Is Alhambra flunking historic preservation?

Alhambra received an F for historic preservation this month from the Los Angeles Conservancy. The city was not alone: The nonprofit gave more than half the county a failing grade. But a vocal group of Alhambra residents are charging that the F, paired with the demolition of a historic home in the city, demonstrates City Council does not care about preserving Alhambra’s past.

“We are currently losing our historic structures at an alarming rate; and once gone, these cannot be recovered,” said Chris Olson, president of the Alhambra Preservation Group. 

Olson, as well as the L.A. Conservancy, maintain that a key step towards preservation would be a historic preservation ordinance, as well as a survey of Alhambra’s historic resources, a homeowner incentive program for preservation, and a historic preservation commission.

While the city does not have a historic preservation ordinance, it still preserves the character of Alhambra and its buildings by encouraging neighborhood pride and providing preservation information to homeowners in the construction process, according to Alhambra Councilman Dr. Steven Placido.

“We work very well with the Preservation Group,” Placido said. “Even though the city doesn’t have a historic ordinance, that does not mean preservation is not important to us. It is very important to us.”

The L.A. Conservancy assigns grades to 88 of L.A. County’s cities every five years. The nonprofit looks to see if cities conducted surveys within the last five years to identify historic sites, implemented homeowner preservation incentive programs, or employed a staff member or committee specifically for historic preservation. The most weight is placed on the existence of a historic preservation ordinance, which counts for 150 of the possible 245 points.

“A local historic preservation ordinance is one of the most important tools a community can use to protect historic resources,” the L.A. Conservancy report reads, explaining that strong ordinances require that construction, remodel, or demolition requests conform to preservation standards.

The Stoneman Avenue house circa 1930. | Photo courtesy of the Alhambra Preservation Group

Local preservation advocates say creating an ordinance could protect many of Alhambra's historic resources threatened with destruction. Among them would be a 90-year-old home on Stoneman Avenue, scheduled to be demolished to make room for a senior living facility extension. Members of the APG and other Alhambra residents say the planned construction is a sign that preservation is not valued in the city.

Despite the criticism, Placido said an ordinance is not on the table. “We’re not considering right now any kind of ordinance for preservation,” Placido said. “But we do take steps to preserve the pride and character of our town. We still can be very proactive in preserving what’s important.”

Placido said that while Alhambra City Council values historic preservation, it has more pressing financial priorities, such as state-imposed pension reform and stormwater regulations as well as compliance with the Affordable Care Act for city staff. City staff must prioritize these issues and make sure they meet state and federal guidelines, according to the councilman.

“When you put all those things together, we have a lot on our plate. We have been trying very hard to preserve the character and pride in town,” Placido said. “But we have big challenges that we face.”

While 14 San Gabriel Valley cities failed L.A. Conservancy’s report, Alhambra’s eastern neighbor, San Gabriel, received a B. San Gabriel does not have an official historic preservation ordinance, but its Design Review Board reviews proposed alterations and protects resources and buildings the city has identified as historically significant.

Alhambra’s northern neighbors, South Pasadena and Pasadena, received perfect scores. Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard said he wasn’t surprised, crediting Pasadena Heritage, a preservation advocacy group, for the city’s progress.

“Pasadena has the benefit of a very long effort over time of advocacy for historic preservation,” Bogaard said. “The community has come to a realization that historic preservation is a valuable opportunity and a valuable commitment for the city.”

The L.A. Conservancy also marked Alhambra down for lacking a dedicated commission or preservation staff, designated historic districts or landmarks, a historic preservation plan, or any preservation incentive programs for homeowners such as the Mills Act, a property tax incentive program for homeowners who preserve their homes and neighborhoods. Alhambra scored a total of 10 points, resulting from a partial historic survey conducted 30 years ago.

