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Historic Garvanza Endangered by Los Angeles City Planning Decision

Written by Historic Garvanza community member Brad Chambers on September 22, 2021

The quaint residential district of Garvanza, located in northeast Los Angeles, has been home to one of the highest concentrations of cottage-sized, arts-and-crafts, Victorian, mission revival, tutor, and other small, eclectic homes for nearly 150 years. The collection of quaint-size houses, together with their beautiful architecture, display of unique, natural materials consisting of Arroyo-sourced river rocks and old-growth redwood, cedar and Douglas fir wood siding and a beautiful array of historic window and door styles, made it an important candidate for historic and cultural preservation. In 2010, after a significant amount of volunteer work was done within the greater Highland Park and Garvanza communities, Garvanza became a cultural Historic Preservation Overlay Zone, commonly known as an “HPOZ”.

As a result of Garvanza’s HPOZ status, the community members and property owners have been held to a consistent set of standards outlined in what is known as the Historic Highland Park-Garvanza Preservation Plan for the past 11 years. In the preservation plan, a list of design standards are set forth to shape and govern the overall design and construction activity in the HPOZ, upholding the historic look and feel of the community and providing consistency in new construction or restoration work.

Garvanza’s historic appearance and community feel has become endangered by a decision rendered by the Los Angeles Department of Planning on September 16, 2021, in favor of a controversial development proposed for a highly-visible development site located at the northwest corner of Garvanza Avenue and Avenue 64 – the old Rite Aid overflow parking lot. The site is of particular importance to the community and the HPOZ, as it is the most visible ‘gateway’ entry into the community. Whatever is built on this site sets the design tone for the historic district and potentially introduces a precedent for future development in the Highland Park-Garvanza community and the broader network of HPOZ communities taken as a whole. The site is bordered to the immediate north by a row of cottage-sized residences, and it abuts the historic Dr. Laurence Smith site to the west, consisting of 3 historic, single-family, Victorian-styled residences dating back to 1870.

The decision by LA City Planning to allow for the development came as an alarming shock to the community. The applicant/owner, Gelena Skya-Wasserman, as referenced in the Planning Department’s determination letter, and her project team, have been in front of the HPOZ board and a large segment of the community at multiple planning-related meetings and hearings over the past 12 months. The Skya-Wasserman team is controversially proposing a 3-story, 33 unit residential apartment building, many of which are 4 and 5 bedroom suites sharing a single kitchen and single public space, designed for co-living. The co-living design concept is a new form of development that allows a developer to invest less money in a project by reducing the number of kitchens and public gathering spaces, and minimizing the amount of space dedicated to parking. The co-living development concept aids willing developers by skirting the unit restrictions and occupancy limits by placing households in bedrooms instead of full-
scale apartments. The end result is the developer achieves significant income enhancement while the
community standards for living decline.

In the case of the Skya-Wasserman project, the approved development acts like an approximate 150-unit development, instead of a 33-unit development. It has been said that this style of living is a new form of tenement housing that stained New York City’s reputation in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The co-living also requires fewer dedicated parking spaces, resulting in an overflow of cars spilling onto the streets and placing a tremendous burden on the existing parking landscape. In addition to the co-living controversy proposed for this project, the project design remains large and shapeless, lacking any compatibility with the surrounding community. The building proposes a utilitarian, commercial style of design, consisting mainly of a large box clad in brick veneer and stucco. The guidance from the HPOZ board has been consistent: the building shape needs to have more variation, ‘modularity’ and better design articulation through scaling back some of the exterior massing (giving it a smaller appearance instead of a long and tall mass of walls), adding more design features to the roof line, alternating the roof shape and providing a more eye-catching finish to the top, changing the orientation of courtyards to be street facing instead of dark alleys tucked inside the building, utilizing window and door designs consistent in the neighborhood and the period, and using real brick instead of faux materials.

To assist the developer and offer a channel for community feedback, several meetings with the Skya-Wasserman team were done as consultations to assist the developer in its design, provided through guidance from the experienced set of HPOZ board members as well as obtaining community feedback.  Each consultation concluded with a list of recommendations made to the Skya-Wasserman team to prepare it for its final meeting with the HPOZ board, where a determination would be made to recommend or deny support for the project based upon its design.

The final approval meeting with the HPOZ consisted of 4 board members together with members of the Planning Department and nearly 100 members from the community. The Skya-Wasserman team presented its final design plans. The final design plans reflected little change or incorporation of the recommendations provided through the feedback in the earlier consultations. After a nearly 1-hour discussion, the HPOZ board concluded that the project was NOT compatible with the guidelines of the Highland Park-Garvanza Preservation Plan, and the collective body voted unanimously to recommend that the project be denied approval in its current form.

The community remains outraged about the ensuing endangerment of Garvanza and the lack of demonstrative care from the City of LA’s Planning Department. The decision by Planning to accept the project ‘as-is’, ignoring the HPOZ board’s recommendation, and without any corrections to achieve compatibility with the Preservation Plan and community feedback, is anticipated to harm the small, community feel of Garvanza, surrounding property values, the integrity of the Preservation Plan document, and the value of the HPOZ.  The decision is anticipated to set a dangerous precedent for future development within all HPOZs. Given the significance of the decision, the anticipated harm and disregard for consistency of rules, a community group has formed with the intent to appeal the Director of Planning’s controversial decision. The deadline for the appeal’s submission is October 1, 2021. 

Given the anticipated costs to fund legal expenses, a GoFundMe has been established to receive donations. If you are able to contribute to this fund, we encourage you to do so. No amount is too small to give–even a $5 or $10 donation can go a long way in the Historic Garvanza Coalition’s legal battle.

HPHT