Landmarks Commission Dead or Alive?

As undoubtedly you’ve heard, the City of Santa Monica and therefore its residents have entered a disastrous multi-year dive because the coronavirus crushed our sales tax, parking income (including parking tickets), hotel tax, tourist income and dozens of other sources of City income. These multi million dollar downward trends had already started before the virus, but now they have accelerated to terminal velocity making a “soft landing” impossible. Naturally massive City staff layoffs are being considered, along with deferred capital improvements, and now the consolidation and or elimination of the 18 public City Boards, Commissions, Task Forces, and Committees is being considered.

From Seniors to the Status of Women to the Library and to 15 others, these groups serve in a variety of capacities from advisory to quasi judicial to judicial, but all have the same general effects:

They give our City Council and City staff the benefit of virtually free advice from citizen experts who are passionate and knowledgeable about these varied topics.

They are a free forum for educating our citizenry about pressing City issues often in a manner more in depth than can be achieved during the impacted agenda of City Council meetings.

They provide a public, transparent forum where concerned parties can debate and hash out the big and small issues confronting our City.

They are the grooming grounds for our future citizen leaders who learn how the City works and where improvements can be made.

So we get virtually free advice and education, transparency, and future leaders all essentially for the small price of a typical monthly meeting attended by one or two staff members. This is, and always has been, an incredible bargain for our City, particularly now when we are on the ropes and face years of fiscal austerity.

Our City has faced many crisis in the past and has managed to preserve its essential beach character and grace in spite of five wars (WWI and II, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan/Iraq), recessions and depressions, influenza and AIDS, the ongoing housing affordability crisis and countless other disasters that would have argued for ripping apart our urban fabric to deal with the crisis du jour. Its hard to imagine now, but at one point about 50 years ago the City council even wanted to tear down our Pier! But its exactly the preservation of our historic urban fabric, such as the Pier, that cemented the City’s authenticity and made it so attractive to its residents and to tourists for example that funded our boom of the last 10 years.

In our City’s past there has been tireless support for historic preservation. 45 years ago, as part of our City’s Centennial festivities, the Landmarks Commission was created to shepherd our City’s architectural treasures into our next century. Today we are blessed with over 140 landmarks, historic districts and structures of merit including buildings, neighborhood’s and even trees and a navigational beacon. Such a harvest would not be possible without the Landmarks Commission buttressed by massive support of determined individuals, neighborhood organizations and organizations like the Santa Monica Conservancy. Finally our City council has overwhelmingly validated this preservation sentiment by consistently approving, with very few exceptions, the decisions of this Commission.

But designating a landmark is not an automatic process nor should it be. There are criteria in our Municipal Code to be met, research to excavated and context to be understood. Inevitably, there is a landmarking debate where reasonable people can disagree. But the only forum where that debate can happen in depth is the Landmarks Commission. Without it, either a single planner would have to make the life or death decision for a candidate landmark, or the landmarking possibility would simply not even occur. And the brutal truth is that once a valuable heritage object is not protected by landmark designation, it is always vulnerable to demolition in the normal churn of the built environment: and once demolished it can never come back.

Therefore, because every landmarkable candidate once lost is irretrievable, every landmarking candidate needs its “day in court” and that court is the Landmarks Commission. While the current fiscal crisis makes even the smallest economies tempting, now is not the time to destroy this valuable institution just to save thirty pieces of silver. The fact that we can still preserve our architectural past gives our citizens hope even as the virus has destroyed any possibility of getting back to “normal’’ for the foreseeable future. In fact, as we stumble around in the wreckage of our economy, of our public health, of our public transit system, of our education system, of lives lost, the permanence of our landmarks becomes a beacon of stability to our devastated City.

So write now to your City Council (, who now face very difficult choices. Remind them that maintaining our values of preserving the City’s heritage, by the transparent process of educated passionate citizens, in a time of crisis, is priceless and that the Landmarks Commission provides a real service to the City that is way above its small financial cost. As important as preserving our historic buildings is, preserving institutions that preserve those buildings is equally important to the City’s comeback and future.

By Mario Fonda-Bonardi for Smart Santa Monica Architects for a sustainable Tomorrow

Thane Roberts, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Architect, Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission, Terry Hayes, Arlene Hopkins

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