An historic house on Third Street has been semi-demolished. (photo by Daniel Archuleta)

OCEAN PARK — A home of potential historic importance on the 2500 block of Third Street was stripped to the studs in what conservationists are calling a “huge disconnect” between the City Hall’s stated preservation goals and its practices.

The house, built in 1895, exemplified the “turn of the 20th century” style architecture and, while not necessarily deserving of landmark status on its own, represented the underpinning of an argument to expand the historic district that currently encompasses the homes south of Ocean Park Boulevard to include those to the north.

It was one of five in a row of homes built around the 1900s, according to the Historic Resources Inventory, a document of over 1,000 buildings in Santa Monica of varying degrees of historic significance.

“It would have been a contributor to the district,” said Landmarks Commissioner Nina Fresco.

Instead, what stands there now is the home’s skeleton. Nearly all the walls have been taken down, and only the major structural beams remain. Even the floors are gone.

That left neighbors scratching their heads wondering what, exactly, had gone wrong.

Fresco and the six other members of the Landmarks Commission did get a chance to meet the architect in charge of the house, Gregory Ginter, when a permit for the demolition of a back garage came before them in March.

Mike Salazar, who lives near the home in question, was also there with other neighbors rallying for the preservation of another home on the block that was set for demolition.

“We had heard there was a room of the house that was going to be removed, but that it wasn’t original to the house, so no one was concerned about that,” Salazar said.

The remainder of the house didn’t come up in conversation, nor was it game for discussion.

“The system fell flat on its face,” Fresco summarized.

The issue hinges on one key phrase: Substantial remodel.

If removing the exterior of a home and lowering an entire floor sounds substantial, think again.

Under the Planning Department’s code, a substantial remodel doesn’t include the walls or interior walls, said Scott Albright, a senior planner with City Hall who is also assigned to the Landmarks Commission.

The idea is that if a homeowner is switching around major structural components of the house, they must get a permit which allows building inspectors to make sure that the house is up to code.

The necessary permit for demolition would require a hearing before the Landmarks Commission, which would then get to weigh in on the fate of the rest of the house.

As it was, the requested permit to alter the main house did not count as substantial remodel, and therefore didn’t require a demolition permit.

It would be different if the home had been landmarked, like some of the other homes in the area.

“If this was a landmarked house, it would have to go through a certificate of appropriateness for design changes. The commission would be able to review the proposal, which would have to meet the Secretary of the Interior standards for historic buildings, which say you have to respect the character and defining features of a building,” Albright said.

In a November 2003 Planning Commission meeting, staff reported on the definition of “substantial remodel,” and acknowledged that “the strict application of the substantial remodel definition can, at times, run counter to the city’s overall goal to retain historically significant structures.”

Moves to change the definition to make it more responsive to historic preservation have been unsuccessful, despite references in other city documents, including the 2010 Land Use and Circulation Element, or LUCE, to the need for other tools to preserve historic resources, Fresco said.

In the chapter on historic preservation, the LUCE spells out actions to maintain Santa Monica’s architectural heritage, including the development of procedures so that alterations to properties listed on the Historic Resources Inventory get reviewed using the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for historic properties as a benchmark.

So when people like Salazar ask what can be done to prevent wanton destruction of homes like those on the 2500 block of Third Street, Fresco has no real answer.

“Much of it has been talked about already, and putting it into the LUCE was meant to codify what we’ve been trying to get the Planning and Building and Safety departments to do all along,” Fresco said. “They’re obligated to think that way.”

So far, it hasn’t seemed to work out.

Ginter, the architect working on the “insubstantial” remodel, said that he walked the neighborhood with his client and chose characteristics from the rest of the homes to incorporate in the new design.

When he’s done, the house will fit right in with the remainder of the neighborhood, Ginter said.

Community members still associate the skeletal structure with a huge loss to the neighborhood that can still never be returned to what it once was, and will be, at best, a replica house.

“It’s not equal to a loss of life, but for this neighborhood, it’s a pretty hard thing to take,” Salazar said.

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