While Alhambra’s Design Review Board does not require homeowners to adhere to preservation guidelines, the city does provide residential building information and suggestions for identifying and preserving homes’ original architecture and style, Placido said. "The guidance is for the homeowner, architects, developer, Planning Commission, and the Design Review Board, giving everyone easy access to guidelines to identify the historic character of each of the style of homes,” Placido said.

But the onus for preservation falls on the homeowner, according to Placido. “At the end of the day, it’s the property owner who’s going to preserve their property. The city is not going to do that,” Placido said. “It’s the homeowner who says, ‘I’m going to preserve this house. I want to make it as nice as it can be.’”

City staff has also recognized historic districts in the city, such as Emery Park, the Midwick Tract, and the Bean Tract, and added signs in those areas. These signs help promote neighborhood pride, which motivates residents to take better care of their homes, according to Placido.

“When people drive around in their neighborhoods, they see it and they’re proud of that. In some ways that is preserving history,” Placido said. “Whether you call it pride or preservation, they translate to the same spirit.”

When it comes to increasing preservation efforts by adopting homeowner incentive programs, Placido acknowledged that the Mills Act is a valuable program that works in many communities. But the benefits of providing some homeowners with property tax reductions for adhering to preservation guidelines comes at the cost of local governments, who have to re-allocate money away from police, fire, or other local services, according to Placido.

Still, Olson hopes to continue to work with City Council to implement an ordinance and take other steps toward historic preservation in the future. “I am confident that we can work together with Alhambra's elected and appointed leaders and city staff members to adopt a historic preservation ordinance that will enhance the cultural and economic vitality of our community,” Olson said.

26 thoughts on “Is Alhambra flunking historic preservation?”

  1. Oh, they don’t?

    What leverage do you have? Will you buy a house to keep it preserved?

    Or will you just post comments on a community news website complaining about how “Rich Asians have taken over San Gabriel Valley and they don’t value the same things my tribe does!”

    Well boohoo. Life goes on, whether the 1920’s built houses (that you don’t even live in or have one friend that lives in) get turned into modern 2014 houses or not.

    Focus on creating something amazing in your own life and maybe you wouldn’t have all this time to be mad.

  2. Placido: “We still can be very proactive in preserving what’s important.”

    Yes, and that is to preserve the financial interests of developers and their lackeys at the expense of the residents.

  3. Bottom line:

    RICH PEOPLE RUN THE WORLD.

    And the rich people in Alhambra happen to have roots in the Far East.

    It’s as simple as that. You don’t like it? Move to Arizona like everyone else.

    I don’t *LOVE* it either but at least I understand simple economics and leverage.

    1. Rich people don’t “run the world.” It’s apathetic, stupid or willfully ignorant people that ALLOW the wealthy (or the politicians that serve them) to do anything they want.

  4. responsible_alhambrans_against_710

    Alhambra needs to join the rest of the San Gabriel Valley and start thinking outside the box. You keep the historic buildings and people will come. Maybe not the droves of people that will bring traffic to the area, but we can still keep the sense of community and pride of historic past and not tear everything down in site just because.

    We should all join the Alhambra Preservation Group and also the Historical Society. Those are the only groups we have to help save Alhambra from the bulldozer.

  5. What? Come-on,Alhambra City Council “concerned” about historical preservation? Don’t make me laugh; the only thing they’re concerned is about OVER-BUILDING, more and more condos and “to hell with historical buildings.” Alhambra is the new Los Angeles, tearing down, making more and more parking lots; but instead of more parking lots, more LARGE UP-SCALE CONDOS. I will support the council candidates who want to stop more building and go slow-growth development. Anyone out there?

  6. Alhambra Source is like Fox News, the moderator did not post me comment which is pro City Council in this article. I’m questioning the integrity on this site and will spread the word to fellow Alhambrans.

    1. Hi John,

      I'm sorry you're disappointed by our comment moderation. I'm not sure I received your original comment, as I don't see any pending or blocked for this story. I want to make sure that we address any issues you have with the site or with our moderation. Can you please let me know the comment to which you are referring? If you prefer, you can email nasrin@alhambrasource.org. Thank you!

