The Glendale City Council narrowly voted to adopt an ordinance to streamline the process of designating historic districts throughout the city and to maintain the current requirement of more than 50% of homeowner signatures living in the proposed district for designation, rather than enforcing a 67% supermajority of signatures.
Councilmembers and stakeholders alike were overwhelmingly in support of streamlining the process of historic district designation — which can take years — by eliminating several steps in the process, adding tighter timelines for surveying potential historic districts and implementing technological changes that allow for greater community outreach and input.
The point of contention with this ordinance was whether to require a petition with a simple majority (50% plus 1) or a supermajority (67%) of signatures from residents of the proposed historic district. Additionally, the concern of whether these signatures should be more stringently verified also came up.
Mayor Dan Brotman, Councilwoman Paula Devine and Councilman Ardy Kassakhian voted for a simple majority with the current system of verification, under which staff verifies that signatories’ names are the same as those provided by the L.A. County Assessor with regard to property ownership and that handwriting is not the same for multiple property owners. Councilwoman Elen Asatryan and Councilman Ara Najarian supported the supermajority approach.
Of Glendale’s nine historic districts, the average signature percentage has been 73%, with two districts falling below the supermajority of 67%, according to Bradley Calvert, the director of community development for the city.
Asatryan voiced concerns about the historic districts potentially further pushing up housing prices as well as a desire to have more community input on the matter.
“For me, it’s about leaving out 49% of the population. We are talking about people’s properties here,” Asatryan said during the meeting. “At a time when there’s a housing crisis, I want us to be thoughtful about the kind of policies we’re passing that hinder that progress and the ability for someone to afford to live in Glendale and to make renovations.”
Public commenter Jacob Pierce, a field organizer for Abundant Housing LA, said he and the organization share concerns that “historic districts have the potential to artificially inflate home prices in already expensive areas, that they make renovations more costly, they prohibit many types of new housing, and additionally provide little to no benefit to those residents not lucky enough to live in one of the contributing homes in a historic district.”
During the survey of a potential historic district, a consultant hired by the city determines which properties within the area are contributing properties, which are the properties built during the historic period of significance and exhibit characteristics of that time. Jay Platt, the city’s principal planner, explained that these are subject to stricter renovation restrictions than noncontributing properties, which can make basic changes so long as the property remains in the “basic context” of the neighborhood.
Devine said she spoke to realtors across the city “ad nauseam” who, according to Devine, said housing prices are going up all over Glendale and that historic districts are not driving up these prices.
“Creating historic districts is not prohibiting new affordable housing,” Devine said. “What it’s protecting is the integrity of the neighborhoods. People don’t buy homes; they buy neighborhoods. They buy a home in the neighborhood that they want to live in, where they feel safe, where they see the integrity of a neighborhood and they don’t want to see houses changed. These historic districts and homes are an asset to our city.”
Similarly, Brotman maintained that he is committed to making more affordable housing opportunities in Glendale, while still preserving historic districts. He acknowledged that once a neighborhood is designated a historic district, prices in that district tend to rise because there will be an added value to the property, however, the city can still prioritize affordable housing elsewhere in the city.
“We can do two things at once,” Brotman said. “We can have both.”
Devine, along with a few public commenters, also noted that a simple majority is standard in democratic practices throughout Glendale and the nation.
Public commenter Arlene Vidor said she strongly supports streamlining the designation process and that requiring a supermajority of neighborhood signatures would do the opposite of streamlining.
“Don’t punish neighborhood advocates,” Vidor said. “A democratic, simple majority ruling is the binary principle used in most decision-making processes in our country and there is no reason we should change that in this case, especially since it is so far upstream in the process which has many steps.”
To broadly summarize the streamlined version of the designation process, prior to obtaining a signature petition, the neighborhood that wants historic designation must submit an application. Then the Historic Preservation Commission holds a public hearing and community forum to determine if the area has potential to be deemed eligible. If so, property owners in the district will be informed of what the potential designation entails, and the city will commission a consultant to complete a historic district survey of the area.
Once the survey is complete, a second public hearing and community forum will be held to review the findings of the survey and HPC will determine whether it supports moving forward with designation. It is at that point the neighborhood must complete the signature petition. If that is completed, the Planning Commission makes its final recommendation to Council, who must approve the designation with a supermajority vote of four-fifths.
Kassakhian pointed to this last step to ease concerns of those who prefer the 67% required signatures, emphasizing that there still must be a supermajority vote among Councilmembers, even if petition signatures only require a simple majority.
He also addressed concerns from the public about the restrictions a historic district might impose on property owners, referring to misconceptions about these limitations as “doom and gloom messaging.”
“Some people think if they’re in a historic district, everything is frozen in time and that is not the case… You can still make changes to a home, you can still have an accessory dwelling unit built, you can still change windows,” Kassakhian said. “And sometimes you can even tear down the whole property and build something else if it is not a contributing property in the historic district.”
At the beginning of Council’s discussion of this ordinance, Najarian made a motion to table the entire designation conversation and instead direct staff to prepare a study session to examine whether historic districts are inherently racist. Asatryan seconded this motion, which ultimately failed, with the additional request that staff look at housing prices as well.
Najarian referenced various articles and academic journals that connected historic districts throughout California and the country with racism.
“Historic districts are a covert method of continuing redlining,” Najarian said.
Calvert confirmed that Glendale’s historic districts do align with redlining, a practice in which people of color were prevented from residing in certain neighborhoods.
Following this, Devine referenced a study from Los Angeles Conservancy, “Preservation Positive Los Angeles,” which found that Historic Preservation Overlay Zones in L.A. “protect affordable housing, foster neighborhood stability, and serve as home to a racially and economically diverse population.”
Brotman and Kassakhian both acknowledged the city’s history as a “sundown town” and that much of it was built upon racism, however, they feel neglecting the designation of historic districts will not fix the mistakes of the past.
“Understanding those patterns [of our racist history] is important, but I don’t see how bulldozing historic districts or properties gets us any closer to that understanding,” Brotman said. “I think we want to know how we got here and retaining those elements teaches us how we got here and connects us to the past even when the past isn’t very pretty.”
“I’ve been to places where history has been preserved and to places where it has been lost and I can tell you I prefer the places where history has been preserved,” Kassakhian said.
First published in the October 14 print issue of the Glendale News-Press.