As a City Council Planning and Land Use Management Committee hearing approaches on the proposed Miracle Mile Historic Preservation Overlay Zone, tensions are still running high between neighborhood stakeholders who favor the HPOZ and those who don’t. To help combat rumors and misinformation, and to try to find some common ground among the divided neighbors, City Council Member David Ryu held a town hall meeting last night, to provide facts about HPOZs, and to give stakeholders both pro and con a forum to voice their opinions.
About 150 people attended the meeting, held at John Burroughs Middle School, and it was obvious from the beginning that the organizers were expecting what might politely be referred to as a “lively” discussion: the meeting opened with a welcome and coaching on rules of decorous behavior by Kiara Nagel, a consultant hired by CD4, who specializes in “services to foster collaboration, grow healthy organizations, and support equitable community development,” according to her website. Local LAPD Senior Lead Officers were also present, unusual for a discussion of zoning and housing issues.
Basic information about HPOZs in general, and the Miracle Mile HPOZ in particular
After Nagel’s introduction, Council Member Ryu expressed his desire to help “restore trust” among the divided neighbors, as well as his goal of helping them find common ground. Ryu then turned the presentation over to Ken Bernstein, Manager and Principal City Planner at the Los Angeles Office of Historic Resources, who reviewed basic information about HPOZs. The major points included:
- While the city’s Baseline Mansionization Ordinance can help control the size and massing of new construction, it does not address architectural style, which means HPOZs are the city’s “best tool to maintain a neighborhood’s architectural character and sense of place.”
- The BMO and other new R1 zones being rolled out by the city do not affect multi-family properties; HPOZs are the only tool that extends protections to multi-family buildings.
- HPOZs do not “freeze” a neighborhood in time, but are – instead – a tool to help manage change and preserve the overall character of the area as homes are remodeled and/or replaced.
- HPOZs affect only the visible facade of a home, not the interior.
- HPOZs allow owners of contributing properties to apply for Mills Act contracts, which can provide property tax discounts of 20-80% in exchange for the homeowner’s agreement to reinvest the savings in the property.
- During the adoption process for the Miracle Mile HPOZ, 8,000 mailers were sent by the city to Miracle Mile residents and property owners, as well as neighbors within a 500-foot radius of the proposed HPOZ area.
- There have also been a number of well-attended community meetings and hearings as the HPOZ plans have taken shape.
- 80% of properties with the proposed Miracle Mile HPOZ area were deemed by an architectural resources survey to qualify as contributors or altered contributors to the neighborhood’s architectural character (which is well over the city’s 65% threshold).
- There are no additional fees required to present a proposed remodeling or construction project to an HPOZ governing board for review.
- HPOZ board meetings are fully transparent and open to the public.
- The Preservation Plan devised (and twice revised) for the Miracle Mile HPOZ emphasizes flexibility (especially regarding the sides and rear of homes) and is “one of the least restrictive” among any of the city’s 34 current HPOZs.
- The Preservation Plan does not restrict paint colors or landscaping materials, including drought-tolerant landscaping (as long as at least 60% of the front yard contains plant materials of some sort).
- Homeowners do not need certified arborist approval for tree choices or sizes.
- Solar panels are not restricted.
- Modern design elements are allowed as long as they’re “sensitively scaled” for the neighborhood,.
- Window replacements are allowed.
- Additions that increase the home’s square footage can also be approved (including second story additions).
- Satellite dishes are allowed (rules would encourage their installation on the side or rear of a home, but they could still be allowed if the only possible location is on the front facade).
Community Q & A
After Bernstein’s remarks, City Planning Associate Renata Dragland presented questions submitted by audience members, who asked for clarifications on some of the above information, but also brought up a number of new topics:
Why is an HPOZ necessary even with the new Baseline Mansionization Ordinance taking effect?
Again, according to Bernstein, the BMO will only cover single-family properties, while Miracle Mile has a large number of multi-family properties that are not protected by the BMO. Also, according to Ryu, unlike the BMO, the HPOZ addresses historic preservation, and the unique character of Los Angeles neighborhoods, not just the size and massing of buildings.
How can the city guarantee that there will be no additional costs, taxes or fines to property owners under an HPOZ?
Bernstein clarified that there are no costs, taxes or fines unique to an HPOZ. Standard permit fees apply (though they may be slightly higher for some larger projects in an HPOZ)…and code violation fees are the same as for any other properties.
Will the City Council take a final vote on the Miracle Mile HPOZ before the current Interim Control Ordinance (which provides some protections against teardowns and the construction of oversize homes) expires on March 25?
Ryu said that both the PLUM Committee and City Council votes will take place before March 25, and that he will make his decision about which way to vote within the next two weeks.
What are the rules for building additions – can you build up or back?
Bernstein provided some visual examples of additions – large, small and second-story – which have been successfully approved and built in other (more restrictive) HPOZs. He said the goal is to add mass in a way that “doesn’t overwhelm” neighboring properties.
What are the disadvantages to an HPOZ?
