When people ask why we get so involved in historic preservation advocacy, despite the frustrations of fighting a pro-development City Hall that’s under multiple indictments for land use corruption, we answer that we feel called to do the work, want to be of service, and find it fascinating.
Every campaign we’ve taken up—from Saving the 76 Balls to objecting to the swapping of neon for LEDs in the Felix the Cat sign, getting Angels Flight moving again to opposing LACMA demolition, landmarking the Los Angeles Times to restoring Pershing Square—has taught us new things about all the ways Los Angeles is broken and in many cases brought us uncomfortably close to figures now under Federal indictment.
Along the way, we build alliances and find tools and tactics that citizens can use to have a voice. These battles might be hard, but they are never boring.
Recently, we got interested in a landmarking campaign initiated by Hollywood Heritage to designate two parcels on Alexandria Avenue in Los Feliz associated with the influential Kuromi-Ito family of Japanese-American flower farmers and retail florists. Our interest was piqued by several factors:
• The walkable, tree-lined streets bordered by Normandie, Vermont, Franklin and Los Feliz contain some of the city’s loveliest intact stretches of century-old multi-family vernacular apartment buildings interspersed with single-family homes. There is a very strong case to protect this community with a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ), but pro-developement Mayor Eric Garcetti has banned new ones from being created.
• The property is owned by the notorious Aliso Viejo based development company Thomas James Homes, whose business model relies on purchasing historic single-family residential properties for above market value, demolishing them along with all the old trees and landscaping, and erecting huge cookie-cutter $2,000,000 white boxes. Never heard of Thomas Beadel and James Simpson? You will. In their just-filed IPO, they boast “Our mission is to transform the U.S. single-family urban housing market. Bringing scaled single-family home production to urban markets ripe for disruption.”
• The real estate listing for the house and garden lot at 1979-1991 North Alexandria Avenue made note of a very special and unusual feature: “Natural artesian springs flows to fill the [koi] ponds and irrigate the landscaping.” Heaven for a gardener, if only one might have been able to afford it.
We were very interested in the artesian springs, and concerned about what might happen to them if Thomas James Homes was allowed to demolish the existing house and gardens and cover them with a huge concrete slab.
For many years, self-described L.A. Creek Freaks have been looking for the source and path of the Arroyo de la Sacatela, or Sacatela Creek. Alexandria Avenue is close to where the lost stream was known to have began. Could the endangered koi ponds behind Jim Ito’s house be the source of the Sacatela?
Recommended reading: Judith Lewis’ 2006 L.A. Weekly feature The Lost Streams of Los Angeles, Militant Angeleno’s 2008 blog post A River Ran Through It: In Search Of Sacatela Creek, Jessica Hall’s 2008-10 L.A. Creek Freak blog posts on the Arroyo de la Sacatela and Denise Hamilton’s 2021 Alta feature Soaked Through.
The properties sold for $2,900,000 in May 2021 and a demolition permit was approved in June. The Office of Historic Resources received Hollywood Heritage’s landmark nomination for the Kuromi-Ito Property, but for unknown reasons they declined to present it to the Cultural Heritage Commission.
In late July, we advocated strongly with the office of councilwoman Nithya Raman (CD4), asking that they compel City Planning to accept and hear the nomination, and to our great relief, they did so. The demolition permit was stayed.
A day before demolition was to begin, a stop work order went up at 1991 North Alexandria directing Thomas James Homes not to commence demolition, because the house was under consideration as a protected city landmark.
On August 19, the Cultural Heritage Commission heard Hollywood Heritage’s nomination, and agreed to take the matter under consideration. However, facing pressure from the property developer’s rep, they agreed to split the nomination and exclude the garden plot at 1979 North Alexandria.
In mid-September, although they had no grading permits, Thomas James Homes used heavy machinery to destroy all of the mature fruit trees and plantings on the garden plot. Next door at 1991 North Alexandria, they removed the front picture window and the plywood coverings over other doors and windows, leaving the house vulnerable to the elements, vandalism and trespass. This is a violation of the stop work order, as well as being a truly nasty and destructive thing to do to a beautiful home that might soon be an official city landmark.
A few weeks ago, alerted by a neighbor that the house had been left unsecured, we went to visit the Kuromi-Ito Property. What we saw shocked us. It wasn’t just that the doors and windows were uncovered, or that fallen fruit was ground into the dust where trees had been ripped from the ground.
It was the water.
A constant flow was spilling into the gutters in front of the house and garden parcel, and they were green with algae. We followed the algae path down hill to the middle of the block, where spreading pools were seeping up from the center of the newly paved roadway. The neighbor had told us that there had been a lot of problems with water coming up through the asphalt, and that the Department of Public Works had repeatedly resurfaced it.
Is this the lost Arroyo de la Sacatela, emerging through the road because it’s been stopped up elsewhere? Maybe! We don’t really know, but we’d like to know. To that end, we’ve been learning about the convoluted and dysfunctional process for investigating and protecting urban watershed resources, and will share what we’ve found out.
A 401 Certificate is a document issued by the Los Angeles Water Board granting approval for development of a site with a watershed resource. A 404 Certificate, issued by the Army Corps of Engineers, is a rejection of such development. But try to get either one, and you’ll run into a hall of mirrors.
In looking for the key to having the artesian springs on Alexandria Avenue assessed for potential 401 or 404 Certification, we have been in communication with the following agencies, entities and individuals: The L.A. Bureau Of Engineering’s Environmental Management Group and the Clean Water Division, the General Manager of the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety (LADBS), the L.A. Sanitation Department’s Watershed Protection Division, the Planning Director from Council District 4, the Department of Public Works, and the L.A. Water Board, which is a state regulatory agency that oversees watershed resources in the region.
