Missing Piece

Missing Piece

Former Mole-Richardson Studio Depot.
Adrian Scott Fine

Back in 1962, Los Angeles became one of the first cities in the country to approve a preservation ordinance, helping officials designate significant local sites as historic and provide protection through a design review process, among other things. But until now there has always been a gaping hole in that policy: any unprotected building could be secretly torn down before it was given a fair shot at preservation.

In late November, however, LA City Council passed an ordinance that requires building owners to notify local council district offices and abutting property owners, and post signage of their intent, in order to demolish buildings older than 45 years old anywhere in the city.

“Too many times, I’ve seen buildings demolished before permits for a new project is even approved,” said councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who first proposed the measure. “This at least gives us or the neighborhood council or neighbors some input—it provides a way for us to take a pause,” he added. The ordinance requires a 30-day waiting period before any demolition permit can take effect.

Illegal demolition at Whitley Heights.
Steven Wolfe

According to a report by the city council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee (PLUM), the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) had also not done a proper job protecting such demolition. For instance, if building owners keep planned projects under wraps they can skirt CEQA requirements to announce demolition.

Several structures have been torn down in the city in recent years before protections could be set in motion. The most high profile recent example was Morgan, Walls & Clements’ art deco Mole-Richardson Building in Hollywood, which was quietly taken down this summer. O’Farrell said that the new ordinance would at least give locals a chance to respond to such a plan.

“Mole-Richardson was clearly a historic building and shouldn’t have fallen between the cracks,” said Los Angeles Conservancy Director of Advocacy Adrian Scott Fine, who called the demolition a wake up call. Owners, he added, have often received demolition permits for historic properties within a day or two, leaving neighbors and officials mystified at the outcome.

The bill, which went through a lengthy public process and vetting by the PLUM committee, the city attorney, and the Office of Historic Resources, passed on an 11-0 vote. It will take effect in January. Nearby cities like Pasadena, Long Beach, and Beverly Hills already have similar waiting periods. “It would have been great to have something like this in the past,” said Fine. “It took losing some key buildings to get it moving ahead.”