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.
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.