    2. Hey John, I found Nasrin’s article fine and it listened to both sides of the story. If you don’t like it, then please go back and continue to watch your MSNBC or CNN.

    3. John S —
      Nice try (using the “I’m being censored” whine).

      I have news for you John…NO ONE is “pro-City” as every. single. resident. I’ve spoken to (unless you’re connected to developers) have very little good to say about our local politicians when it comes to preserving our neighborhoods.

      Any current politician on the City Council is flat out lying when they say they’re doing something or “taking steps” to preserve our historic buildings. It’s against their financial interests and all you have to do is look at what they’ve done (or NOT done) to bolster their claim.

      Vote them all out. They do not have the resident’s wishes in mind.

  7. Gloria Valladolid

    Alhambra is bluffing when the Council says they are preserving. They recently dissected a large lot, leaving the original historic house one a new teensy lot, and creating four more with two story houses each. This large lot otherwise untouched is at a water source which the Kizh Gabrieleno Band of Mission Indians testified was their land as they lived near water sources. The City is permitting the complete development and loss of this historic site. To a complaint last year from a citizen that the City was converting too many original buildings into multi floor mixed use buildings, Barbara Messina responded that she was only building on commercial or major streets. That certainly is not true with the El Molino subdivided lots. The miniature street that will bring the new residents in is probably one of the narrowest residential streets in town. Stop historic destruction, Alhambra!

  8. I moved to Alhambra because of the historic neighborhood but am SHOCKED and ASHAMED at its rating. The onus should NOT fall on the homeowner. That’s why some areas of Alhambra are doing whatever they want with their properties and there’s an ugly mish-mash of buildings. If Alhambra wants to keep attracting people to move here, its legislators should put an ordinance in place and place more importance on historic preservation.

  9. I appreciate the many well-informed and thoughtful comments on this story. Of course Alhambra’s own history is worth preserving. We can — and must — do better when it comes to incorporating historic preservation into our city’s planning process. I suppose the good news is that, with a grade of “F” on the Preservation Report Card, there’s nowhere to go but up!

    While there is an abundance of misinformation out there about the role and function of preservation policies in a modern city, the fact of the matter is that preservation pays big dividends. An increasing population, diminishing natural resources, and an uncertain energy future demand new development strategies. Most people refer to this as “smart growth.” One of the most cost-effective elements of smart growth is historic preservation. Why invest money in tearing down historic resources if they can be adapted to meet the current and future needs of our community? Rehabilitated historic buildings generate tax assets and create more jobs. Rehabbing old buildings also reduces construction debris, decreasing both building and environmental costs. The challenge, of course, is determining which buildings are historically or architecturally significant, and which are just old. That is the appropriate role of an historic resources survey.

    The way forward for Alhambra has been amply paved by other communities throughout California that have adopted preservation ordinances that work — without draining human and fiscal resources. I appreciate the hard work and dedication of our City Council members and staff in guiding Alhambra through the many challenges faced by the City. I also think it’s appropriate to expect that more attention be paid to responsible stewardship of our built environment.

  10. Mr. Placido said. “It’s the homeowner who says, ‘I’m going to preserve this house. I want to make it as nice as it can be.” This is true. However, when we restored our 1928 home, in which we have lived for 54 years, we checked, if we could find some financial help through the Mills Act and discovered that Alhambra had no preservation ordinance. This reality was hitting us hard and we felt like Alhambra was “left behind”. We had to find ways to carry the enormous cost ourselves. The Mills Act would be giving people, who care about the historic value of their homes, an incentive to do their part in restorations that otherwise they could ill afford. The work of Alhambra’s leadership is appreciated and visible in treelined paved streets without potholes and much more and there is no doubt that there will always be pressing issues coming to the forefront, but hopefully, Mr. Placido and all the members of the City Council, who have pledged at election time, to listen to all voices of Alhambra’s citizens, will take a new look at the preservation ordinance and open doors rather than shut them. Putting up signs designating historic areas was an encouraging first step but there is never a time like now to continue this journey.

