyard.

A thoughtful approach like this creates a variety of housing, so we don’t end up with a city of small-lot subdivisions. We need to provide different kinds of housing, so that everything is not built the same within one certain market point.

In the spring of 2019, the L.A. Conservancy sent a letter to the sponsor of SB 50, Senator Scott Weiner, requesting amendments to his bill. What motivated this letter, and how it was received by the Senator?

Adrian Scott Fine: The biggest issue we expressed in that letter was SB 50’s failure to take into consideration recognized, but not yet designated or protected resources. In Los Angeles, we’re fortunate to have SurveyLA, so we know historic resources make up roughly 6 percent of the city  . This means that 94 percent can be developed without impacting historic resources.

Again, the problem is that the bill is a blunt legislative fix. L.A. is unique in that most cities across the state don’t know what historic resources they have. Senator Weiner was not very receptive to the idea of including eligible resources, and was looking only at either designated single landmarks or districts with the limitation that only those designated before 2010 are exempt.

How is the L.A. Conservancy coordinating with other historical preservation groups in the State of California on like housing bills and legislation? 

Adrian Scott Fine: We’re part of a consortium of organizations from San Diego to Pasadena to San Francisco that have been working collectively under the umbrella of the California Preservation Foundation. Together, we are identifying the issues within the legislative bills that have been popping up—all with similar themes, but different in terms of impacts. The California Preservation Foundation has been working through its lobbying arm to have specific conversations with various bill sponsors.

The most recent one is Senator Nancy Skinner who introduced SB 330. We’re pressing for amendments to improve the legislation and make it as least harmful to preservation, as possible. The bigger issue with these legislative proposals is whether they’re good for planning and allowing neighborhood groups to have an understanding and say about how change occurs. 

YIMBYs, their local government opponents assert, see local neighborhood homeowner and tenant groups ….and local planning efforts, as inefficient and, more bluntly, as obstacles to driving increased housing production; they prefer to by-pass local interests and grant authority over zoning and housing production to the state legislature. Is their any merit to their argument for wresting control from local control over planning and zoning? 

Adrian Scott Fine: A statewide fix like this goes against the foundation of how you plan a city. Each city has different neighborhoods, resources, challenges, and planning tools to address its needs. It completely ignores the variation that occurs from city to city.

That’s not to say that cities couldn’t be more aggressive in how they approach planning and housing affordability. We don’t question the need for this in terms of identifying this  as an affordable housing crisis. The state could offer incentives or other types of approaches to help local communities do this better and more effectively, but it really needs to happen at the local level. 

How is the Conservancy interfaced on community planning with the local planning departments in the region? Has it been collaborative and successful relationship? 


Linda Dishman: It depends on the city. We’re probably most engaged in the City of Los Angeles. We work closely with the planning department in a collaborative way to find a balance between new density and preservation.

Adrian Scott Fine: We work throughout L.A. County, but the reality is that only about a third of the cities in the county have any type of preservation tool or mechanism in place. Many communities do not understand the potential local impacts of these types of legislative proposals and what they mean for their neighborhoods that do not have preservation tools in place.

How might cities best safeguard their historic assets?

Adrian Scott Fine: We believe that every city should have as a baseline—a preservation ordinance, a survey, and knowledge of what resources they have. That is the starting point for good preservation planning. Again, only about one third of the communities are even doing a portion of that right now. 

Linda Dishman: Since this issue is now playing out in the state legislature, the answer is in the state legislature. They’re saying local protections don’t matter. We’re trying to find solutions to ensure these hard-fought protections don’t get lost. 

Elaborate on the L.A. Conservancy’s policy response to those in the state legislature who would give short shrift to preserving historic assets.           

Adrian Scott Fine: Our reaction is that existing tools, such as the Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ) should be respected. Allow them to operate as they are; all of them that exist today, and any that may be established in the future. We’ve pressed that eligible resources be considered in the process, not just designated resources.

            SB 330 creates an expedited process, so when the project application is deemed complete, it moves forward. The problem is that historic resources are often not identified until well after an application is submitted. We’re working on adding language that makes the developer proposing a project responsible for conducting due diligence and identifying potential historic resources early on.  It’s the only way things aren’t missed. It’s very much a ‘do no harm’ approach in terms of trying to address this legislation.

Are you surprised by the authors of SB 50 and SB 330 proposing to have the state override local jurisdictional authority over local zoning and planning?

Adrian Scott Fine: We’re not surprised or naïve that this is happening. California is not alone in its desire to increase housing production and focus on various sources of multi-family housing—from market rate to workforce housing to low-income—and how to speed up that process.

Much of the focus lately has been on single-family zoning. At the brunt of all this recently proposed legislation is how it impacts single-family zoning, which for many years was sacred. That’s changing and we recognize that. It’s very much where state legislative efforts are happening in a number of states right now, including California.

Linda Dishman: The other part is that because it is statewide legislation, it bears heavier on bigger cities with transit. If you were a city without much transit, it isn’t going to impact you as much.

Because L.A. does have transit—hopefully with the goal of continuing to get more transit—it’s sort of a disincentive. Major transit lines follow streetcar paths built around the neighborhoods of the time. These now historic neighborhoods, some HPOZs, some not, are more greatly exposed and impacted than areas outside the inner city.

Adrian Scott Fine: All the legislative proposals have imperfections in terms of what they’re trying to achieve. If you look at SB 592, it includes language that, on face value, looks like it’s attempting to allow for multi-family affordable housing development. It could, though, also simply allow for a much bigger house, a single unit such as a McMansion that adds more square footage but no density or affordable housing

Is this legislation going to achieve this result as intended, or is it just a loophole to allow a type of development that planning doesn’t allow right now? What are we achieving with this? Or, are we just going to have a negative impact and harm intact neighborhoods that exist today? 

What explains why in Southern California there’s been so little analytical discussion and debate about the impacts of these bills as they move through the legislature? Does that concern you at all?

Adrian Scott Fine: Absolutely. There are consequences to these policies that are not being considered or understood. The bills are moving so quickly that many communities don’t know that they’re even in the works. Many other neighborhoods are not aware of what these impacts will actually mean on the ground. It’s a race to increase housing production without thoughtful consideration about what it will actually allow and make happen and manifest itself as on L.A.’s built environment.

Those involved with preservation know well that the impact of poorly framed laws—despite best intentions—are often not correctable by a legislative fix crafted in the next session of the legislature. How are you informing decisionmakers about the long-lasting consequences of their decisions vis-a-vis the built environment?

Linda Dishman: That’s one of the things we through the statewide coalition have been pushing in these conversations with members of the Legislature and their staff. What are the implications and are there ways around them to reach the same goal? We are not saying that these are terrible bills. We are explaining their consequences and exploring what can be done to increase the number of housing units without denigrating the historic neighborhoods everyone knows and loves.

These are the places that people in Los Angeles feel strongly about. While those that live and work in these neighborhoods get the most enjoyment from them, there are many others who walk, ride, and drivethrough them each day. This is a city issue, not just a neighborhood issue. That’s why we’re focused on two things; the consequences of the bills and the amendments that can be made to lessen those consequences and still provide avenues for increased density.

What do you expect by years end to be the net impact of these legislative housing bills?

Linda Dishman: I don’t think we know what the answer is. We’re working really hard, and there are people that we are working with who are doing tremendous work at the grassroots level. We will just see how this sorts out, but we’re taking this very seriously. We’re focused on the solution, and we’ll see how these pieces come together.

The good thing is that preservationists across the state are focused on this, and I hope that is going to make the difference in terms of how the legislature responds. 


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