And this is the frustrating result of our inquiries: The Los Angeles Water Board won’t initiate an investigation without a report from a geologist. If LADBS won’t require a 401 certificate based on a geologist’s report as part of its permit approval review, then there’s nothing the L.A. Water Board can do.
As with so many of our preservation projects, the more questions we ask, the more questions we have. This is a record that breaks the record player. There may be a precious spring on the property that is eligible for watershed protection, but the agencies in charge of determining one way or the other are not willing or able to act, or even to walk onto the property and sink a pole into the ground.
The only way they can investigate is if the property owner—the same corporation that left the potential landmark open to the elements in violation of the stop work order—volunteers to pay a geologist to inspect and report on the property, and then provides that report to LADBS, who can then forward it to the L.A. Water Board.
The idea of watershed resource protection being entirely at the discretion of property owners is an absurd one, but unless the city steps up and demands action, this is where we are.
Tomorrow, Thursday, October 21 at 10am, the Cultural Heritage Commission will hold its second hearing to determine if the Kuromi-Ito Property will be sent on to City Council as a potential landmark. They can, if they chose to, direct LADBS to require a 401 certificate based on a geologist’s report as part of its permit approval review for both of the parcels that were part of the original landmark nomination. We very much hope that they do so, and will be making that request of them tomorrow.
If you’d like to call in to support the landmarking of the Kuromi-Ito Property, and ask the commissioners to take action to also protect the vulnerable artesian springs on the site, you can find telephonic call-in and Zoom info at this PDF agenda link. This item is #9 on the agenda, and will come towards the end of the meeting, though we’re not sure exactly what time that will be.
If you’d like to have your say at the beginning of the meeting, you can ask to speak on General Public Comment (item #4). You will have two minutes in which you can speak specifically about the need for some City agency to compel LADBS require a 401 Certificate before granting a development permit for 1979 North Alexandria Avenue and the watershed resource on or very near the site.
Since the CHC is looking at the Kuromi-Ito Property as a potential landmark, we think they should be interested in the very real possibility that a diverted spring will open up a giant sinkhole and swallow the house!
Updates: On October 20, 2021 Militant Angeleno on Twitter identifies this water source as likely being a nameless creek running south along Alexandria, and not Sacatela.
On October 21, 2021, the Cultural Heritage Commission rejected the landmark nomination for the Kuromi-Ito Residence, using convoluted logic by claiming that the family was not significant enough for the home to be landmarked, but suggesting the nominators should submit a landmark nomination for the family’s former flower shop on Western Avenue instead. (Note that this bad faith argument presented by the CHC was first put forward by the developer Thomas James Homes, which seeks to demolish the house.) You can read our live commentary on the landmark hearing on Twitter or Facebook.
On December 1, 2021, demolition began at the Kuromi-Ito Residence. A community member shared this photo showing the sad condition of the property.
On March 28, 2022, the Environmental Affairs Committee of the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council met to discuss possible action on the continuing issue with water seeping up into the street at Alexandria and Mariposa. This is the water we believe has been diverted from the natural spring under the demolished Kuromi-Ito property. They discussed their Community Impact Statement sent to CD 4 on 11/16/21 (PDF link) and the 11/22/21 response from Nithya Raman’s Planning Director Mashael Majid (PDF link) and determined they would follow up.
On June 7, 2022, a concerned community member witnessed a Thomas James Homes crew working on the 1979-91 North Alexandria property. They write, “Now that the properties have been graded, you can see that there is a large PVC pipe that is likely to be carrying the water across the property. The water comes out of the pipe at the street and flows in a stream down the gutter where it meets with the water that bubbles up through the street and continues down to the storm drain.” The photos below were taken today.
On June 14, 2022 concerned community members documented the Thomas James Homes crew pouring concrete into holes drilled on the property, and the spread of water pooling on the bulldozed soil. Significant water is visible on the street in front and below the natural spring turned development site, and neighbors have expressed fear that the street or their homes could fall into a sinkhole. See photo of the current construction site and water below.
On September 28, 2022, community members spoke to two Los Angeles city geologists who were on Alexandria Avenue inspecting the water that continues to seep up through the asphalt in the middle of the street below the spring. This post was shared with the geologists. They then went to the construction site and were seen talking with a worker and walking the property.
On September 30, 2022, a community member shared this distressing description of the situation on the block: “The water coming up through the street is as bad as it’s been for a solid year now. It’s a swamp. Plants are actually growing in the street. People slip and fall in the muck often. We keep calling vector control because the mosquitoes are so brutal. We can barely be outside because of them shredding us. We have all run out of people to complain to.” Who will help them?
As of January 19, 2023, construction has yet to begin on the single family home that received its permit in September 2022. Instead, the vacant lot at 1991 N Alexandria is now listed for sale for $1.5 Million as an “incredible” development opportunity. There is no disclosure of the natural artesian spring on the property (unless it is in the unpublished “private remarks”), but you can see evidence of mud and pipes in the listing photos. We think it is a disgrace that Thomas James Homes demolished the historic Kuromi-Ito residence and caused neighborhood flooding by interfering with the spring, only to abandon the project. We call for Thomas James Homes to gift this land to the City of Los Angeles for use as a natural spring park honoring the legacy of the Kuromi-Ito family, and to pay whatever it costs to return the spring to a healthy condition so that it does not undermine Alexandria Avenue or create a breeding ground for mosquitos.