Wrecking balls on the beach: A group of residents urge Manhattan Beach to help preserve its architectural history
NBA player Steve Nash last month paid $4.8 million in cash for an ocean-view estate in Manhattan Beach. Reports indicate that he intends to tear down the luxurious three-bedroom, four-bathroom house — built in 1992 — and construct a more modern home.
Nash’s story in part exemplifies a growing phenomenon in Manhattan Beach, a town that has long treasured its small-town character. But with land values spiking significantly in the last few years, dated-looking beach cottages and childhood homes are being razed — often at the hands of developers — to make way for towering new estates that utilize every square foot of the lot as allowed under city code.
Richard Thompson, the city’s community development director, said demolitions average about five to six homes a month, yet year-end totals show his estimation is modest. Demolitions last year totaled 134. 2012 and 2011 capped off at 107 and 97 respectively. As of May 13 this year, the city has seen 54, Thompson said.
The city is a hotbed of building activity, something that shows up in the city’s coffers, as well: building permit revenue is expected to spike up to $1.16 million in the next fiscal year, a 25.5 percent rise from last year’s budget estimate, according to staff reports. The number of permits issued is up 33 percent from last year.
Against this backdrop, a small group of residents is fighting to safeguard Manhattan Beach’s 102 year-old architectural history and cultural identity. They’re not fighting for every dated home to be saved — just those that hold historical significance, tucked away without much acknowledgement throughout the city’s nearly four square-miles. The group wants the city to help preserve these landmarks and give property owners stronger incentive to do so.
FOR THE SAKE OF HERITAGE
The Manhattan Beach Cultural Heritage Conservancy is helmed by Jan Dennis, a 54-year resident and the city’s de facto historian. Her fervent efforts to preserve Manhattan Beach’s history dates back to 1987, when she served as the city’s second female mayor. The City Council at the time was discussing 75th anniversary festivities when Dennis mentioned the town’s lack of recorded history. She suggested the city commission someone to write a book, an idea her counterparts scoffed at.
“I kept it up and kept it up, and finally, about 1 o’ clock in the morning, one of them said, ‘Jan, you want a book? Go write a book.’” she recalled with a laugh. “Well, I was looking for the city to sponsor this book and it ended up they didn’t, so I self-published it myself.”
Dennis, 82, is now at work on her eighth book about Manhattan Beach. In this decades-long journey, she said she has not only fallen in love with research but also with the history of Manhattan Beach and its spirit carried across time in brick and mortar. She has surveyed the entire town and taken more than 2,000 architectural photographs. According to her count, about 40 century-old homes remain standing.
“So much is being torn down,” Dennis said. “As far as I’m concerned, the architectural history is the lifeline of a city. It’s the thread that keeps a city together. It’s the soul, the character, the quaintness of a town.”
Soon after founding the Conservancy in 2006, she led the group’s initiative lobbying for the Mills Act, a tax-incentive program for qualifying homeowners who choose to preserve their historic properties in participating cities and counties. Redondo Beach signed on in 1992; Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Pasadena, San Francisco, Riverside and San Luis Obisbo are some familiar local jurisdictions that also offer the program.
Back in 2006, the Manhattan Beach City Council ultimately voted 4-1 against participating in the Mills Act but adopted an honorary ordinance, under which the city recognizes identified historical landmarks with a plaque. Eighteen homes, all 50 years or older, have been recognized to date, but the plaque doesn’t offer any protection from bulldozers.
“Mere recognition does not preserve anything, so why bother with that?” said Mayor Pro Tem Wayne Powell, who in 2006 served on the city’s planning commission and was one of the Conservancy’s first members. “But that was the compromise.”
After eight years, the Mills Act will come before the Council again at the June 17 meeting. Both Powell and Dennis are more optimistic — and urgent — this time around. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Conservancy issued Manhattan Beach a grade “F” for its lack of preservation policies. Neighboring Redondo Beach, which has a designated city commission and offers a variety of protections and incentives as part of its historic preservation program, received an A-minus. Hermosa Beach, which offers limited protection against alterations under its historic landmark ordinance, earned a D+.
