Preservation paradox: YIMBYs and Brookside reuse project

| June 2, 2022 | 0 Comments

It is an annoying and unfortunate reality that the priorities and prejudices of the YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) movement are set in the Bay Area, and then they are brought to the statehouse by their champion State Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, who recently in a tweet called for an end to exemptions for historic districts from housing laws.

Wiener’s utterance predictably was met with a raucous roar of approval from his followers, calling not only for the end to exemptions, but to end other protections (even Mills Act contracts) for contributors to historic districts. See:

St. Francis Wood
The tweet was in response to the designation of the San Francisco neighborhood St. Francis Wood as historic by the state Office of Historic Resources. YIMBYs saw this, as they see any move by municipalities to exert land use powers, as a means of circumventing the recently enacted Senate Bill 9, the housing law that allows lot splits and greater density in single-family neighborhoods.

This outcry gave no regard to history and design — that this Olmstead brothers-planned “residence park,” created in 1912, is comprised of architecturally significant homes by Willis Polk, Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan, among others. St. Francis Wood long has been recognized as a significant early garden suburb. In fact, the only argument that could be mustered by opponents was that St. Francis Wood had been founded with racist covenants (invalidated in 1948) and that historic designation would continue this “exclusionary” status because it would prevent greater density.

Los Angeles YIMBYs
While the heat of this type of conflict tends to cool in the temperate climes of Southern California, I did notice some aspects of the discussion that reminded me of some of the debates and misconceptions about the preservation of our own historic communities. I wrote about this in 2020 with regard to local density advocates’ “Purple Line Plan” that essentially called for the abolition of our Historic Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZs) using some of the same reasoning as those opposing the designation of St. Francis Wood. See:

But what is particularly troubling is the evolution of this anti-architecture focus by YIMBYs in light of the fact that areas designated historic make up only six percent of Los Angeles and two percent of San Francisco. It was YIMBY activists who pressured Attorney General Rob Bonta to go off half-cocked recently — attacking the City of Pasadena for codifying exemptions for its landmark districts, a stance which Bonta was forced to reverse when he discovered that their exemptions were valid.

In my estimation, YIMBYs see supporters of historic preservation as a particular kind of NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) person, characterized as one or all of the following: conservative, elitist, rich, white, racist. That peson is an easier foe to attack and criticize than anti-gentrification folks, community groups and affordable housing advocates operating in low- and middle-income areas, often communities of color. In the zero-sum world of the YIMBY, any restriction on new housing anywhere is heresy. But punching downward doesn’t make for good headlines.

Intensifying locally
It is a great paradox to this thinking that in Los Angeles two of the city’s most diverse communities with the greatest number of historic properties, Downtown and Hollywood, have seen the most intense levels of development. Even in Greater Wilshire, with its wealth of HPOZs and historic neighborhoods and historic cultural monuments, ample room has been found for growth in and around Hancock Park and Windsor Square, including the neighborhoods along Wilton Place, Rossmore Avenue, Melrose Avenue and even upper Larchmont Boulevard. But it is undoubtedly CIM Group’s “Wilshire Mullen” development in Brookside that tells a true success story of preservation and development working hand in hand.

Forged in design and planning discussions with community stakeholders, the project will feature a restored and adaptively reused Art Deco eight-story former Farmers Insurance Company building with 65 new housing units and will replace a parking lot with 10 duplexes and six new single-family residences in styles sympathetic to the architectural character of Brookside, all while being compliant with the Park Mile Specific Plan.

CIM’s continual engagement with surrounding neighborhood groups, the care with which it designed its new housing and the respect with which it approached the historic resources involved all generated community support. CIM is also proposing more units by converting the upper floors of its nearby circa-1986 three-story office building at Wilshire Boulevard and Keniston Avenue into apartments, as well as by constructing 12 new townhomes on Eighth Street between Rimpau and Hudson in Brookside.

Perhaps there is a lesson preservationists can teach YIMBYs about development. Preservation is not about protecting the past from progress, but about managing change in our built environment in a way that respects what has come first, while introducing additions which build on the best of the past to create a sustainable future.

Unfortunately this is not something easily learned by those whose strategy is predicated on conflict, not resolution.

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Category: Real Estate

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