Friday, July 15, 2005
Ruling Paves Way for Demolition of Venice Beach Complex
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Developers can tear down what’s left of the Lincoln Place Apartments in Venice Beach once the 40 or so surviving buildings of the half-century-old complex have been photographed and an attempt made to sell the structures and move them intact to another location, the Court of Appeal for this district has ruled.
While the decision filed Wednesday is a partial victory for a tenants’ group and local preservationists, the court rejected a broader challenge that could have forced the owners to maintain the structures as a historic site instead of replacing them with upscale housing.
A lawyer for the developers called the ruling “a total victory” that “greenlights the project 100 percent.”
Greg Ozhekim of Nemecek & Cole told the MetNews that his clients are “going to move forward with this project as quickly as possible.” He added that after 14 years of planning, environmental reviews, and litigation, the owners “would hope that this is the last lawsuit.”
An attorney representing the Lincoln Place Tenants’ Association, the Los Angeles Conservancy, the California Preservation Foundation, the 20th Century Architecture Alliance and the National Organization of Minority Architects could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The complex, built a mile from the beach in 1951, originally consisted of 795 units in 52 buildings spread out over 33 acres. Tenants sought to save it as one of the last bastions of affordable housing in urban Los Angeles, while preservationists said it deserved saving as an early example of the garden-apartment style.
Despite those objections, the city Planning Commission approved the redevelopment in 1995 on the basis of an environmental impact report concluding that the buildings’ historical value was limited.
The “less than significant” historical and cultural impact of demolition, the report said, could be mitigated by documenting the buildings’ architecture through photographs and giving would-be preservationists the opportunity to purchase and move the structures.
The approval of the project touched off seven years of litigation over whether it would violate laws governing removal of affordable housing from the market. After the courts sided with developers, the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee scheduled a public hearing on whether to allow the project to go forward.
At that point, the preservationist groups came forward with new evidence related to the buildings’ history. While the design of the complex had been credited to Heth Wharton—well-known in the period but “hardly a luminary,” as Justice Earl Johnson Jr. put it Wednesday in his opinion for Div. Seven—Wharton had actually worked with one of the few black architects of the period, Ralph Vaughn.
Vaughn, a former set designer at MGM who had also worked on celebrity homes in Beverly Hills and the Beth Am and Mogen David synagogues in Los Angeles, did not have a California license at the time he and Wharton apparently teamed up on the design of Lincoln Place.
Despite efforts to place the complex on the National Register of Historic Places as a result of this information, the city found it less than compelling and issued demolition permits, and challenges were rejected by Los Angeles Superior Court Judges Dzintra Janavs and David Yaffe.
Several of the buildings were torn down, with further demolitions set before the Court of Appeal ordered a temporary halt last year pending the outcome of the appeals decided Wednesday.
Johnson, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the city violated the California Environmental Quality Act by issuing the permits without either requiring that the mitigation measures in the EIR be undertaken or conducting a new CEQA review, including a supplemental EIR.
“Having placed these conditions on the demolition segment of the redevelopment project, the city cannot simply ignore them,” the justice wrote. “Mitigating conditions are not mere expressions of hope.”
But in an unpublished portion of his opinion, Johnson said the city was not required to undertake a new round of environmental review with respect to the historic issues. The PLUM committee, he said, acted within its authority in concluding that the evidence regarding Vaughn’s role in the project was not significant enough to be included in a new EIR.
“Whatever stature Vaughn may have as an architect or even as a ‘pioneer’ African-American architect it is not based on his participation in the design of Lincoln Place,” the justice wrote, noting that the designs were largely dictated by the Federal Housing Administration, that similar buildings were being designed in that period by architects of equal or greater fame like Richard Neutra, and that other examples of Vaughn’s work, including Saks Fifth Avenue on Wilshire Blvd. and the Chase Knolls apartments in Sherman Oaks, remain standing.
The case is Lincoln Place Tenants Association v. City of Los Angeles (Los Angeles Lincoln Place Investors Ltd.), 05 S.O.S. 3497.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company