    1. Linda Trevillian

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad that you mentioned the Mills Act and your failure to take advantage of it because the city won’t cooperate. I just wonder what it will take. Preserving our history is so important, but at least, Placido (and probably other so-called leaders) doesn’t seem to understand that at all.

      1. It will take a new city council. Get rid of the dinosaurs!

  11. Informative story, and appreciate the link to the Mills Act.  Lots of needed  development in the city, it would also be encouraging to see city leadership not just move to the future, but proactively engage with residents to recognize and preserve Alhambra's history.

  12. What evidence is there that the city council has done anything to support preservation in Alhambra?

    When I moved into my “historic” neighborhood here 4 years ago and called the city office to find out about covenants I needed to adhere to, I was told “there are none at all, just the signs posted make it historic.” I was dumbfounded. I’ve lived in other states and other historic neighborhoods, and always there have been some regulations to protect a neighborhood’s character.

    If the Sisteine Chapel had been built in Alhambra, it would have long since been torn down for mixed-use development

    1. That the city would destroy the Sisteine Chapel for bland condos is sad but true, but we do have our version of the Arch de arc de triomphe on Fremont and Valley so not all is lost!

    2. Linda Trevillian

      Thanks for the post. I feel the same way. The City has done NOTHING!!! Loved your comment about the Sistine Chapel, by the way.

  13. Nestor, easier said than done. Each city is different. For example, you mention Pasadena.
    It is an older city than Alhambra. It is larger and can accommodate more growth. We are a much smaller city and this home is no architectural gem like the Pasadena City Hall Building.

    If preservationists like you wanted to keep this home so bad why didn’t you buy this home earlier? You should be the one paying for this…

  14. The way to do it it’s been established by cities with preservation ordinances, like Pasadena, there are incentives to homeowners etc. Alhambra just have to learn from the experience in historical preservation from neighbouring communities.

  15. So should the city buy these homes? At the end of the day, who’s gonna pay for the maintenance of these properties? Us taxpayers?

  16. Ms. Aboulhosn let Dr. Placido run amok with his disingenuous comments, and only quotes Ms. Olsen once. Placido says” “Even though the city doesn’t have a historic ordinance, that does not mean preservation is not important to us. It is very important to us.” How is it important to the city if none of the the council members belong to any preservation group? Alhambra’s elected officials show how little they care for the historic value of our buildings when they caved under pressure from “Silverado Assisted Care” empire, who has its eyes set on an entire block for demolition. They didn’t even bother to find out the actual history of the house in question, mistaking the style and other major details in the City Planner report. Alhambra’s downtown decadence and the proliferation of poorly planned condos elsewhere tells a story of backwardness and incompetence. Next time, Ms. Aboulhosn, give equal opportunity to well informed, well meaning preservationists, and don’t let politicians run their mouths unchecked.

    1. Linda Trevillian

      Thank you, thank you, thank you!! I agree completely that there appears to be no interest in preservation in our city and obviously no understand of the value of preserving our historic structures. I remember the old Alhambra High School, which still was standing when I moved here in 1962. And, on the Alhambra Preservation Web site, I’ve seen pictures of the many historic residences that have been destroyed, all in the name of . . . progress??? After the 1971 earthquake, downtown Alhambra lost much of its appeal because buildings were remodeled rather than being restored. We could have a downtown much like South Pasadena’s or Monrovia’s if anyone had had a vision. I hope that your comments and some of the others will spur a movement to pressure the city officials to finally do something. Reminds me about NYC, which had no policy in place until the old Penn Station (and possibly Madison Square Garden) was destroyed a few decades ago. Fortunately,the citizens of that large city were proactive, and many important structures have been saved. Surely, our city is important enough to save some, too.

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