Last Friday, supporters of the effort to establish an Historic Preservation Overlay Zone in the Miracle Mile neighborhood took their campaign to a new arena – the silver screen (or at least the computer screen) – with the posting of a new documentary short video, “The Fight for 744,” on the Miracle Mile Residential Association’s YouTube channel.
The seven-and-a-half-minute video, which has been viewed 671 times since it was posted, provides a brief history of the HPOZ effort in Miracle Mile, including a controversial decision by the City Planning Commission in December to re-draw the HPOZ boundaries and remove the blocks closest to Olympic and Wilshire Blvds. (which include as many as 500 rent-stabilized housing units). After that general introduction, however, the video focuses in on one specific building – a six-unit apartment at 744 S. Ridgeley Drive – which is currently threatened with demolition, and which provides a good case study of several more specific issues involved in the HPOZ discussion.
According to the video, tenants of 744 S. Ridgeley knew the building had been sold to a new owner in January. Then, shortly after the sale was finalized, the new owner, Kamyar Lashgari, called a meeting with the tenants. At that meeting, as tenant Nick Zayas recounts in the video, one of the attendees asked Lashgari, “Well, what do you intend to do with the building? And he said, “Well, tear it down, of course.”
Lashgari apparently applied for a demolition permit on February 15… and just five days later, he delivered “Early Termination and Relocation Agreements” to the tenants, listing an August 1 vacancy date. The agreement – shown in the video – doesn’t use the word “eviction,” but it provides spaces to fill in a relocation fee, and asks tenants to waive their rights not to be evicted under local rent stabilization laws. (One of those laws, the Ellis Act, makes it illegal to evict tenants to demolish a building and build new apartments on the site for a period of five years.)
According to the video’s co-producer Ken Hixon, vice president of the Miracle Mile Residential Association, this repeats something that happened at another Miracle Mile building, 736 S. Ogden, which was torn down a few years ago. In that case, the owners used tenant “buyouts” to get around restrictions imposed by the Ellis Act…which is becoming more common as time goes on.
Greg Goldin, a Miracle Mile resident and Hixon’s co-producer on the video, said of the developments at 744 S. Ridgeley: “It was like, connect the dots – in December, the CPC made their decision (to exclude the 700 blocks), and in January the next thing that happens is these “eviction” notices.”
Hixon said the notices were also issued about two days before City Council Member David Ryu hosted a town hall meeting on the proposed HPOZ, where he listened to often angry testimony from neighbors both for and against the HPOZ. Hixon says he told Goldin at that point that “You’ve got to start writing about this.” And as they talked about it, the idea for the documentary blossomed. Hixon also engaged his son, Sam, who runs a commercial casting studio, and the three of them began interviewing residents of 744 S. Ridgeley.
“We felt really strongly that the story of these people whose buildings are now imperiled” needed to be told, Goldin told the Buzz . He said the stories bring the HPOZ discussion to life in a very tangible way. “Buildings are abstractions,” Goldin said, “They are only given meaning and vitality by people who live there.” And, in this case, they also tell the story of what’s at stake in the HPOZ disucssion. “There are human beings that are going to be displaced. We need to have some humanity to this,” he said.
Goldin said that the timing of the de facto evictions at 744 S. Ridgeley focuses attention on both the need for the HPOZ in general, and the more specific urgency to return to the original boundaries, including the blocks adjacent to Wilshire and Olympic. “The owner at 744 S. Ridgeley kind of provided the narrative,” Goldin said.
First of all, he explained, the buildings just south of Wilshire Blvd. are, historically, “the starting place of the Miracle Mile as a residential neighborhood.” They were the first residential buildings constructed in the area as Wilshire Blvd. grew into a major shopping and transit corridor. Also, this building is particularly noteworthy, both Hixon and Goldin said, because it was designed by Edith Northman (1893-1956), the first female licensed architect in Los Angeles. (Three of Northman’s buildings are in the areas newly excluded from the proposed HPOZ.) And Hixon says, “This is her best building in the Miracle Mile.”
Also, the story of this particular building highlights the major importance of multi-family buildings in the Miracle Mile HPOZ. In fact, while many people think of single family homes when discussing historic preservation, the Miracle Mile HPOZ, “even in its reduced form,” said Hixon, “will have more multi-family buildings than any other HPOZ.” He also noted that about 70% of Miracle Mile residents are renters, and about 65% of its properties are multi-family.
Goldin said the CPC’s goal in excluding the multi-family blocks adjacent to Wilshire and Olympic Blvds. was to maintain the potential for new, denser development in those transit-adjacent areas. But in addition to ignoring the historic value of the existing buildings, Goldin says, the Commission didn’t really consider whether or not the area – which has seen a huge boom in residential construction in the last few years – is “already overbuilt.” “We don’t have the facts,” he said.
Goldin said he also questions frequently-mentioned theories that large new residential developments near transit will encourage more residents to use public transit. He said there is “some” evidence that “if you build it, they will ride.” But he also noted that almost all new construction in the area falls into the “luxury” category, and residents in that demographic actually own more cars per household than residents of more affordable housing. Still other studies, he said, show that people with higher incomes also drive more miles per year than people of more modest means.
Finally, Goldin notes that tenants in larger, newer buildings also tend to be more transient and less invested in the surrounding neighborhood than those who live in smaller, older buildings. “Those [big, new] buildings don’t help neighborhoods, they destroy them,” he said.
The 744 S. Ridgely tenants featured in the video agree. Michael Dykes, who has lived in the building for 12 years, and Nick Zayas, who has lived there about three years, show off some of the vintage details of their building…and compare it to the more modern building across the street, which Dykes says is “just like a hotel” and “not homey at all.” It’s “more like a dorm,” says Zayas.
And both of them want to fight their new landlord’s buyout offer. “I’m not signing that form,” Zayas says in the video.
Hixon said he sent the video to City Council Member David Ryu, who promised at the February 23 town hall meeting to announce his final position on the HPOZ (and its proposed boundaries) within two weeks, well ahead of a scheduled March 21 City Council vote on the subject. Ryu also said at the town hall meeting that he would issue a report, in the same time period, on responses he received to a recent query his office sent to residents in the proposed HPOZ area. But it’s been nearly three weeks since those promises, and Hixon said he has not heard from Ryu…either about the video or the more important announcement of Ryu’s official position on the HPOZ. (Ryu’s office has also not responded yet to a query from the Buzz about Ryu’s decision.)
In the meantime, Hixon said the MMRA has received more than 1100 responses (in the form of letters and petition signatures) to its own requests for residents to show their support for returning the areas along Wilshire and Olympic to the proposed HPOZ. And he said the new video “is an example of how we bang the drum loudly.”
Hixon says the 744 S. Ridgely story is still unfolding, but he hopes to interview more tenants, there and in other threatened buildings, and do more videos – maybe one per month. He and his partners might also edit the shorter pieces together into a longer documentary at some point. “I think we should,” said Hixon.
In the meantime, however, Hixon said, “Every time an RSO (rent-controlled building), or historic property is placed in jeopardy, we’re going to be there…We want to continue to use this technology to cover the story of the people who live in these really graceful buildings in the Miracle Mile. To them, this is home.”
“A city doesn’t lose its soul in one fell swoop,” says tenant Zayas in the video. “It gets chipped away, bit by bit, until what was a city of character becomes a generic metropolis. I hope that doesn’t happen here.”