Conservancy Asks Council to Consider Bolstering Historic Preservation in Next Two Budgets

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(Editor’s note: This is the second in a series that looks at the controversies from last week’s City Council Meeting’s first look at the 2023-2024 budget and the five year forecast. The first piece looked at efforts to repay trust fund dollars used during the pandemic emergency.)

The Santa Monica Conservancy has witnessed ongoing cuts to the city’s historic preservation program in recent years. As the city and its budget recover from the pandemic, they are asking that these funds be restored and other changes that would reinvigorate the city’s historic preservation program.

“I want to see our treasures saved in our city,” testified Cathy Knight, a member of the Conservancy, at last Tuesday’s City Council meeting. After recounting that her own house is designated a historic monument, built in the 1950’s by a local fireman she continued. “I love being part of our history in Santa Monica.”

In 2020, the city budget experienced a major upheaval and several cuts as the city focused on the immediate challenges created by the pandemic and the shutdowns. This has led to a sharp decline in a sharp decline in the number of applications and designations for historic status. The Conservancy is hoping that the city will increase resources and the number of meetings for the Historic Preservation Commission and its staff while reducing the paperwork and fees associated with applications.

“The city’s historic preservation program has been decimated by the budget cuts and fee increases of the past few years,” testified Carol Lemlein, Vice-President of the Conservancy. “We are proposing a two-phased restoration over the next two years.”

The Conservancy emailed an action alert to members, a copy of which can be found on their website, which outlines their ask of the Council in the next two budget cycles, the two-phased restoration that Lemlein mentions. It includes:

Phase 1 (NOW): Budget neutral optimization to reduce the cost burden on applicants right away!

  • – Restore monthly meetings of the Landmarks Commission to ensure city-wide review of historic resources.
    • – Reduce the cost of Landmark Applications by streamlining consultant and staff reports.
  • – Streamline Certificate of Appropriateness analysis to focus on conformance with the standards.
  • – Return Demolition Review to the Landmarks Commission.

Phase II (NEXT YEAR): Restore the 2019 Preservation Planner position (a credentialed professional in preservation and planning with skills in historical analysis) so that:

  • – Landmark Application Analysis can be conducted in house just as all other discretionary building permits are evaluated, eliminating the need to hire costly outside consultants, and streamlining the process.
  • – Applicants can be informed of Incentives such as encouraging the use of the State Historic Building Code and Zoning Ordinance exceptions to achieve programmatic goals while preserving historic features.
  • – With reduced costs, fee waivers for nonprofit organizations can be restored to ensure equitable access to the program.

While the City Council generally seemed supportive of the proposal, it’s far from a done deal. At the start of the budget hearing, Mayor Gleam Davis stated that motions to add funding to one portion of the budget won’t be considered without the Councilmember stating where cuts would happen to a different part of the budget.

While members of the Conservancy testified that their proposal is “revenue neutral” but the city has not had time to provide its own analysis. If the staff finds that the changes requested by the Conservancy would impact the city’s budget, members will have to weigh the benefits against low cost proposals such as increasing library hours or youth programming.

Damien Newton
Damien Newton
Damien is the executive director of the Southern California Streets Initiative which publishes Santa Monica Next, Streetsblog Los Angeles, Streetsblog San Francisco, Streetsblog California and Longbeachize.

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