The City Council Planning and Land Use Management Committee voted yesterday to support an Historic Cultural Monument application for Tom Bergin’s Bar and Restaurant – minus the parking lot adjacent to the building.
The vote came after more than an hour of discussion, during which all five of the PLUM Committee members questioned the wisdom of granting historic status to a now-closed business, especially one where the underlying property could potentially be sold for housing development. In addition, there was much debate over what constitutes historic value, and whether cultural significance, without a structure that is also designated architecturally significant, is enough to warrant an historic designation.
On that topic, Ken Bernstein, manager of the city’s Office of Historic Resources, explained that the city can name an Historic Cultural Monument based on one or more of three factors, including whether a site:
Is identified with important events of national, state, or local history, or exemplifies significant contributions to the broad cultural, economic or social history of the nation, state, city or community;
Is associated with the lives of historic personages important to national, state, city, or local history; or
Embodies the distinctive characteristics of a style, type, period, or method of construction; or represents a notable work of a master designer, builder, or architect whose individual genius influenced his or her age.
Bernstein explained that the Cultural Heritage Commission, which earlier approved the landmark application, did not find that Bergin’s met the criteria for architectural significance, or being associated with historic personages, but it did find that Bergin’s “exemplifies broad cultural, economic or social history of the…community.” Bernstein said the business has definitely become “ingrained in the community’s collective memory.”
PLUM Committee member Bob Blumenfeld, in particular, however, took issue with this type of designation, noting that although the building (constructed in 1949 and actually the second location of original owner Bergin’s business) was not deemed sufficiently historic to preserve on its own merits, the cultural designation would still preserve the building – which he considered something of a paradox. “This one gives me a lot of heartburn,” Blumenfeld said, suggesting that what is really necessary is a complete overhaul of the city’s historic designation process.
Bernstein and others at the hearing, however, noted that there are many other local Historic Cultural Monuments that have been designated on such criteria, including the Black Cat bar in Silverlake (which experienced an anti-LGBT raid two years before the historic Stonewall Inn raid and riot in New York City), and the Venice Cafe (which was a significant location in the “Beat” movement of the 1950s). Historic designation, Bernstein said, is the city’s recognition that a building – even if not an architectural superstar – is “a tangible connection to its cultural importance, history and connectedness.”
From this point, the discussion quickly widened to include the current housing crisis, and the suggestion – if not moral imperative – that every available lot in the city be made available for construction of new housing units. It was a drum beat loudly by the property owners’ representaive Ben Resnick and the current owners, Frank and Derek Schreck. (The Schrecks have been fighting the landmark designation so they can sell the property to developers and recoup at least part of the financial losses they experienced while trying to revive the Tom Bergin’s business. )
Resnick, in an empassioned speech at the opening of the public comment section of yesterday’s meeting, reminded the committee that “our city is in crisis” and suggested that voting to preserve Bergin’s, which qualified for historic significance on just one of the three potential criteria, would “dilute the entire concept of historic significance.”
PLUM Committee Member Gil Cedillo was also reticent to accept the historic qualifications of Bergin’s, and noted that while some designated landmarks do create great vibrancy in their areas, other, like Heritage Square, have not. “I don’t know if we can afford this luxury” in today’s housing market, he said.
Others, however, did not accept the argument that the Bergin’s site would be better used for housing, and pointed out that any new apartments or condos built there would almost certainly be market-rate and not the kind of affordable housing most needed right now. Those voices included that of John Welborne, land use attorney and publisher of the Larchmont Chronicle, who did not appreciate the diversion from the historic focus of the discussion and said he was “offended by the idea that this is a proxy fight” about real estate or housing.
Meanwhile, Shelley Wagers, a Beverly Grove resident who has been active in several local preservation efforts in recent years, contended that focusing solely on housing construction is also bad for the city’s long-term prospects. “If you think respecting buldings and neighborhoods of character is not important,” Wagers said, “Los Angeles will become one of the biggest cities in the world, but it will never be a world class city.”