Bernstein noted that perceived “disadvantages” are often subjective, but the item most often seen as a disadvantage is that having an HPOZ does add an extra step to the permitting review process for many remodeling and construction projects.
If the HPOZ applies only to the front of a property, why is there so much discussion about windows and other details on the sides and rear of properties?
Bernstein reiterated that the HPOZ generally covers the “visible” areas of the property…which can include sides and rears, in addition to fronts, depending on the building. He noted again, however, that the Preservation Plan for the Miracle Mile HPOZ is one of the most flexible in the city, especially in its rules for side and rear facades.
What is the turnaround time for permitting projects within an HPOZ?
Bernstein noted that it can vary, depending on the type of project and the amount of review that it requires. Some simple requests can be approved in just one day. He did acknowledge that as the number of HPOZs grow (there are several others in the works besides the 34 that currently exist), the number of project review requests will grow as well, which will require more staff time. Ryu noted, however, that now that the city’s work on the new BMO is almost complete, that will free up many planners who have been dedicated to that project, and they will once again be available for other work on things like HPOZs.
What are the effects of HPOZs on property values?
Bernstein said the city has never done an official study of property values in HPOZ areas, but people have seen “very healthy appreciation of property values in HPOZs throughout the city.” He says people have expressed interest in buying properties in HPOZ neighborhoods because they value the historic character of those places…and because they like knowing that they things they like about a protected neighborhood “will still be there in 20 or 30 years.” He gave an example of Jefferson Park as one HPOZ neighborhood that has seen much higher rates of appreciation than surrounding neighborhoods, since its HPOZ went into effect. “It doesn’t depress values, in our experience,” said Bernstein. “And it can lead to significant increases.”
How would the HPOZ affect the ability to make changes or repairs to sidewalks, driveways and front steps?
Dragland explained that sidewalks and driveways in the public right of way are not covered by the HPOZ, but the permitting process would be the same as for any other work, and some projects would need to be reviewed by a planner to make sure they’re compatible with HPOZ guidelines.
What if a homeowner can’t afford historically-appropriate replacement windows?
Berstein said that the city’s preference is always for homeowners to repair instead of replacing original windows, but replacements could be allowed as long as the style and materials are compatible with those original to the building. Also, one purpose of the HPOZ review board is to assist the homeowner in finding compatible and affordable options.
How does the Mills Act work?
Bernstein explained that the Mills Act is a completely voluntary program. Owners of contributing properties in an HPOZ are eligible to apply during a specific period each year (this year’s deadline is March 1). If accepted, the city uses an “income approach to valuation” (based on projected rental values), to calculate property tax discounts for the owners. Savings are often in the 80% range, so a home valued at $1 million, which would normally have taxes of $10,000, could see those taxes reduced to $2,000. In turn, the homeowner and the city would create a 10-year work plan for the home, guaranteeing that the owner would reinvest the tax savings in property improvements. Bernstein noted, however, that such contracts do tend to benefit new owners, with higher taxes and lots of work left to do on their properties, to a greater degree than longer-term owners, who have lower taxes and have already done a lot of restoration work.
How are HPOZ board members selected?
Bernstein explained that each HPOZ is governed by a 5-member review board. Two members are interviewed, vetted and appointed by the Cultural Heritage Commission…and of those two, one must be an architect, and one a community member. The City Council office chooses one of the other members, and the Mayor’s office another (who must have real estate or construction experience – usually a realtor or contractor). And the fifth member is appointed by the four other board members, with approval by the local Neighborhood Council.
Has there ever been a survey or vote on the success (or lack thereof) of an HPOZ after it has gone into effect?
Bernstein said no such surveys have ever been done…but that among the 34 existing HPOZs, some of which have been in existence since 1983, none have ever been repealed. Ryu added that he would be willing to conduct such a review for the Miracle Mile HPOZ, if adopted, a year or two down the road.
How would the two new state laws on Accessory Dwelling Units (“granny flats”) affect an HPOZ?
Bernstein noted that whatever new state (or city) laws are enacted would still apply to the neighborhood, regardless of HPOZ status.
Could HPOZ protections be “overruled” by Metro?
Bernstein explained that Metro has the right to purchase properties for its projects, but that it has no land use authorizations over any nearby properties that they do not own. And they don’t currently own any property in the proposed Miracle Mile HPOZ area.
How will the HPOZ be enforced, and what would happen to property owners who make changes to their properties without consulting the HPOZ board?
Bernstein said that it is up to the Department of Building and Safety to enforce all building codes. When permit or code violations in an HPOZ area are reported to the Cultural Heritage Commission, it coordinates with DBS to investigate and potentially cite the violations.
What is “scortched earth”?
According to Bernstein, any egregious property demolition (anywhere in the city, not just in an HPOZ area), done without proper permits, may result in the owner not being allowed to build anything new on the property for a period of five years.
Why can’t the current ICO remain in effect, or become a permanent ordinance?
Bernstein noted that the interim control ordinance, which does provide some protections against teardowns and the construction of oversized homes is, by its name and definition, “interim” or temporary. He said some other sort of permanent ordinance could potentially be created by the city council, but even if the protections were the same, it would not address the historic character of the area, as an HPOZ would.
