By Michael J. Gibson
Redondo Beach has over eighty individual historic landmarks, each of which offers a unique insight into the “Redondo that once was.” To get a real sense of what life was like in our town eighty or ninety years ago, nothing compares to a visit to one of our historic neighborhoods. Strolling along a city block of largely intact historic homes, you will find yourself immersed in a streetscape that, with a little imagination, allows you to travel back in time as effectively as if you’d stepped into a time machine. Preserving this experience, and the neighborhoods that make it possible, is the goal of Redondo’s historic district designation program.
On January 28, 2010, our Preservation Commission sponsored a workshop at the Morrell House for residents interested in the designation of new historic districts in Redondo Beach. The event was well attended, and received a fair amount of press coverage. Perhaps more importantly, a number of those in attendance expressed an interest in working with their neighbors and the city to create new historic districts. What exactly is a historic district? In Redondo, our preservation ordinance recognizes two kinds of designated historic districts: geographical and thematic.
A geographical district is simply “one or more blocks or block faces containing a multiple number of historically significant resources.” A thematic district, on the other hand, is “a compilation of historic resources that are not geographically linked, but rather are linked by similar characteristics that can be clearly articulated.” Although the resources that comprise a historic district can be varied, for the most part such districts are made up of buildings that “represent one or more architectural periods or styles typical to the history of the city.” Although an individual building may not be particularly distinctive, when it is grouped together with similar buildings to create a “period ensemble” of sorts, it assumes a significance that it would not otherwise have on its own. Thus, in a historic district, the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
How does a neighborhood become a designated historic district? Any property owner, or group of property owners, or the city itself, can nominate a neighborhood as a district. In Redondo, geographical districts can be comprised of whole city blocks, parts of city blocks, or two or more city blocks. There is no requirement that the boundaries of the district be contiguous; in other words, the district can include some, but not all, of the buildings on a block. In fact, no property owner in the neighborhood can be included in a district without his or her written consent. Buildings that are included in a district, known as “contributors,” must be at least 50 years old, and must retain most of their original architectural features. Once a neighborhood is nominated, an application is filed, studies are conducted by the Planning Department and a professional consultant, and a public hearing is held. Designation becomes official upon approval by the Preservation Commission.
Currently, our city has just two locally designated historic districts. One is the well known Gertruda Avenue district, comprised of the 300 block of North Gertruda Avenue and the west side of the 500 block of North Guadalupe Avenue. Portions of the 300 block of North Gertruda also comprise a nationally designated historic district, a distinction that was awarded before our local preservation ordinance was enacted. The second district consists of just four buildings located at 216 and 218 North Catalina Avenue.
In addition to our two existing districts, our 1986 historic resources survey identified seven other potential geographical historic districts: the 500 block of Garnet Street, the 500 block of South Catalina Avenue, the 400 block of Emerald Street, the 400 block of Miramar Drive, the 600 block of Carnelian Street, the 400 block of South Broadway, and that portion of the neighborhood known as Clifton by the Sea which is bounded by Knob Hill Avenue on the north, Avenue F on the south, South Catalina Avenue on the west, and South Pacific Coast Highway on the east. Informal volunteer efforts have identified other potential geographical districts, including the 600 block of Emerald Street, the 300 block of North Francisca Avenue, and 100 block of South Helberta Avenue.
Redondo also has a number of potential thematic districts. The 1986 survey proposed the creation of a thematic district comprised of pre-World War II bungalow courts located west of Pacific Coast Highway, identifying six properties as prospective contributors. It has also been suggested that two types of widely dispersed post-war buildings might qualify for their own thematic districts: mid-century Western-style ranch houses, many of which are located on blocks adjoining South Prospect Avenue, and mid-century garden office courts located in Riviera Village.
Designation as a historic district benefits both the overall neighborhood and individual property owners. On the neighborhood level, existing historic buildings are protected, an authentic, unique “sense of place” is preserved, and the sense of community among neighbors is enhanced. Designation also encourages better architectural design, both for district contributors and for other buildings in the neighborhood. Although restoration or renovation is not required as a prerequisite to designation as a district contributor, any proposed remodeling or additions that are visible from the public right of way, or which would otherwise affect architectural features of the property, are subject to an additional level of review — by city staff, for minor changes, or by the Preservation Commission, for major changes. Non-contributing residential properties in the neighborhood are, like all properties in Redondo, subject to our city’s “Residential Design Guidelines” adopted in 2003. Under these guidelines, new construction, or any modification of existing buildings, must be compatible with the mass, scale, architectural imagery, and other design features of surrounding development, and must “preserve and contribute to the unique character of established neighborhoods.” If surrounding properties are contributors to a historic district, this will be taken into account when evaluating proposed new construction or remodeling in the neighborhood.
From the individual property owner’s point of view, studies have documented that historic districts enhance property values, and therefore protect an owner’s investment.
There are more immediate and concrete financial incentives as well. Here in Redondo, owners of contributing buildings are eligible for property tax reductions through our Mills Act program. Under this program, the owner of a contributing property enters into a contract with the city by which he or she agrees to maintain and rehabilitate the property in accordance with prescribed standards, and to allow periodic inspections of the property to insure that inappropriate alterations do not occur. In return, the city, county, and state agree to subsidize the owner’s work through a reduction in property taxes. These contracts have an initial term of ten years, and are extended automatically for one year as each year elapses. They may continue indefinitely, or may be cancelled by the property owner or city upon 10 years’ notice. The owner’s property taxes are calculated based on lowest of: (i) current assessed value under Prop. 13; (ii) reduced assessed value under Prop. 8; and (iii) alternate assessed value under the Mills Act. This “alternate” assessed value is calculated on basis of potential rental income, less expenses, divided by “cap rate” tied to an expected rate of return. The percentage of the tax reduction experienced under the Mills Act generally depends upon how recently the property has been sold or transferred. Generally speaking, a property sold before 1979 experiences no reduction; one sold between 1979 and 1999 experiences an average 5% to 25% reduction; and one sold after 1999 experiences an average 50% reduction. But there’s another important advantage as well. The Mills Act contract remains in effect after the property is sold or transferred, so no reassessment occurs upon the sale or transfer, and the new owner gets the benefit of the lower taxes paid by the prior owner. If the prior owner acquired the property before 1979, the new owner’s taxes will be substantially lower than they would otherwise be, and this anticipated tax benefit for the buyer can be factored into the price demanded by the seller.
There are also a number of regulatory incentives for owners of contributing properties. Owners can take advantage of the state’s Historic Building Code, which helps to preserves historic features and materials when alterations or repairs are needed, and allows alternative construction techniques to be used as long as life-safety requirements are met. This may result in significant cost savings. Homeowners may also be eligible for historic variances, which allow the city to take historic value into account when considering exceptions to existing code regulations. Finally, properties may qualify for designation as historic overlay zones, permitting greater flexibility in use than would be available under existing zoning rules.
Designated historic districts, then, make everyone winners: property owners, neighbors, the city and those of us who just enjoy an occasional stroll through history without the benefit of a time machine.