The Santa Monica Conservancy is dedicated to helping the public understand historic preservation and specifically the City of Santa Monica’s Historic Preservation Program. The Conservancy provides guidance for owners of landmark properties, individuals interested in learning about the process of landmark designation, and how changes to the property will impact future decisions.
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A landmark or historic resource is a property of feature that, through its physical characteristics, or as a result of what occurred there, is found worthy of recognition and preservation. A property may be historic if:
The City of Santa Monica keeps a list called the Historic Resources Inventory (HRI) which is a database used by the City to identify properties of potential historic significance. Each property listed on the Inventory was evaluated by preservation professionals using nationwide standards and criteria. To see the listing of properties on the HRI, please click here.
Landmarks are subject to special protections, regulations and privileges. There are several incentives for landmarks and properties that contribute to a historic district including:
To see a full list of preservation incentives and applications visit click here
1. The Mills Act– Property Tax Reduction Program: The Mills Act is a state program that allows for a significant reduction in property taxes for designated historic landmarks whose owners are committed to restoring and rehabilitating their buildings. The Mills Act applies to both residential and commercial properties, both owner-occupied and income producing properties.
Property taxes are frequently set as a percentage of the market value, or purchase price of a property. When applying the Mills Act to a designated property, the county reassesses property taxes based on a property’s ability to produce rental income. If it is owner-occupied, a rental value is determined based on comparable properties in the area. A capitalization rate determines a fare value based on the income stream. This will be the new assessed property value to be taxed.
Under the Mills Act, a property owner enters into a preservation contract with the city. In exchange for property tax relief, the contract requires the owner to commit to a restoration and maintenance work plan, developed through an evaluation by a certified architect hired by the property owner. A Mills Act work plan is a 10-year restoration and maintenance schedule that automatically renews indefinitely, and regulates only exterior and general maintenance of the property; however, interior work is often included in the plan.
Properties that have been recently purchased with high property tax valuations will benefit more than those that have not changed hands and are thus already taxed at a low rate. Properties that have sold within the last 10 years are likely to see the greatest tax reduction.
Click here for a link to the Mills Act application.
For additional information about the Mills Act, go to the California State Board of Equalization.
2. Exceptions from some zoning regulations: Planning Department fees are waived. Permit fees are based on a percentage of the project construction cost, so savings will be proportional to the size of the project. The waiver does not include fees from Building and Safety or other city departments.
The city will improve street scapes (street lights, sidewalks, street signs, etc.) in Historic Districts to be compatible with their historic character.
Expedited review by some departments for remodels and additions to designated historic properties.
Code exceptions are written into some parts of the zoning ordinance that enable historic resources to undergo major structural repair and rehabilitation without triggering the need to update the entire structure to modern standards.
3. The California Historic Building Code – Use of a special historic building code: The California Historic Building Code (CHBC) was created to allow for creative safety solutions when historic resources are undergoing restoration, rehabilitation, or adaptation to a new use. Used in conjunction with the standard code, it balances the preservation of historic architectural elements with life safety requirements.
The CHBC, when requested in a project application, is available to any agency that evaluates any code compliance for historic resources. Buildings qualify to use this code if they have any local, state, or national historic designation or are listed on the Historic Resources Inventory. CHBC sections are available for: use and occupancy; fire protection; means of egress; accessibility, structural regulations, archaic materials and methods of construction; and mechanical, plumbing, and electrical systems. Public agencies may apply these codes when reviewing repairs, alterations and additions necessary for the preservation, restoration, reconstruction, rehabilitation, relocation or continued use of a historic resource. Non-historical additions must conform to the requirements of the regular code.
Public officials and design professionals can use their expertise and discretion in finding alternative solutions that are equivalent in safety to the standard code.
Click here for a listing of the State of California Historic Building Code.
An application for landmark status can be initiated by any member of the public or by the Landmarks Commission. A formal review process is then set in motion, with an evaluation of the resource in relation to six designation criteria, followed by a public hearing at which the property owner is invited to participate. A majority vote of the Commission is required for designation. Click here for a copy of the Historic Designation Application Form.
Once a landmarks application is filed, the city will hire a professional consultant to research a property, but any information or research presented as part of the application or request to the Landmarks Commission to file an application is helpful.
1. Visit City Hall
Go to the Planning Counter and ask to see the building records on file for the property. With luck, you can get a copy of the original building permit and identify the architect and contractor. The Los Angeles County Assessor’s Office also has records of previous owners. These records also identify later alterations made to the property, which are part of the building’s history.
2. Use the Library
There are City Directories in the Santa Monica Public Library dating back more than 100 years. In the back of each one, there is a section with listings by address called a Reverse Directory. Under each address are the names of people who lived there that year along with their occupations. Find out who lived at the address in question. The Santa Monica Public Library also has a large collection of books and reference materials about Santa Monica’s history, as well as books on architecture. Santa Monica’s hometown newspaper the Outlook was founded within a few months of the town itself in 1875. It is searchable on the library website up until the 1920s and is available on microfiche for more recent issues. It can be used to search addresses as well as names of people and businesses. The librarians will be able to help you find other relevant material. The Santa Monica Public Library also has a searchable image archive that may be able to provide old or historic photos of the property.
