Nina Fresco didn’t know much about Santa Monica’s history when she first moved to the city.
But while walking along Hollister Avenue in Ocean Park, she noticed an old apartment building that looked like it might have housed a market on the ground floor. It sparked her curiosity, so she researched the history of the street and discovered it was once a lively commercial area leading up to Crystal Pier.
“I knew by looking at that building that there used to be something on that street I could learn more about,” she said. “It was a clue.”
Fresco, now a planning commissioner and previously a longtime member of the landmarks commission, has kept a careful eye on Santa Monica’s historic buildings over the past two decades. But it’s been difficult for Fresco, her fellow commissioners and the City of Santa Monica’s planning staff to create a cohesive plan to preserve them without a dedicated historic preservation planner.
The approach has been to assign a different planner every few years to oversee historic preservation, Fresco said. The historic preservation community in Santa Monica, led by the Santa Monica Conservancy, has been pushing for a permanent position since 2002.
“Every few years we get a new planner, which is always an awkward transition until they get up to speed, and some have more native interest in preservation than others,” she said.
Other City staff also handle preservation tasks, Fresco said.
“There’s no program-wide vision in any one person,” she said.
That’s about to change. City manager Rick Cole confirmed at City Council’s Tuesday meeting that the upcoming 2019-2021 budget will include a proposal for a new historic preservation planner position. The plan, which is not yet finalized, will eliminate another vacant planner position to be “budget-neutral,” said Councilmember Ted Winterer.
“In a period where the city’s going through rapid change and redevelopment, we’ve clearly not had a sufficient focus on preservation, so it’s great to have a dedicated staff member who will be laser-focused on making sure the City is doing everything it can to preserve buildings on the historic inventory,” Winterer said.
Although the number of landmarks in the city has quintupled since Fresco and others began advocating for such a position – 20 landmarks existed in 2002 and more than 80 have been designated since then, as well as four historic districts – there are countless examples of potential landmarks that were altered or lost, including the building Fresco first noticed on Hollister Avenue.
Winterer remembers the Santa Monica Greyhound station on 5th Street and Pioneer Boulangerie on Main Street, which closed in 1994 and 1993, respectively. Both buildings featured historic signs that could have been integrated into new construction, but the signs were lost, Winterer said.
“If you don’t pay attention to historic preservation, mistakes are made that can never be undone,” he said.
Winterer said the new position will not only advocate for preservation but can serve as a one-stop-shop for property owners who want to learn more about the benefits of landmarking their property, such as substantial tax breaks.
Fresco hopes the historic preservation planner will coordinate with entities like the Conservancy to conduct public outreach, tours and events and publish landmarks data on the new Citywide Dashboard website.
Even without a designated planner, momentum to landmark Santa Monica’s historic sites has been building in recent years. Two of the city’s four historic districts have been created in the past four years after the City started allowing districts to be formed without a vote by property owners, and a fifth is on the way to the landmarks commission, Fresco said. On May 13, the commission will hear an application to landmark five contiguous properties at 4th Street and Ocean Park Boulevard.
Fresco said she believes an increased focus on preservation has protected the buildings that tell the story of Santa Monica’s past without stifling the city’s development boom.
“We can interpret our history by looking at our streetscape and to me, that’s a really great gift about a place and what makes the individuality of each city really shine,” she said. “There is a real change happening in our urban landscape, and once we protect the particular buildings that weave in our past story with this new story that’s developing, the new and old can coexist, and we end up in a city with layers.”