In a controversial vote, West Hollywood’s City Council voted 3-2 to designate two 111-year-old houses as “local cultural resources” during its Monday night meeting, despite opposition from the owner of the property.
David Vayner, who owns the homes at 927 and 931 Palm Avenue, which are just north of Santa Monica, was appealing the Historic Preservation Commission’s March decision to designate the houses. Vayner, a retired dentist, has submitted plans for developing the property into an apartment building.
“The hardship of not allowing this man to move forward is devastating,” said Arlene Utal, Vayner’s attorney.
With this historic designation, the houses cannot be demolished, but the rest of the property can still be developed. However, Vayner could take the city to court for the right to demolish them.
“It’s a miracle that these homes still exist after 100 years. They’re almost like a time capsule, inside and outside,” said resident Kate Eggert who submitted the application to designate the houses. “With the properties being side by side, the pedestrian has an opportunity to glimpse what existed in the original town of Sherman [the original name for West Hollywood].”
Vayner’s paperwork for his development plans came in after Eggert’s paperwork. Consequently, her application had to be considered first.
Utal compared the historic designation to the city using eminent domain (seizing private property for a public use such a building a highway or a park). She said that at least under eminent domain, Vayner would be fairly compensated for his loss of the property, but with historic designation, he won’t be. Utal estimated Vayner has spent over $100,000 in application fees and designs.
The two Palm Avenue homes were among 19 houses nominated in 1999 for inclusion in the city’s newly created Old Sherman Thematic Grouping of historic homes on the Westside. At that time, the Council approved five houses for the district and later added three others, but not the two Palm houses. Today, only 12 of those 19 nominated houses still stand.
Utal said Vayner bought the Palm Avenue houses in 2002-2003 with the understanding that the only way they could ever be historically designated after that 1999 council vote was if he, as the property owner, made such a request.
Councilmember John Heilman voted against the designation, citing concerns about the “reliance factor” of Vayner being told by city staff that the houses weren’t historic or designated.
“We all agree historic preservation is important, but it’s also a tool that needs to be used reservedly and in appropriate situations,” said Heilman.
Mayor Abbe Land, who also voted against the designation, expressed concerns that the houses were not in close proximity to the other houses designated in the Old Sherman Thematic Grouping.
Since both Palm Avenue houses have been altered slightly over the years, neither qualify for individual historic designation. However, as part of the thematic grouping, which has less stringent standards of integrity, they are eligible.
Councilmember Jeff Prang said that proximity shouldn’t be a factor since it takes “35 seconds” to walk from the two Palm Avenue houses to the nearest designated house on Cynthia Street.
Both Prang and Councilmember John Duran mentioned several old houses that were demolished along San Vicente Boulevard in the late 1990s to make way for the Desmond condominium building at 851 San Vicente Blvd. at Cynthia.
Duran, who was not on the council at the time of the demolition, said he still misses those old houses. Meanwhile, Prang said he regretted voting to approve their demolition.
“I made a mistake with the Desmond,” said Prang. “I don’t want to make the same mistake.”
Eggert’s application for historic designation also included the house at 923 Palm Ave. north of Santa Monica, which Vayner also owns. However, the Historic Preservation Commission said that house had been significantly altered over the years and therefore did not qualify. The Council upheld that decision.