September 18, 2023 - From the September, 2023 issue

Preservation Deserves a Place at the Table: Christy McAvoy on Preservation Planning in 2023

As the desperate race to find suitable land to build more housing in Los Angeles continues on at any cost, even if that cost might be the lives of the land’s current tenants, how preservation fits into the future of the city has come into question. TPR spoke with historic preservation legend Christy McAvoy on preservation planning and how many organizations like the Conservancy will be at the forefront of cultivating the next generation of planners.

Christy McAvoy

“Any leader that takes up the mantle of Linda Dishman… has a tremendous challenge. The [Conservancy’s] challenge is enhanced by the fact that there has been, as we're talking about, less of a priority in local government for preservation right now.” - Christy McAvoy

Let's begin by provocatively asking: Are the headlines that preservation is dead as a political cause premature?

Preservation is not dead as a political cause. Headlines about housing have overshadowed its presence in the media, but it is definitely not dead and is growing in diversity and inclusivity.

In the planning school departments of Southern California Universities, planning goals too often have been reduced to simply increasing housing supply. Little attention is given to the value of preservation. Is that an inaccurate read?

There's a bigger role for preservation than is in the current rhetoric because we still have a lot of buildings that are adaptable to affordable housing and housing in general. If we just continue to ignore that whole bulk of housing stock, we're taking away a whole segment of the market in terms of affordable housing and of middle class housing that is under rent control. So preservation of housing still has a role to play, because we're never going to build our way out of this.

Some assert that real estate interests and hedge funds like BlackRock have hijacked the city planning and managed growth agenda, allowing the state legislature to usurp local planning powers. Any truth to this assertion?  

I'm still a big proponent of local planning because I think that you can make a lot of targeted, very good decisions. There is a place for growth and density and you can be very creative community by community about where those places land. If people aren't willing to think about those opportunities on a community by community basis, we lose the richness of the city.

It appears, from polling, that the memes of those aforementioned private interests have captured the imagination of the under 40 generation, rightfully upset about being priced out of the housing and rental markets. They appear to accept, without question, that  increasing supply by right will allow them to afford housing. Preservation is often portrayed as supporting “NIMBY-ism.” Your thoughts? 

Until you talk to the under 40 crowd, take them on a walking tour, or talk about what they like about neighborhoods, and what they're looking for in a house… They're not all looking for apartments in high rise buildings. A lot of them are looking for the same kind of character, the same kind of quality of life, that preservation has always brought to the planning conversation.

What's the track record of preservationists advocating for greater affordable housing opportunities?

Preservationists have a great track record in affordable housing. Examples are the Mary Andrews Clark YWCA, Hollywood bungalow courts developed by Hollywood Community Housing, the Paul Williams Apartments (Angeles Funeral Home, and the Downtown Women’s Center.

Funnily enough, if you think about the different decades of preservation in Los Angeles and what themes have run through preservation planning, its always been about equity, providing affordable housing and getting the economic means to do so, like tax credits and adaptive reuse ordinances. Those are things that are grounded in preservation planning. 

For some reason, we've forgotten that the adaptive reuse movement was grounded in the preservation of older buildings. That seems to have escaped us now in the conversation. If you look at the way that preservation has projected itself over decades, we've always had a presence in housing; looking for compatible new development and saving buildings by putting housing in.

If you were invited to give a lecture to a planning school class at UCLA today, what would be your message to them?

Understand the complexity of the city and how the built environment plays a role in the city servicing its citizens. That actually is a preservation message. You've got to tell people stories through the physical environment. And if you don't keep those stories physically grounded, you've lost a lot of the richness of the city.

In your opinion, is there today a significant political audience in support of preservation?

I think that's the challenge. 

The challenge for the preservation organizations is to keep passing that generational torch and making sure that you have a diverse membership in all ways, and that includes age brackets. When we bring those people to the table, when we talk to them, when we hire them, then there are still preservationists in the pipeline. There's still younger people in preservation doing great work. So that's the positive side of preservation. But the level of argument is drowning out the nuances of preservation.

On that subject, have you or other preservations had any meaningful civic interactions with the newer City Councilmembers or with the new Mayor regarding preservation? Are you hopeful about these interactions, or distressed?

I haven't really had very many conversations, so I'm not an expert on this. One of the hopeful signs that I saw, which is probably one of my only examples at this point, is that Karen Bass chose to have her launch when she became mayor at a very underrated historic building in Los Angeles. It was at the Ebell Club, which was the institution founded by women, for women, and she chose that venue to make one of her first speeches about how she was going to position herself in Los Angeles.

The LA Conservancy will soon decide on a replacement for Linda Dishman. Elaborate on the challenges that any new Conservancy leader will face.

Any leader that takes up the mantle of Linda Dishman, who has been there for 31 years and has grown the Conservancy, has a tremendous challenge. The challenge is enhanced by the fact that there has been, as we're talking about, less of a priority in local government for preservation right now. The political side and political organization in Los Angeles is not conducive to having the kinds of conversations that the Conservancy needs to have. The organization knows that and is going to continue to move in that fashion of urban planning. It's, again, a challenging time for preservation, but that does not mean that LAC and others will not continue to press hard to have the issue included both in political and educational forums.

To close: Should the departing President of the Conservancy include in a letter in her desk drawer to her successor, what would you advise Linda write in that letter?

Well, she'll have to speak for herself. But I do think that the direction of the Conservancy will continue to be that it will educate the public and organize the advocacy effort for preservation in Los Angeles. This summer, the Conservancy did an in-depth institute on preservation where high school students were immersed in preservation for three weeks, and I saw that it's a very creative way of getting the intergenerational knowledge on the ground so that we can introduce preservation to a younger audience.

Outreach and partnerships will be the name of the game. Many organizations, not just LAC, will have to train the next generation. Among those are the National Trust for Historic Preservation, The California Preservation Foundation, and USC’s Heritage Conversation program; all will play a role.


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