Carthay Square, HPOZs and the Effort to Preserve a Neighborhood

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The residents of Carthay Square want to turn their neighborhood into a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ). Gideon Brower reports on a process that hits some bumps in the road: the uglier history of pretty homes, and budget cuts that stall years of work and do not stop development.

marilouise morgan
Marilouise Morgan bought her house in 1959.
“Just look around and see what’s happening east of us, where residences went in favor of large apartment buildings.”

The residents of Carthay Square want to turn their neighborhood into a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ). Gideon Brower reports on a process that hit some bumps in the road: the uglier history of pretty homes, and budget cuts that stall years of the community’s work and do not stop new development. Listen to his story here.

Few people know the mid-City neighborhood of Carthay Square by name, but if you’ve driven by the strip of Ethiopian restaurants on Fairfax just south of Olympic, you’ve been in the vicinity. It’s a quiet residential neighborhood of small single-family homes and duplex apartment buildings. And it’s tiny: just six streets run through it.

Almost everything in Carthay Square was built in the 1920s and ‘30s, in the Period Revival styles popular at that time. Some buildings have elements of English Tudor architecture; others look more Spanish Colonial, or Mediterranean, or Deco. The overall scale and materials of the buildings are consistent, and most of the neighborhood looks a lot like it did back in the 1930s.

Around 2008, a group of residents alarmed by nearby construction proposed adding Carthay Square to the City’s 29 existing Historic Preservation Overlay Zones, or HPOZs.

In an HPOZ, proposed exterior repairs, renovations and additions are reviewed by a volunteer board of residents under guidelines adopted by the Los Angeles Office of Historic Resources. Keeping changes and repairs compatible with the neighborhood’s traditional architecture can make them considerably more expensive, but owners are eligible for some significant tax breaks.

Not everyone in the neighborhood favored the idea of an HPOZ. One of those opposed was Dr. Adrian Dove, who modified his traditional duplex to resemble an ancient Egyptian temple. He describes an exchange with a preservation expert at a community meeting: “She said, we need to preserve the original intent of the builders. I said, the builder was a bigot. He put in a clause that said this house shall not be occupied by a person of African or Oriental ancestry, except as a domestic. I couldn’t stay in this house overnight. Why in the world would I want to preserve the integrity of his intent? I used a four-letter word to describe what I think should be done with his intent.”

Adrian Dove house Carthay Square
Dr. Adrian Dove modified his duplex apartment building to resemble an ancient Egyptian temple. He opposes the proposed HPOZ. “They’re saying you can’t put this kind of plant, you can’t put that kind of window – that’s personal freedom!”

Dr. Dove wasn’t alone in objecting to the proposed HPOZ, but the generally positive response from residents encouraged the volunteers to move forward. They compiled a history of the neighborhood and photographed and catalogued each of its 347 buildings. They hired an architectural historian who concluded that 90% of the structures in Carthay Square had enough historic integrity to be part of the proposed zone. By the beginning of 2012, the group felt that they were nearing the finish line – but that’s when everything stopped.

“What’s happened unfortunately is that the City has had a significant budget crisis,” says city planner Ken Bernstein, who oversees the HPOZ program. Bernstein says that with 50 unfilled job vacancies at L.A.’s Department of Planning, there’s no one available to process applications for new historic districts or attend their board meetings. As many as 10 HPOZ applications are stuck in limbo, and no one can tell when they’ll get unstuck.

New Home under construction in Carthay Square
A new home under construction in Carthay Square.

For Marilouise Morgan, who is one of the leaders of the preservationist group, the two-years-plus delay has been both vexing and discouraging. She points up her street to a property that until recently was occupied by a small English Tudor-style home. In its place, a large modern house is under construction, built to the edge of the property line, looming over its neighbors on each side.

“It’s very frustrating to us and to our residents,” says Morgan. “They’re saying, what happened? I gave you money and you’ve been working on this for years — did you give up? All we can say is, no, we haven’t given up.”

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Special thanks to Eric Drachman for production assistance with the radio story.