“For the same reason it was important seven, eight years ago, it’s now even more so,” said Powell, who in the early 90s served on Redondo’s historical commission. “Historical stock has decreased but there are still homes that are worthy of preservation.”
The Manhattan Beach Cultural Heritage Conservancy, an all-volunteer organization funded by $30 annual fees from its 45 members, is doing what it can to convince the community of that. In addition to quarterly newsletters, the 12-member committee has produced four self-guided walking tour pamphlets, in total featuring some 70 structures of notable architectural styles that are 50 years or older.
Among the highlighted is the simplified Spanish revival style of Ercole’s Bar, a 92-year establishment in downtown Manhattan Beach, as well as the 1902 Craftsman-style former residence of Neptunian Women’s Club founder Jessie Smith — the structure, revitalized by Becker’s Bakery, is now used as its kitchen.
“The reason we did this is to get people familiar and make them realize that we do have a phenomenal history here in Manhattan Beach,” Dennis said. “We’re trying very hard to get the word out there.”
Longtime Manhattan Beach-based architect Jim Fasola has observed a dichotomy between the kind of homes developers want to build and the kind that families want to live in. Lenient city zoning and building codes have encouraged developers to build bulky, he suggested, and now the average residence in town measures over 5,000 sq. ft, according to him.
“In all my time I’ve never run into people looking to move into Manhattan Beach for a 5,000 sq. ft. house,” Fasola said. “But I’ve had family after family after family saying they’re looking for a decent sized backyard … In the end, they buy what developers build.”
The challenge lies in achieving a balance between individual property rights and the city’s right to act in its best interest. Fasola believes that the city has accomplished little to safeguard its small-town atmosphere and heritage from development trends of building out to the maximum lot line, setback and height restrictions.
In 2002, the City Council adopted a series of residential development standards with the goal of reducing the mass and bulk of homes while maintaining the allowable building floor area and providing flexibility in architectural design. It spawned the formation of the “mansionization” committee, which Fasola served on. Its recommendations brought forth several amendments, but nothing that substantially impacted development trends, Fasola said.
“As far as I can tell, it’s done nothing — it’s had no effect,” he said. “I think that’s a tragedy, a lost opportunity. This issue should be looked at again. At the pace of development now, there’s going to be very few trees and backyards in our future.”
Thompson, the city’s community development director, disagreed. “It’s been very effective,” he said, pointing to the city’s 2011 “minor exception” ordinance, which allows older homes deemed non-conforming under the current code to remodel and expand footprint by 10 percent. Prior to that, nonconforming homes had to be brought up to code for a remodel or expansion, a task often more expensive than scrapping the building for a new one. This exception has provided homeowners incentive to preserve their older homes, Thompson said.
Councilman Powell argued that this ordinance is not enough.
“If we don’t do it now, we can more or less kiss our history goodbye because without any financial incentive to maintain our historical housing stock, there won’t be any,” Powell said.
Realtor Dave Fratello, who runs the popular real estate blog MB Confidential, said that modern buyers undoubtedly “want the bigger home” but the desire to preserve historical integrity does exist. He’s near closing a sale on a 900 sq. ft. cottage from 1940. Most offers expressed the intent to knock it down, but several proposed an update while keeping the architectural character. His client chose to proceed with the latter group.
“To me it’s a way of saving the house and the flavor of the town,” Fratello said. “They’re buying the house and not just the dirt.”
There’s an estate across the street from Dennis’s home in the Hill Section that a family had transported from Beverly Hills in 1944 — she considers it the best example of a craftsman-style house in town. This is not mentioned in its $6.3 million listing, she noted. Rather it’s being primarily advertised for the hilltop, ocean view. She predicts another new, larger house will soon stand in its place.
“There’s always gonna be change — I mean, without change you’re dead,” she said. “But it’s important to know the beginning so you can move forward.”