Wednesday, March 5, 2003
Renters rally to save their homes
Lisa Kelly and Ken Lee stand
in the kitchen of their Kelton Avenue apartment, which features a
number of vintage touches including a mushroom-shaped arch. Photo
by Gary McCarthy
By Brian Lewis
A group of Westwood residents will find out today if their effort to save their homes from the wrecking ball has been successful. That's when the Cultural Heritage Commission is scheduled to vote whether to designate the three 75-year-old apartment buildings on the 1800 block Kelton Avenue as city historic-cultural monuments. The renters began rallying to save their homes last fall when a developer purchased the three buildings and filed for a demolition permit to build a condominium project in their place. Along the way, they began researching the history of their homes -- learning that the small buildings had been developed in the late 1920s and early 1930s by the Janss Investment Corporation in the first phase of what would become Westwood.
But while they have enlisted the support of their neighbors, along with historic preservationists, architectural historians and 5th District City Councilman Jack Weiss, the new property owner is fighting the move, calling the buildings not worthy of landmark status.
Both the buildings and their tenants stand out on the stretch of Kelton just below Little Santa Monica Boulevard. The pale, Spanish/Mediterranean-style two-story structures with tile roofs, large picture windows and many original details such as wood floors, high ceilings, wall sconces and mushroom-shaped arches sit surrounded by anonymous, modern apartment buildings and condominium complexes. And the residents who have called them home for years, some as long as five decades, form a tight-knit, cohesive family who ask one another if their door is open and they can go inside.
"They are beautiful, they're Los Angeles," says resident Sharon Eisenberg, who moved in last fall shortly before the buildings were sold. "They are triplexes in a world of 48-, 58-, 68-unit condos. And together they form a long string of history."
"They don't make things like this anymore," adds resident Ken Lee, who moved in nine years ago and is now grudgingly moving out, having purchased a house after getting an eviction notice in the fall from the new landlord. Lee and his girlfriend, Lisa Kelly, undertook the bulk of the research work after getting input from the Los Angeles Conservancy and Art Deco Society. "When we first heard that our house was to be destroyed, we were devastated," Kelly says. "It was like hearing that a friend had been sentenced to death."
While the residents suspected the buildings were significant based on their age, they had no idea they were three of the few remaining structures from when the Westwood area was first developed in 1929, says Kia McInerney, who owns the fourplex just north of the three buildings and answered the rallying cry to save them."Together they epitomize the Janss' plan of building a low-scale, mid-density neighborhood," McInerney says. "It's just a rare street of extreme livability and character." Carolyn Haber of the Westwood Historical Society agrees. "This was the beginning of Westwood," she says, explaining that Janss built apartment buildings and homes at the southern end of the community before completing the largely commercial area of Westwood Village.
The residents' hard work and organization also impressed Weiss, who came out to the neighborhood last Thursday afternoon to announce that he was supporting their bid to get the buildings declared historic-cultural monuments."This is not a matter that is at all abstract about quality of life. It's about our residences," the councilman said. "It really is quite special to see people living today in the way they did a couple generations ago.... This is L.A. This is what is special and beautiful about living on the Westside."
But if the commission is to confer landmark status on the buildings, it will do so over the objections of Wiseman Development, the property owner. Representative Michael Cohanzad points to the city's own definition of a monument -- "a building...of particular historic or cultural significance to the city...or which embody the distinguishing characteristics of an architectural-type specimen, inherently valuable for a study of a period style or method of construction, or a notable work of a master building, designer or architect" -- as proof that the Kelton buildings don't meet the criteria.
"These are fake Spanish/ Mediterranean-style buildings that are very common with what was built around L.A. at the time. If they're going to make these monuments, then every single building that's old should be designated a monument," he says. "They're definitely nice buildings, very cute, but they're not monuments."Cohanzad admits that Wiseman bought the properties with development in mind, but stresses that the developer wants to work with the neighborhood. "We always meet with the neighbors, get neighbors' input. We always try to fight our buildings to the neighborhood," he says. "Our interest is the same as the neighborhood. If we don't build something nice, we can't sell it."
And if the quest for historic designation proves successful, he says that might make the developer's plan more difficult. "The city itself has a housing shortage. If developers are going to take big hits because their buildings are being designated, then they are going to be hesitant," Cohanzad says, "and the housing crisis is just going to get worse."
That's not something Kelly worries about. "Nobody wants a 24-story condo box on this street," she says. "A good neighbor doesn't create a monster on their lot that decreases everyone else's property value, blocks the sunlight from their yards and brings in more traffic and parking problems."
Brian Lewis can be reached at (323) 556-5773, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Application for Historic Monument Status
The Cultural Heritage Commission Review Process
Building Neighborhood Support
Arguments that a Developer May Make Against Historical Preservation
Next Steps After Properties Have Been Designated Historical Monuments
The Kelton Homes Now (September 2009)
Westsider article, March 5,
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Contact photographer/musician Ken Lee