Also, Bernstein pointed out that historic designation does not necessarily preclude future adaptive reuse of the property, including additions to the current building. Instead, he explained, granting landmark status would simply establish a new review process, to help ensure that acknowledgement of the property’s history is part of any new redevelopment plans. He also noted that 95% of reviews on applications for historic properties are completed the same day they’re received, so they usually don’t add any time or costs to the permitting process.
Another big thread in the conversation at yesterday’s hearing was whether the Bergin’s location would ever again be viable as a bar and/or restaurant, or whether redevelopment is the only way forward for the site. Co-owner Frank Schreck recounted that three owners in a row have now tried and failed to make a go of Bergin’s as a bar and restaurant, and Derek Schreck insisted that it will never reopen as such. Frank Schreck also conteded that the people who used to patronize the business in its heyday have moved away from the neighborhood, while Cedillo claimed that while people in LA do still go out to bars and restaurants, “none of them went to Bergin’s.”
Others, however, took a much more optimistic view. Miracle Mile Residential Association President Jim O’Sullivan reported that 3,000 new housing units have been built in the Miracle Mile area in recent years (which would indicate that the area’s population is going up, not down), while resident Ann Rubin pointed out that the area is poised to attract even more visitors and tourists as the Purple Line Subway stop and the new Academy Museum open soon at Wilshire and Fairfax, just a block away.
Also, MMRA Vice President Ken Hixon reminded the Committee that Derek Schreck himself used to be one of the property’s biggest boosters. Quoting from a 2013 story here in the Buzz, Hixon read this very different statement from Schreck, made shortly after he bought Bergin’s:
“It’s easy to shine when you’re working with gold,” Schreck said. “This place is an institution. This isn’t an ownership, this is a stewardship. We need to take care of this place for the next generation.”
Meanwhile, other speakers noted that several other historic sites, which had languished under previous owners, later found new life with new owners who both appreciated and promoted their historic significance. Among these, said Keith Nakata, a member of the Mid-City West Community Council, are the Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood (reopening soon with many of its most historic features restored after a previous non-historic remodel), and Union Station’s old Harvey House restaurant, which recently re-opened as the new Imperial Western Brew Pub. The current owners of Tom Bergin’s were not successful, Nakata acknowledged, but he said the failure was not the fault of the building itself.
As the discussions continued, the focus shifted again, toward whether the whole Bergin’s property should be protected, or whether part of it – such as the parking lot – should be left out of any historic designation, to make it easier to redevelop at least that area. There were also questions about whether the interior of the property, as well as the exterior, would be protected with HCM status. (Joe Bergin, grandson of Tom Bergin, reported in a letter to the Committee, read during Public Comments, that he’s been exploring moving some of the bar’s most distinctive features to re-open the business at a new location.)
Bernstein explained that the city typically designates a full property as historic, but also verified that there is no rule preventing the city from subtracting certain areas from the designation.
And in the end, that’s the direction the Committee took. Cedillo moved that the Committee support the HCM nomination for Bergin’s, minus the parking lot, and the motion passed unanimously.
After the meting, MMRA Vice President Hixon told the Buzz that he was happy with the decision. “We are pleased that Tom Bergin’s future didn’t end today. Bergin’s has always been a Los Angeles landmark, (and) today we are very close to making that fact official.”
Also, said Hixon, “If developing the parking lot as a multifamily building is done in a manner that respects this Los Angeles landmark and the community – and helps to alleviate any debt that impinges on Bergin’s future – that could be a happy ending for all. The opening later this year of the Academy Museum bodes well for Tom Bergin’s prospects – as does the Purple Line extension and all the new projects on the boards for the Miracle Mile.”
At the same time, however, Hixon said he would also welcome a return of Bergin’s as a bar and restaurant. “The Miracle Mile is experiencing a renaissance of new restaurants and bars,” he said. “We are adding more and more residential units every year. The market is strong and growing. Up until recent years, Bergin’s flourished as the quintessential neighborhood joint and the neighborhood is eager for its return.”
The landmark application will now move to the full City Council for a final vote, sometime before June 19 (the deadline for city action on the application).