We were driving the side streets of the Pico-Union District after locking down a special location to be added to the next Curse of the She-Devil true crime history tour. The late afternoon light was beautiful, with that sort of buttery, gilded quality that sends all the architectural details into high relief.
It doesn’t matter how many times we explore Pico-Union, the sprawling neighborhood always rewards us with something new. The buildings are old, solid and lived in, displaying layers of demographic change in their signs. The past and present are entwined, organically and unpretentiously.
Some signs of the past are more precious than others: the Mission Revival rooftop arch of the Doria Apartments (1600 West Pico, built 1905), illuminated with incandescent bulbs, was being covered up with an illegal billboard in 2011, when we drove by on our Weird West Adams tour and snapped a crime scene photo. An urgent call to the city’s Office of Historic Resources happily resulted in a stop work order before any permanent damage was done to Historic-Cultural Monument #432. Every time we pass the Doria now and see that jaunty sign, we feel like she’s kind of “ours.”
On our recent ramble, following the commercial spine of Pico, we dipped down into the residential corridors, where we were especially delighted to make the acquaintance of Byrdshire Manor (1405 South Berendo Street, built 1928), an English vernacular apartment block with layers of hand-painted signage, graceful arches and a smattering of deformed clinker bricks breaking up its rhythms.
But just five blocks to the west, we found a landmark just as arresting, though not for its charm.
The handsome folk Victorian house at 1326 South Mariposa Avenue was built in 1895; the back house in 1951. Two years ago, when the property was listed at $687,500, a marketing video captured a messy home with at least one child in it. It sold for slightly above asking and was soon back on the market, an unaltered flip.
This June, the house sold for $1,300,000. It is presently boarded up, with lurid No Trespassing signs and weeds in the lawn. At the front of the parcel, a huge billboard erected by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway advertises the large, charmless apartment building that is “Coming Soon.”
On a real estate listing website, agent Dan Risch gushes: “Brand new Building Planned and permits in process. 15 – 1 bedroom units planned. Projected income is $2160/unit/ month. Projected gross income estimated a $373,694 annually. 2 affordable units will be built per developer/owner. Ground level parking. Renderings based on plans. Demolition permits in process. Plans are submitted for review. Located in NMTC zone for tax advantages. Buildings in place at present. Demolition permits expected soon.”
NMTC stands for New Markets Tax Credit. Along with the more common, and also applicable TOC or Transit Oriented Communities, it’s the little extra juice that makes it even more appealing for the biggest companies in the world to swoop into poor neighborhoods like Pico-Union in Los Angeles, buy up the existing historic housing stock at a premium price, sit on it for a couple of years and flip it as a tax advantaged development opportunity.
Preservationists in Los Angeles are playing whack-a-mole with developers who seek to destroy the beautiful buildings that make up the very warp and weft of our shared history, simply because old buildings are usually cheaper to purchase than vacant lots, and because a deeply corrupted City Hall enables it. Many notable landmarks have been saved thanks to the efforts of caring individuals and preservation organizations, but many more terrific contributing structures have vanished from the landscape forever.
With companies like Berkshire Hathaway targeting properties like 1326 South Mariposa and erecting billboards touting the fortunes to be made by demolishing them, the potential loss of beautiful and useful buildings is staggering.
But, some argue, Los Angeles is in the grips of a “housing crisis” and we “need” larger structures like the one on the Berkshire Hathaway billboard. Do we really?
We believe that we actually have a housing use crisis, not a housing crisis.
Artificial scarcity, generated by apartment buildings and SRO hotels kept perpetually vacant by corporate investors, large-scale illegal home share listings, “condos” that are nothing of the kind, Ellis Act evictions that empty buildings that then remain empty for years, newly constructed apartments used as filming locations, these and other greedy misuses of housing stock all conspire to create rental costs that far exceed reasonable rates for many Angelenos, even as the city’s population declines.
Until the many disruptive forces that have radically altered the Los Angeles housing market are reigned in, it’s absurd to reward the real estate industry with a stack of blank demolition forms, so they can take yet more essential housing stock off the market, this time with even greater tax benefits.
But the clock is ticking on the street named for the butterfly. Demolition permits have been requested for 1326 South Mariposa. Some day soon, the wreckers will come and pull down two good buildings, replacing them with something out of scale and style with the block. Nobody will ever stop to photograph this generic apartment house in the gilded afternoon light.
A few blocks away, at 1430 Arapahoe Street, we found an official-looking demolition permit on this grand 1885 Victorian, with no corresponding information on file with the city. A man in the next yard noticing us taking photos, asked first if we wanted to buy the house, then when we said we were just worried about it, insisted “It’s just a little remodel, nothing’s getting torn down.”
And the fight for the soul of Los Angeles goes on. We save what we can, and we keep a list of everything teetering on the brink. Won’t you be the city’s eyes, and tell us when a place you love appears to be at risk?