What were the results of the HPOZ survey letters sent out recently by City Council Members David Ryu and Herb Wesson to stakeholders in the proposed HPOZ areas?
Ryu said he has not yet heard from Mr. Wesson’s office, but hopes to soon. Also, he noted that his own CD4 letter was not an official “vote” or “poll,” but merely a mechanism by which stakeholders could provide their input on the topic. He said his staff is still compiling that input, but he will review it and release a report in the next two weeks.
Why do renters seem to have the same amount of “power” on this issue as property owners?
This was one of the most divisive questions of the evening, with protest shouts from audience members in both camps. But Ryu reminded the attendees that he is seeking input from all community members because he is the elected representative for all community members, and will be making decisions that affect all stakeholders, whether they rent or own their homes.
Who commissioned the historical resources survey that determined whether or not properties are considered historic?
Bernstein said the survey was commissioned and paid for by the Miracle Mile Residential Association, which employed Architectural Resources Group, a consulting firm long used and thoroughly vetted by the city for such surveys.
Are areas outside the proposed HPOZ boundaries (such as the blocks between Wilshire and 8th Street, which were recently removed from the proposed HPOZ area by the City Planning Commission) really more vulnerable to demolition?
Bernstein said that would be the case, since there is no additional level of review, outside the normal permitting process, for properties outside HPOZ boundaries. Owners and developers would be free to tear down and re-build on those properties, to whatever limits (size, height, etc.) are allowed by the current zoning…or perhaps greater than those limits, if they apply for variances or zone changes.
If the HPOZ forced owners to use more expensive building materials, can the costs of those materials be passed on to tenants in rent-controlled units?
Bernstein said that city laws do allow some construction costs to be passed on to tenants, but reiterated that the HPOZ board can often help to identify less expensive materials and building options, which can help keep costs down in the first place.
The final segment of last night’s meeting allowed attendees to provide their personal comments on the proposed HPOZ, with a limit of one minute per speaker. Among the 35 people who commented, the sentiments were pretty equally divided, with 22 speaking in favor of the proposed HPOZ, and 23 speaking against it.
Among those who expressed support for the measure, many were longtime renters and owners, many of whom either grew up in the neighborhood or raised their children there. Those speakers said they want to preserve the character and sense of community that both drew them to and kept them in this specific place for so many years. One resident noted that on her recent travels in Europe, the carefully preserved older sections of each city she visited tended to be the most desirable and thriving neighborhoods, for both residents and visitors. Others agreed, with another noting that Miracle Mile’s original housing stock provides a unique and valuable look into the 1920s and ’30s history of the city, when the advent of the automobile was first creating new “suburban” neighborhoods. Another resident said the architectural character of the area, and the sense of community it fosters, is the “goose that laid the golden egg” and attracted most of the people who live there. Losing those specific character elements, she said, would be disastrous for the neighborhood. “When all we have is ashes, we have nothing.”
Many of those opposed to the HPOZ, however, disagreed. The most common theme among the objections to the HPOZ was the potential abridgment of individual property rights. One speaker said that he and many other people purchased homes in Miracle Mile specifically because it had no building restrictions (so the current proposal feels like a “bait and switch”)…while another argued that the most valuable element of any property purchase is the “dirt” below, and not whatever building currently occupies it. Others expressed concerns about having to submit to the tastes or (possibly more expensive) choices of an architectural review board, rather than being entirely free to make their own choices for their own homes or buildings. And finally, a number of protesters also disagreed with the city’s definition and designation of local homes as “historic.” One speaker, a local realtor, said she has been selling homes in the area for 30 years, but does not consider the housing stock historic – in fact, she said, most homes are actually “falling apart” and “not pretty.” Others agreed and referred to a 1990 city survey that declared the area’s architectural fabric “already compromised” more than 25 years ago.
It was interesting to note that – despite the information presented at this and many other community meetings over the last couple of years – speakers on both sides of the issue spoke of misinformation being circulated in the community, and questions and comments demonstrated that there are still many residents who don’t yet fully understand the basic principles of HPOZs (e.g. some seemed to think an HPOZ would force them to do certain work on their homes, or make them undo work already done, neither of which is the case).
Finally, several anti-HPOZ protesters expressed disappointment that the evening’s speaker panel contained only city voices and no one specifically opposed to HPOZs, which implied – to them – that Council Member Ryu has already made up his mind in favor of the HPOZ. Other speakers addressed Ryu directly, saying that his choice on whether or not to support the proposed HPOZ would likely be the most significant decision he will have to make during his tenure in office.
Ryu, in his closing remarks, reiterated his promise to make a decision, one way or the other, within the next two weeks, and in advance of the upcoming PLUM Committee hearing. In response to attendees’ claims that the HPOZ issue is “tearing the neighborhood apart,” Ryu disagreed, saying “You are not divided. There may be disagreements, but you are all still neighbors,” and noting again that his goal for the evening was to facilitate community input and help people find common ground in the discussion.