The Santa Monica City Council has approved a new historic district along San Vicente Blvd.

The district is the third and largest area established in Santa Monica. It is the first created under newly streamlined rules that allow districts to be formed without a vote by property owners.

Under the new rules, the San Vicente district will contain 40 properties with 26 “contributing” and 14 “non-contributing” structures. Contributing structures are those that contain all the relevant qualifications for historic status. Essentially, they are the reason for the historic district. Non-contributing structures exist within geographic borders of the district (in this case along San Vicente between Ocean Ave. and 7th Street) and while they might contain some of the same qualities as contributing buildings they do not qualify for the historic designation.

In San Vicente, the contributing structures vary in architectural styles but they all include a landscaped courtyard open space. That feature is the defining trait of the district and was identified as historically significant in several city studies starting in 1983.

The formation of the district gained momentum in the past year thanks in part to a revision of the rules for historic districts. Prior to December 2014, a district required a majority vote of owners contained within the proposed borders. The Council eliminated that requirement almost exactly one year prior to the Dec. 15 meeting and councilmembers praised the revised process.

“It took the streamlining to make it practically possible to take this action tonight,” said Councilman Kevin McKeown.

Residents were overwhelmingly supportive of the new district.

“It is rare in Santa Monica to receive the unanimous support of every neighborhood association and the endorsement of the Landmarks Commission, SMart, SMRR, the Housing Commission and other organizations.  However we did for this treasure trove of iconic architecture,” said Historic San Vicente Coalition co-chair Diane Miller in a statement.

Councilwoman Sue Himmelrich praised the process for bringing together residents, commissions, staff and elected officials.

“When everybody comes together like this to reach such a positive decision that we really hear no descent on, I think it’s a fantastic process and I hope to see more of it going forward,” she said.

Once established, a historic district changes the regulatory process for modifying buildings within its borders. Just how those changes vary between conforming and non-conforming buildings was the only topic of discussion amongst the council with specific debate regarding a school within the zone. The school’s use differentiates it from the rest of the buildings in the zone and it is designated a non-conforming property. However, the interim ordinance approved last week temporarily restricts construction at all properties within the zone while staff drafts a final ordinance.

The final rule will be work shopped through the Landmarks Commission.

“Staff believes that this would also be an appropriate time to begin a public discussion on the general lack of preservation incentives offered to non-contributors within a historic district,” said the staff report. “It should be noted that throughout the designation process, one of the more frequent concerns expressed by members of the public was the overall treatment of non-contributors.”

Several councilmembers said they wanted that final ordinance to accommodate the school in a way that allows it to continue to function and staff said final adoption of the rules will provide an opportunity to revise the district’s boundaries if necessary.

Councilwoman Pam O’Connor, an urban planning consultant specializing in historic preservation, said it was important for everyone to understand that a historic district still needs to be able to evolve.

“I support historic districts, I just don’t want to see any of them, including this one devolve into something that really is used to freeze things,” she said. “Preserving this as a historic district, by the way, doesn’t mean that these buildings become house museums because people are going to continue to live in them.”

Matthew Hall

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...