By Aaron Blevins, 9/06/2012
Building has yet to be repaired while city considers program
A West Hollywood apartment building is in limbo, as its owners are waiting for the city to develop a program to help fund needed repairs in structures designated or nominated as cultural resources.
To complicate the issue, Sunset Lanai Apartments was damaged by fire in March, and some tenants fear that the owners are holding off on repairs and general maintenance at the expense of those who live there — possibly using the nomination, which occurred in 2010, as an excuse to further defer needed maintenance.
“We’re sort of right at our precipice where yes, it will become a quality of life issue,” tenant Jeffrey Bornman said.
Sunset Lanai, which sits at the corner of North Sweetzer Avenue and Sunset Boulevard, was designed by famed architect Edward Fickett and constructed in 1952. The large, unique structure has 25 units, and is managed by the Silver family, which has owned it for more than 50 years.
In July, the West Hollywood City Council considered designating the building as historical, but decided to take no action, leaving the nomination on the table. According to Bornman, the Silvers threatened to close the building if it was designated historical.
A 12-year resident of the apartment building, Bornman said the Silver family has been responsive to his concerns in the past. Yet, as the building has aged and required more upkeep, the family has had increasing difficulty in maintaining the building, he said. Four units on the third and fourth floors remain closed and seared by the fire, which has left the structure’s roof exposed. Bornman said the building has not been painted in more than 20 years, and some tenants still have water damage from the March fire.
“Those are repairs they’re going to hold off doing until the city gives a response,” Bornman said. “The owners of Lanai will be glad to wait it out and call the city’s bluff.”
He speculated that the owners would like to develop the area, saying that the Silvers had attempted to have it rezoned in the past. A local cultural resource designation would disallow any major changes.
Bornman said such stand-offs between building owners and the city’s historical preservation commission are a relatively frequent occurrence in West Hollywood, which is why the city is looking into potential incentives to spur owners into maintaining their properties.
John Keho, the city’s acting director for the community development department, confirmed that statement, and said city staff is currently studying possibilities for an incentive program. He said there is no timeline for the staff to make recommendations to the city council.
“We’re in a research/background stage right now,” Keho said. “We’re trying to move forward on this as quickly as we can.”
He added that the owners of Sunset Lanai are not completely handcuffed by the designation. Keho said they could apply for permits to fix the fire damage, and the city would have to consider any additional work beyond that.
“They can’t do anything to affect the architectural integrity of the building that would make it, say, impossible to designate,” he said, adding that plumbing and electrical work would be allowed.
Keho referenced some of the current incentives available to owners of historical buildings, such as the Mills Act, which offers a property tax reduction to free up funds for building maintenance and restoration. Bornman said the Mills Act would likely not work for Sunset Lanai, since the Silvers have owned the building for more than 50 years and the property taxes are low. Keho said the city is looking to go above and beyond the current offerings.
“Obviously, the city believes if we’ve got these buildings, there’s a public benefit,” he added.
Bornman is hopeful that the city will act sooner than later. He praised Fickett’s work, saying that the architect was key in creating the aesthetics of mid-century modern architecture. Bornman said Sunset Lanai is structurally sound, as evidenced by the confined damage that was done during the March fire. However, the tarps currently in place to cover holes in the roof may not keep the elements out much longer.
“To do it well, [city staffers have] their work cut out for them,” Bornman said, adding that West Hollywood will continue to see issues involving historical structures. “Whether [the owners] are crying wolf, it does put their operations in a bind.”