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(photo by Brandon Wise)

OCEAN PARK The building wasn’t much to look at from the outside — boxy, plain and somewhat unnoticeable to the average passer-by.

When the structure, known as the place where modern skateboarding was born, faced the threat of demolition in 2006, it was ironically a permit filed to take the building down that ultimately saved its life.

Since the building at 2001-2011 Main St. — once the home of Zephyr and Jeff Ho Productions — was more than 40 years old, the demolition permit automatically sparked a Landmarks Commission review to determine if it would qualify for protection status, ultimately ruling that at least the surf and skate shop portion of the structure did.

It’s City Hall regulations such as mandatory Landmarks Commission review of older buildings that earned Santa Monica an A grade in the Los Angeles Conservancy’s second Preservation Report Card, which was released last week.

Santa Monica was one of seven cities in Los Angeles County that earned an A or A-minus, recognized for programs designed to protect architectural and cultural heritage.

“They have one of the top preservation (programs) in the county, if not the state,” Mike Buhler, the director of advocacy for the L.A. Conservancy, said.

The report card was first launched in 2003 to coincide with the conservancy’s 25th anniversary, rating how city governments performed in its efforts to ensure preservation of structures that are privately-owned, whether they be through policies or programs designed to encourage property owners to protect historical and cultural resources. Santa Monica also received an A in the inaugural report card.

While much hasn’t changed in Santa Monica five years later, other cities have shown improvements in their historic preservation efforts, according to the report card. One city is Huntington Park, which has established a preservation program since the last report card.

“I’m sure the initial report card was a huge motivator in getting that underway,” Buhler said.

Santa Monica was credited for a landmarks ordinance that temporarily protects possible historic structures from demolition, as well as a commission that reviews all design changes to designated historic resources. City Hall also participates in the Mills Act program, which gives property tax breaks to owners of historic structures in exchange for restoration.

“The city does have a variety of incentives for properties designated as a city landmark or are located within the adopted historic districts,” said Roxanne Tanemori, a city planner who serves as the staff liaison to the Landmarks Commission. “We’re certainly looking to incorporate more incentives for preservations in our upcoming rewriting of the zoning ordinance.”

Among the other benefits that City Hall affords to property owners of historic structures are priority processing during plan check and waiving certain application fees.

The study also complimented City Hall on its historic resources inventory update, which looks at existing buildings on the inventory and evaluates any structure that is older than 40 years old, checking to see if any have gained significance since the previous update.

The results of the inventory update is scheduled to be reviewed at the commission meeting in February.

“We try to be proactive as opposed to reactive,” Barbara Kaplan, the chair of the Landmarks Commission, said. “We’ve been able to identify buildings that we thought might be (significant), especially in the Downtown area.”

Along with the landmarks ordinance, City Hall is guided by its Historic Preservation Element, which lays out its objectives in historic preservation, including raising awareness of Santa Monica’s past.

There are currently 86 designated landmarks as of June 2008, including some that are on the National Register of Historic Places, such as the Looff Hippodrome. Among city landmarks are apartment buildings, hotels, private residences and even a tree.

While the city was named near the top of the class, there could be room for improvement.

Carol Lemlein, the president of the Santa Monica Conservancy, said there was concern over what she believes was insufficient integration between the proposed Land Use and Circulation Element and the Historic Preservation Element.

The Land Use and Circulation Element is the 20-year update of the general plan, outlining the developmental future of the city, including in districts and the boulevards. The document has yet to be adopted.

“We thought that while the presentations on the LUCE referred significantly to historic preservation, there were many missed opportunities to mention historic preservation in the description of the boulevards,” Lemlein said.

Lemlein said that the city is rich with history, from its historic hotels like the Shangri-La and Georgian to the old commercial buildings in Downtown, including the oldest of them all — the Rapp Saloon.

“Our city makes a very significant effort in historic preservation and we like to think that the (Santa Monica) Conservancy plays a significant role in raising public awareness of those issues and advocating on specific issues when that’s appropriate,” she said.

melodyh@smdp.com

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