A proposal before the Historic Preservation Commission to approve revised rehabilitation and maintenance plans for two local buildings evolved last night into a discussion of whether the city is doing enough to monitor whether owners of such buildings actually are doing the work they are supposed to.
“A lot of the problems at El Palacio and The Lotus I put at the fault of the city,” said local resident Cynthia Blatt, referring to the buildings whose plans were before the commission. Blatt and several commissioners said the situation with El Palacio and The Lotus was proof that the City of West Hollywood needed to more carefully monitor what’s going on in historic buildings whose owners have been given significant property tax reductions in exchange for a promise to restore and maintain them. Such tax reductions are authorized under the state Mills Act. To date, the city had approved 85 Mills Act contracts with building owners.
The Lotus, located at 1216-1224 N. La Cienega Blvd., is a 14-unit apartment building built in 1928 in what is known as the “Exotic Revival” style. El Palacio, located at the northeast corner of Fountain Avenue and La Cienega, is an 18-unit building built in 1931 in a Churrigueresque Spanish Colonial Revival style. Both apartment buildings have been designated as cultural resources,
In 2014, Malibu-based Christina Development purchased the El Palacio and The Lotus and assumed responsibility for implementing the requirements of a contract between the City of West Hollywood and the previous owner. That 10-year contract, first signed in 2000, was granted under the Mills Act. In exchange, Christina received a significant reduction in its local property taxes. At the current property valuation and tax rate, that reduction is $136,000 a year for the properties.
However, a city examination of the buildings in October 2016 found that the vestibule walls had been painted improperly, and in one case the floor had been replaced with materials that didn’t reflect the history of the buildings. City inspectors noted cracked stucco, finials that remained stored in the basement rather than reinstalled and painting of wood staircase posts in public areas. The city notified Christina of the problems in December and reminded the company that it would need to update the original 10-year work plan, last revised in 2007, by October if it wanted to extend it. After another visit by city inspector in July of this year, the city asked Christina to submit a plan for fixing the flawed work, which was done on Nov. 2. That plan currently is under review by the city.
Lloyd Hussey, Christina Development’s director of acquisition, noted that the company acquired the buildings only 36 months ago and already has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore and maintain them. Hussey said El Palacio and The Lotus were the first historically designated buildings owned by Christina and that it was likely that some of its staff were unaware that the contract signed with the city required preservation of the look of the interior of the building as well as the exterior.
Commission Vice Chair Yawar Charlie disputed Hussey’s explanation that some of Christina’s staff didn’t know the public interior of the buildings also had to be kept up to historic standards, noting that the company must have read the contract before it assumed responsibility for it. Charlie also questioned the adequacy of what Christina has budgeted for the work, which is $487,000 for El Palacio and $435,000 for The Lotus.
While Christina has requested a “certificate of appropriateness” from the city to explain the fixes it intends to make at El Palacio, it hasn’t yet done that for The Lotus. Hussey said that Historic Resources Group, a consultant it has engaged, is working to determine what the historically appropriate fixes would be before it requests the city’s approval.
Matt Dubin, a resident of El Palacio who had initially called out some of the violations by Christina, criticized Christina for its slow response to the city’s December 2016 notification of problems. He was particularly critical of oversite of The Lotus. Dubin said the original Mills Act work plan had included restoration of bathrooms and kitchens in the building, but that mentions of those have disappeared for the work plan.
Commissioners Yawar Charlie and Gail Ostergreen raised the possibility of the city terminating its Mills Act contract with Christina, which Dubin said would cost Christina more than $2 million. However, given that the contract’s extension or renewal was not on the agenda, the commission adopted a proposal by Chair Ed Levin intended to pressure Christina to act quickly to address the issues raised by the city.
That proposal would put postpone the commission’s consideration of whether to improve the revised work plan for 120 days, during which time Levin said he would expect Christina to apply for necessary city approval to fix the issues raised by city inspectors and to get the work done. The implication was that if Christina failed to accomplish that, the commission would consider recommending that the West Hollywood City Council cancel the Mills Act contract.