McAvoy on Preservation: Which Way SurveyLA? Staggering statistics tell the story

| January 26, 2017 | 0 Comments

BUNGALOW courts among threatened sites on city’s preservation-watch list.

Many of you may remember a groundbreaking initiative begun almost a decade ago when the J. Paul Getty Trust partnered with the City of Los Angeles to create the city’s first-ever citywide inventory of historic places. That effort, known as SurveyLA, has completed its field survey efforts and is wrapping up the data analysis that will allow us to understand the historic built environment for the first time in a comprehensive way. This exercise wasn’t just about numbers (how many historic buildings are “enough” to save in a city oriented to the future?), but about the value of telling the story of the city through its neighborhoods and its architecture.

The numbers and the logistics were staggering, however. How to compile data on over 880,000 parcels? How to involve the residents of 35 Community Plan areas?  How many academics, city staff, professional consultants, volunteers and interns would it take to make sense of it all?  The Office of Historic Resources (OHR), led by Ken Bernstein and SurveyLA coordinator Janet Hansen, developed protocols for the field survey, designed a special database to handle the material, and created themed “context statements.” The citywide context statement identifies themes in Los Angeles history and relates those themes to extant resources categorized by property type (residential, for instance) and associated architectural styles. Nine broad contexts were created, among them “Architecture and Engineering,” “Residential Development and Suburbanization,” and “Public and Private Institutional Development.” The results, largely available now at, show the diversity of this place we call home.

SurveyLA benefits

According to OHR, the survey has a “multiplicity of benefits and uses,” among them to “help direct future growth, shape the vision of Los Angeles’ 35 Community Plans, streamline environmental review, provide opportunities for public education … and spur heritage tourism and marketing of historic neighborhoods and properties.” The Planning Department, led by Director Vince Bertoni, and decision makers should now incorporate survey findings into the entitlement, environmental review, and development process.

Ryu initiatives

Councilman David Ryu, responding to constituent requests, has already provided leadership in this area by introducing council motions directing the Cultural Heritage Commission to review several SurveyLA properties in his district. Each request needed a separate council action, and the councilman and his staff are to be commended for their timely assistance. As a result, the Charlotte and Robert Disney House in Los Feliz was designated; the Bob Hope Estate in Toluca Lake was declined.

Norton bungalows

Decisions on two Spanish Colonial Revival bungalow courts at 412-20 and 424-30 N. Norton Ave. in the Wilshire Community Plan area are pending as of this writing. The courts are part of a population of about 20 properties in the Plan area included in SurveyLA, a mere handful of which are in the Greater Wilshire–adjacent, and Windsor Village, streets of Alexandria, Kingsley, and Plymouth. (There are many more extant examples of the property type, but SurveyLA has developed criteria for inclusion based on retention of character-defining features, rarity of type, and ability of the property to convey its significance.)

Bungalow courts

Bungalow courts, once a ubiquitous feature of the Los Angeles landscape, provided housing for newly arrived residents, members of the entertainment industry, and the working class before graduating to single-family home ownership. A housing type that takes advantage of a central shared outdoor space, courts continue to provide affordable housing today. Several have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places in recent years. They are not uniformly located across the city, and those areas that possess them should plan for their continued existence.

Planning procedure needed

Councilman Ryu cannot be expected to make a separate motion on each of the worthy SurveyLA identified properties in his district. A procedure is needed whereby planning staff can incorporate SurveyLA findings into the planning process before these resources are threatened. Our current procedures could allow many identified resources to be demolished before they are designated at the local, state or national level. Then the millions of dollars spent by The Getty and the city and the tens of thousands of man hours which created the inventory and the tips from the public about what to include will all have been for naught.

Christy Johnson McAvoy, a former president of the Los Angeles Conservancy and the California Preservation Foundation, as well as an Advisor to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, founded Historic Resources Group in Hollywood.

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Category: Real Estate

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