Leimert Park Faces Long Wait for City Historic Zone Approval

February 23, 2009
Note the HPOZ sign

Note the HPOZ sign

The short-staffed Los Angeles Department of City Planning faces such a backlog of proposed historic residential zones that some communities will wait years for a chance to qualify for the program, which helps preserve historic neighborhoods and offers considerable property tax reductions.

The city’s planning department oversees 24 Historic Preservation Overlay Zones, or HPOZs, whose residents have agreed to preserve their home’s historic charm. Since 1998, the program has tripled; the latest HPOZ, Wilshire Park, was adopted in November 2008. Homeowners in historic zones can benefit from property tax cuts of up to 80 percent, according to Ken Bernstein, manager of the Office of Historic Resources within the planning department.

With California’s $42 billion budget crisis, however, the department’s staff has shrunk by 80 people, leaving fewer people to manage existing historic zones and conduct preliminary surveys of a proposed HPOZ.

“We’ve not been able to stick to our original schedule in preparing those preservation plans because the staff that was supposed to work with the communities on those plans is no longer here,” Bernstein said.

Nevertheless, Joe Williams, the chairman of the Lafayette Square HPOZ board and homeowner in the area, encourages Leimert Park activists to remain patient for their chance to propose a historic zone in their neighborhood.

“The benefits far outweigh any negatives,” Williams said. “Wait it out.”

Communities that want to propose an HPOZ have two ways to do so. Local activists can get signatures from 75 percent of homeowners in a proposed zone and present the petition to the district’s councilmember. But most communities ask their councilmember to introduce a city council motion to initiate a new HPOZ. Before a community completes either process, full city council approval is required.

Possible HPOZ house

Possible HPOZ house

Thus far, Leimert Park has taken the door-to-door route, obtaining signatures from Leimert Park residents, some of whom place green “YES HPOZ” signs on their lawns. When the petition has 1,400 signatures, the petition will be brought to the district’s councilmember. Activists involved with No More Crime, Inc. and SaveLeimert.org believe an HPOZ designation for the area could help lower crime, stimulate the local economy and preserve its cultural significance. In the petition, Leimert Park is said to be a “model neighborhood” to become an HPOZ.

“Leimert Park is characterized by innovations in planning, distinguished architecture and a rich cultural heritage,” the petition states.

While existing HPOZs constitute between about 50 and 3,000 properties, a Leimert Park HPOZ would slot somewhere in the middle—the exact boundaries have not been firmly established. Roughly, though, the zone would encompass properties west of Crenshaw Boulevard, east of Sutro Avenue, south of Rodeo Road and north of West Vernon Avenue.

Part of the proposed HPOZ area is already a Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative (LANI) project area. LANI is a non-profit organization that helps communities around Los Angeles County start commercial redevelopment projects like new sidewalks, benches and landscaping. Lawrence Cole, a two-year Leimert Park resident, suggested lowering crime might be one benefit of maintaining the area.

“Preservation is always good for attracting the right kind of people to a neighborhood,” Cole said, adding that Leimert Park should join the 15 already proposed HPOZs awaiting a city inspection and potential approval.

Bold multifamily dwelling

Bold multifamily dwelling

“It shouldn’t be difficult to do here,” Cole said. “People who live here really care about this neighborhood.”
Karen Alexander, who has lived in Leimert Park for 12 years, is concerned the regulations of a historic zone would be too restrictive for local homeowners.

“I think a property owner should be able to change his property whichever way that he likes,” Alexander said.

City inspections of homes in historic zones only focus on the appearance from the street—no interior inspection is involved unless the homeowner opts for a 10-year contract through the Mills Act, in which case the homeowner must maintain and rehabilitate all portions of a property. Property tax reductions go into effect 16 months after one of the Mills Act applications, which cost $443, are received. The city limits the effect such reductions have on its bottom line to a maximum of $1 million a year.

When a property is not maintained according to the terms of a contract or is improperly altered, the owner is charged with a penalty based on 12.5 percent of the home’s fair-market value. Historic zone homes not in a Mills Act contract are not subject to fines, but Western Heights HPOZ homeowner Don Lynch wonders why not, especially given the state’s financial state.

“There are no fines for violating HPOZ [guidelines],” Lynch said, “and I think there should be.”

Although entering into a Mills Act contract is voluntary for homeowners living in an HPOZ, Bernstein stresses that, for a historic zone to truly work, full community cooperation helps.

“The district will only be successful in achieving its preservation goals if there’s full participation with all structures and property owners,” Bernstein said.

In Leimert Park, for example, city inspectors might be more likely to accept the area as worthy of an HPOZ if all the neighborhood’s houses are visually compatible. A bright red property like the one pictured here might be a problem with city inspectors.

“[The Department of City Planning] would be looking at whether the HPOZ hangs together historically,” Bernstein said, “whether it reflects historic subdivisions or tract boundaries.”

Some homeowners might be deterred from supporting an HPOZ because of the anticipated maintenance costs. Williams admits he probably would not start as many maintenance projects on his Lafayette Square home without the property tax reductions. Maintenance costs on an HPOZ home are not always greater than a non-HPOZ home, according to Bernstein.

“It’s not always the case that historic rehabilitation and restoration costs more, and often, it’s just a matter of staying on top of day to day maintenance,” Bernstein said.

While an understaffed Department of City Planning inspects proposed HPOZs, Leimert Park and other communities interested in applying to become an HPOZ can reduce the city’s workload by doing as much historical research on the area as possible before a city inspection. Interested homeowners might also attend the HPOZ Conference meeting on May 30, open to all historic zone homeowners and the general public.


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