If you can’t find the information you need at City Hall, but know the year it was built, The Los Angeles Public Library has the Southwest Builder & Contractor magazine on microfiche, going back more than 100 years. US Census records are also available online through the library. A search by address can show a great deal of information about who lived at a particular address, where they came from and what they did there.
3. Background Research: Understand the Context
Read books about the era, cultural trends of the time, and the architect or architectural style in which your building was built. If possible, find people who lived in the building 50, 60 or 70 years ago, or neighbors who remember its history. Ask them to tell you stories about what the property was like in the past. Many books about the history of Santa Monica are available at the library. The Santa Monica History Museum also has a great deal to offer.
4. Rally your neighbors
Show the Landmarks Commission that the community is interested in this designation. Get support from your neighbors. Ask them to write letters and sign petitions. Invite neighbors to attend the hearing and speak in support of the designation by addressing how the property satisfies the criteria above.
5. Present the research
Use slides or a PowerPoint presentation when appearing before the Commission. Include historic photographs of the property (from former tenants or reference books) and the surrounding neighborhood. Contacting city staff in advance of a presentation that uses city equipment is recommended. as it helps to ensure equipment compatibility and a smooth presentation.
6. Stay on message
The Landmarks Commission can only evaluate potential landmarks based only on the six criteria and are prohibited by law from considering other issues. Avoid discussion about how “charming” the home is or how important it might be to retain rent-controlled apartments or other positions that are not directly related to the historic associations of the site.
7. Be ready for questionsFor example, if the original wood frame windows have been replaced, find out when and, if possible, why. There could be a historically significant reason. Provide as much documentation as possible.
Click here for additional information of this process.
Properties come to the Landmarks Commission in four different ways:
The landmark designation process involves one or two Landmarks Commission hearings and a professional analysis by a consultant who specializes in historic preservation. The consultant researches the property’s historic value, context and significance, and within 60 days of the application filing, presents an analysis at a Landmarks Commission meeting. Often, members of the public appear to speak for or against the designation. The Commission will decide at that meeting whether or not to landmark the property. That decision can be appealed to City Council within 10 days. In the event of an appeal, the Council’s decision is final.
For further information, you can contact the city’s Planning Division at 310-458-8341.
The landmarks ordinance anticipates that owners will update or remodel landmarked structures. Interior changes need no special approval beyond what is normally required by code. Exterior changes require a Certificate of Appropriateness issued by city staff or the Landmarks Commission, depending upon the extent of the changes. Demolition is not permitted, except in very limited circumstances. The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Rehabilitation of Historic Buildings – criteria developed by the National Parks Service – are accepted as the norm for determining if changes to historic structures will affect significance. In Santa Monica, the Secretary’s Standards are used to evaluate changes in the exterior and public space of a building, not the interior space.
Building a constituency for preserving a historic resource is important. Bring in relevant organizations to write letters, testify at hearings, or participate in any public rallies. These can include neighborhood associations, historical societies, architectural and preservation organizations at the local, state and national levels, trade unions, students, or professional groups that may have some affinity to the issue. The Landmarks Commission wants to know what the public thinks about a property that is being considered for landmark designation. It is important that the Commission hears enthusiasm and relevant reflections on daily contact with the property. The reminiscences of a former owner, old photos from a neighbor’s scrapbook and other historical information are valuable to the Commission if they relate to the criteria by which the Commission will evaluate the landmark.
It helps to work very closely with the elected officials who have some decision-making power over the property. Contact the elected representatives, make the case for preservation, and let them assist in developing a strategic lobbying effort. Hold a public rally; distribute petitions; and talk to the press to get the word out.
Adaptive re-use is the process of retrofitting an outdated site or building for a purpose other than that for which it was originally built. Adaptive reuse is favored by advocates of preservation when a building is no longer suitable for its original purpose, and is considered a sustainable option as well. By reusing an existing structure, the energy required to create the new facility is lessened, as is the material waste that comes from destroying the old and rebuilding using new materials. Reusing existing buildings conserves materials, reduces landfills, and saves on transportation and manufacturing costs.
Rehabilitation is a treatment in which as much as possible of the original historic fabric of a structure is retained or repaired while still allowing for sensitive additions of new materials that allow the structure to be updated for a modern user or for a different use altogether.
Restoration focuses on the retention and repair of materials from the most significant time in a property’s history in order to faithfully restore it to its period of highest significance with as little modern intervention as possible.
While “historical research” may sound like a daunting task, this type of research is, in fact, possible for anyone with an interest in history and some time and patience on their hands.
See the City of Los Angeles Office of Historic Resources’ “How To” Guide for historical research.
There are several ways to support the work of the Conservancy. Becoming a member, renewing your membership, volunteering your time and expertise, or making a donation to support our ongoing work are all important ways to make a lasting impact on Santa Monica’s architectural and cultural heritage.
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