Growing up in the historic city of York, England, Santa Monica resident Karen Blechman learned to value how the antique buildings of a neighborhood can make it a particularly special place to live.
“I have a strong sense for how the architecture of a place can create an ambience and an environment for living,” Blechman said.
It was that sense that Blechman took with her when she moved to Santa Monica and into the Third Street District of Ocean Park with her family 12 years ago.
The Third Street Neighborhood Historic District, bounded by Ocean Park Boulevard and Second, Third and Hill Streets, was created in 1990 to preserve the turn-of-the-20th-century character of the neighborhood, and it is one of only two designated historic districts in Santa Monica. The other district, known as the Bay Street Craftsman Cluster, is also designated as historic but does not have the same design guidelines.
Blechman and neighbors of the Third Street district say they particularly value their neighborhood for its vintage feel, which helps make it an enjoyable place to live.
“We have a wonderful community here,” said Blechman, noting that it’s a neighborhood of different backgrounds and ages.
“Everybody knows everybody and we feel very safe here.”
Resident Tony Haig, whose house, built in 1880, is the oldest in the district, added, “This is a very friendly neighborhood.”
But neighbors say they are concerned that the historic nature of their district may be threatened by proposed projects that are out of character with the neighborhood of bungalow homes.
Since June, Third Street District residents have come out in force at meetings of the city Landmarks Commission, where one of their neighbors is seeking a certificate of appropriateness for design approval for a proposed addition to his property.
Resident Mark Woollen is requesting design approval for a proposed 1,200-square-foot addition to an existing two-story “non-contributing” structure on the rear of his property in the 2600 block of Third Street. Woollen says he plans to restore his home, which was built in 1905, and wants to add a couple of bedrooms to the rear two-story building.
Woollen’s neighbors have called his proposal a modernist, rectilinear box with a flat roof that is out of place with the district’s bungalows, which have pitched roofs, front porches, numerous windows and horizontal wood siding. They claim that proposals such as Woollen’s would threaten the historic feel of the district and could lead to its demise.
“Our concern is that if this is permitted, it will damage the character of the district and set a terrible precedent for future projects,” said resident Bea Nemlaha, who was active in creating the historic district in 1990.
According to the city’s historic district design guidelines, new construction should be harmonious and compatible with the character of the district’s existing buildings.
Woollen has disputed claims that his addition will stick out amongst the five signature bungalows, saying his project is 100 feet from the street and is behind a fence and trees.
“This isn’t some large rectangular two-story spaceship landing in the backyard,” Woollen said of his project. “Every project has to be judged on its own merits.”
Haig, who has lived in his home since the early 1970s, called his neighbor’s plan a “huge box” that is highly inappropriate for the district.
“It doesn’t have to be on the street to stick out,” Haig said.
Woollen said his neighbors’ opposition to his project has felt like a personal attack, but the residents disagree, saying the dispute is simply about the structure.
Blechman noted that whenever someone moves into the Third Street historic district, the new resident is entering into an agreement to stay within the guidelines meant to protect the character of the neighborhood.
“We welcome these guidelines as protection,” Blechman said. “If these guidelines are not respected, it means that the historic district is basically doomed.”
Some residents have claimed that the Landmarks Commission has been ignoring those design guidelines by not denying a project they say challenges the restrictions.
At the latest commission meeting, November 12th, the Landmarks Commission voted to continue the certificate of appropriateness application until the December meeting, at the request of the applicant.
Responding to claims that the commission is ignoring the district guidelines, commission chair Nina Fresco said no action has been taken yet.
“We haven’t approved anything yet,” Fresco said.
When the project was initially presented, the commission felt that it needed revisions in order to comply with the guidelines and asked the applicant to return with an updated proposal, Fresco said.
“We try to work with people, so rather than deny it then, we can give them notes to try and bring it into compliance,” she said. “We believe that’s the fair way to do it.”
Fresco said she has had an issue with the “massing” of the design to the auxiliary structure and added that the volume of the project should not overwhelm the character of the bungalow.
When the Landmarks Commission addresses the project at next month’s meeting, Blechman said she hopes that the board will consider her neighbors’ message about the need to protect the district.
“We are animated for love of our district,” Blechman said.