Dogtown Coffee was, in the mid 70s, the site of Zephyr Surf Shop, which played a pivotal role in the history of skateboarding. Credit: Dogtown Coffee

Historic preservation advocates are trying to rally support in advance of tonight’s council meeting to argue for additional resources supporting the City’s landmark process.   

Council will listen to, and vote on, the city’s, proposed biennial budget 2023-25 (along with the five-year financial forecast update in tonight’s meeting) and the Santa Monica Conservancy is arguing more money should be put towards landmarking properties as cuts over the last three years have resulted in the increased cost of designation applications and the reduced number of meetings and resources for the Landmarks Commission. 

The Conservancy is a non-profit organization that was founded in 2002 and has worked to save many of Santa Monica’s most iconic historic buildings, together with promoting historic districts and developing many educational programs and tours to increase public appreciation for the city’s rich history.

“People are looking at their preservation programs as ways of being able to tell the stories of everyone in the community,” says Carol Lemlein, Vice President of the Santa Monica Conservancy. 

There are approximately 600 properties that are not currently designated that were recognized as being eligible for landmark designation on the 2018 inventory, Lemlein says. 

“Some of those properties may have been changed and wouldn’t still be eligible, but that’s why the inventory is typically updated every five to 10 years,” she said. 

According to the Conservancy, landmark applications are in sharp decline and applications cost anywhere between $6,000 to $7,000 to file, the most expensive in the state of California. Moreover, the timeline for landmark nominations can be up to nine months. 

“We recognize that the budget is extremely tight this year, although, as you read current forecasts, they may or may not be even tighter in the years to come. What we’re recommending is making changes that could be made with very little cost impact in the short term,” Lemlein says. 

Given current funding constraints, the charity is asking the City to recommend restoration of the preservation process in two phases: 

Phase 1 (now) would include the restoration of monthly meetings of the Landmarks Commission to ensure city-wide review of historic resources; reducing the cost of landmark applications by streamlining consultant and staff reports; streamlining Certificate of Appropriateness analysis to focus on conformance with the standards; and the return of Demolition Review to the Landmarks Commission.

Phase 2 (next year) would involve restoring the 2019 Preservation Planner position so that Landmark Application Analysis can be conducted by the City just as all other discretionary building permits are evaluated, eliminating the need to hire costly outside consultants and streamlining the process. It would also mean that applicants can be informed of incentives, for example, encouraging the use of the State Historic Building Code and Zoning Ordinance exceptions to achieve programmatic goals while preserving historic features. With reduced costs, fee waivers for nonprofit organizations can be restored to ensure equitable access to the program.

Two thirds of the City’s landmarks have been nominated and/or designated since the Conservancy was formed. Notable examples include the Embassy Hotel Apartments, Strick House, the Santa Monica Doctor’s Building and the Zephyr Surf Shop, now Dogtown Coffee.

“We now have a list of well over 100 approved landmark designated properties, I think we hit that milestone a few years before COVID, as well as properties designated as structures of merit — which is a lesser level of designation — in addition to properties that are considered part of the historic district,” Lemlein says.

“Historic preservation is intrinsically important if we are going to develop communities that drive forward progress while honoring our past,” Councilmember Caroline Torosis says. “I support the call for historical preservation expertise in our planning department and we need to return to monthly meetings for our Landmarks Commission.” 

This issue will be part of the study session and agenda item 7A, to be discussed in this evening’s Council meeting, scheduled to start at 5:30 pm.

Scott fell in love with Santa Monica when he was much younger and now, after living and working in five different countries, he has returned. He's written for the likes of the FT, NBC, the BBC and CNN.