As a large city, LA divides its development rules throughout the city into various “community plans.” The one that governs our area is the Northeast Los Angeles Community Plan, which covers Eagle Rock, Highland Park and other neighborhoods in Northeast LA. As someone who is interested in housing and getting to understand the region our college is located in, I decided to check out the descriptions of neighborhoods in the development plan, and a short history of development in Highland Park caught my eye.
The section describes a “rich architectural heritage” in the neighborhood, such as houses in the Craftsman style that are centered around Figueroa and Monte Vista streets. However, the plan takes a dark turn — they describe the bungalows as being “threatened” by the “construction of apartment houses,” enabled by “overly permissive zoning.” But not to worry: local activists pressured the city to endow the neighborhood historic status, implementing a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ) that restricted the development of new apartments. Surely Highland Park has avoided the fate that befell many LA neighborhoods — rising rents, gentrification and displacement of long-time residents — thanks to the implementation of this ordinance.
In a more honest reading of the previous chain of events: reactionary, classist groups pursued HPOZ to prevent economic integration from an influx of lower-income people who live in lower-cost apartment buildings. They succeeded.
However well-intentioned the law was, HPOZ has been used to enshrine class discrimination across LA — the Hancock Park Homeowners Assn (HOA) worked to get historic status in their neighborhood to “protect… [their] R-1 zoned neighborhood from over development and up zoning.” In other words, they pursued (and obtained!) historic status with the primary purpose of stopping new housing construction that would be affordable to people with lower incomes. Additionally, Hancock Park and nearby Miracle Mile are both under HPOZ despite being along the D Line Extension, a massive subway expansion project which walls off these exclusive, low density neighborhoods from new housing to support LA Metro’s new transit investments.
Was Hancock Park awarded historic status because of its historic racial and religious diversity? Well, the HOA’s website says that it was founded in 1948. Also in 1948? The Supreme Court decision in Shelley v. Kraemer, which ruled that racially restrictive covenants were void. Hancock Park used these covenants to stop African Americans and Jewish people from moving into their neighborhood. In that very same year, the HOA attempted to block the famous jazz singer and songwriter Nat King Cole from moving into the neighborhood. When the neighbors of Hancock Park could not resort to explicit racial exclusion through covenants, they used violence — they poisoned Cole’s dog and burned a cross on his house’s front lawn.
Nowadays, the good neighbors of the Hancock Park HOA don’t even need violence to keep their neighborhood segregated — they use historic preservation ordinances to block apartments affordable to the working class people of color. The neighborhood was around 70 percent non-Hispanic white in 2008, despite LA county being 25 percent non-Hispanic white.
“Why, do we not need to remember our history?” one might ask. But, if the law we use to “remember our history” lets a wealthy, white neighborhood shirk its responsibility to accept change, growth and integration, what use is the law? We remember and honor our history by rectifying the injustices of the past — not by standing athwart progressive change and yelling “stop.”
Indeed, if people truly care about preserving a certain building and believe it would be valuable to preserve it, why do we need preservation ordinances? Nonprofits or for-profit companies would buy a building they view as historically significant and either preserve it, as the River LA group did with an old gas station in Silver Lake, or adaptively reuse it as Apple did with the Tower Theater. For other cases that the government may deem necessary, a plaque on the building will suffice.
Rules such as HPOZ do not keep history alive — they are used to keep wealthy, segregated neighborhoods from accepting progressive change. They betray our history by allowing segregationists to get off easy without rectifying their actions, they sell out our future by restricting housing supply and driving up rents (something disproportionately hitting our generation) and they only benefit the people who believe old, decrepit buildings are preferable to new apartment buildings.
We must be vigilant about how historic preservation laws are used. Consider the aforementioned Silver Lake gas station. The gas station was considered for a full historic preservation status, stopping its redevelopment, but only after the owner dared to file permits to build an apartment building. The primary purpose of historical preservation laws is to stop, not facilitate, change and growth.
You, the reader, might not think you have a horse in this race, but you do. Our generation is slammed by high housing costs — we cannot let laws, such as HPOZ, that restrict the development of sorely needed apartments to escape our scrutiny. Our future is too important for historic preservation.
Contact Avinash Iyer at firstname.lastname@example.org.