When David and Cassidy Cole put their 1927 Tudor-style home at 361 N. Citrus on the market a few months ago, they made sure the architectural jewel, which they spent years caring for, restoring and upgrading, shone at its very best. Their goal was to find another family that would love and protect the house as much as the Coles (and the home’s previous owners) had. The plan worked, or so the Coles thought. Developer Reuven Gradon and his wife, Shevy, made an offer on the home for more than the $2,199,000 asking price. And when the Coles hesitated because of Gradon’s profession, the Gradons sent the following letter, along with a photo of them and their young son (whose name has been removed from the text below), stating clearly that their interest in the house was personal and not professional:
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Cole,
Thank you for preserving such a beautiful family home, and for taking the time to
consider our offer.
When we saw that 361 N Citrus was available, we were immediately excited. This home
is exceptional both in character and in location and is the home of our dreams.
I grew up in this neighborhood and love everything about it. While my wife Shevy is
originally from the East Coast, we have lived in the local area, and really founded our
relationship here together for the last 7 years. We pray at a local synagogue, and our
friends all live within blocks of your home. Our 3-year-old son…loves the location
too. He goes to a nearby school and loves having his friends so close. Your home is
where we want to continue to deepen our roots.
The character of the home is also something that we love. I am an apartment investor in
the nearby neighborhood, and beautiful buildings with that 20’s character and charm
have always held a special place in my heart. I love acquiring buildings with character
and forming the identity of the property by emphasizing that. With your home, it is
already so beautifully cared for with such incredibly rich character, it gets me even more
excited to call it home.
We appreciate your considering our offer. We look forward to having our family dinners
together in the dining room, and hosting Shabbat meals with friends and family for years
to come. We are strong believers in the idea “home is where the heart is”—and would
fill this home with much joy and heart.
With great appreciation and warm regards,
Reuven and Shevy Gradon
But as has now been widely reported – in the Beverly Press , CurbedLA, the Larchmont Chronicle, the national real estate blog Pricey Pads, and the RIP Los Angeles blog, which specifically chronicles the tragic unweaving of our city’s architectural fabric – on September 18, the very same day the Gradons took posession of the house, they applied for a demolition permit.
According to the CurbedLA story:
“Gradon, a real estate investor and president of Afton Properties, said he meant everything he and his wife wrote in that letter. But during escrow, learned from his contractor that his plans to expand the 2,356-square-foot home to make it work for his growing family would not make financial sense.
They decided the best solution would be to demolish the house and build a new, bigger house for his family that “will draw on the neighborhood character” for its design.”
But then things got a bit murky.
City rules mandate that a notice of the application for a demo permit be posted on the property for 30 days before the permit is issued and demolition can proceed. And according to the RIP Los Angeles chronology, which includes a photo of the document, Gradon signed a city affirmation that he posted the required notice on September 18. But neighbors say that wasn’t the case.
Johnson Hartig, who lives two doors down from 361 N. Citrus, told the Buzz that he walks by the house every day, but “never, not for five minutes, was there a notice on the house” during the month between September 18 and the day the permit was issued on October 18. In fact, said Hartig, he and another neighbor walked around the entire building after news of the demolition first broke, looking for the required application notice, but they never found it. And the demolition notice itself was posted only for a few days, in a dining room window obscured by foliage.
Ultimately, however, whether the application notice was or wasn’t posted before the demolition notice probably doesn’t matter. One city official told the Buzz that the physical notice on the property is only part of the city’s required notification process, and the other requirements, including notice to abutting property owners, and notice to the local neighborhood council, were followed. (Shirlee Fuqua, aministrator for the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, confirmed to the Buzz that the GWNC did receive the permit application notice in September, and – as is the Council’s protocol – invited a representative to the October GWNC Land Use Committee meeting to discuss the plans for the property. But the demolition company representative asked to postpone his visit to the Committee until November, and was scheduled for that meeting instead, never giving an indication that the demolition of the property would already be complete by then.)
When an actual demolition notice did finally appear on the property on Friday, October 18 (see photo above), the news spread like wildfire throughout the neigborhood. The Coles sent letters to the media, City Council Paul Koretz’s office, and others, explaining how they’d been led to believe the Gradons planned to live in and treasure their former home, and how they now felt they’d been duped by the buyers. And both Koretz’s office and many neighbors got involved, hoping to spark a last-minute preservation effort for the property, which had been identified by SurveyLA as a contributor to a potential historic district in the area.
But the five days between the Friday when the neighbors found out about the demolition and the next Wednesday, October 23, when the demolition crew showed up, just weren’t enough time to secure any protections. And even though the neighbors turned out to protest on Wednesday, and a representative of Koretz’s office showed up to talk to the workers, the demolition proceeded.
Hartig, who was one of the protestors that day, said the crew members were clearly “pros,” and that when he tried to stand in front of a bulldozer to slow down the process, the demo workers took axes to the large leaded glass windows and decorative beams on the front of the house, quickly and efficiently destroying its distinctive facade and leaving little worth preserving. (When we spoke to Hartig several days after the demolition, he said he hadn’t felt such a profound sadness since his dog died, and he had yet to get over the experience. “They said they’re going to building someting much more beautiful,” Hartig said, “But nothing was more beautiful than this.”)
While the first part of this story ends in a sad pile of rubble, however, it also may provide what another neighbor called “teacheable moment” – some valuable lessons for both neighbors and others hoping to see their homes live on after a sale. For example:
Don’t leave preservation up to new buyers.
We at the Buzz know of at least two other area cases, in addition to this one, in which buyers have specifically assured sellers they would love, cherish and live in the homes they were buying, only to tear them down as soon as possible after taking possession.
And while it’s become almost a standard part of the purchasing process in hot real estate markets for potential buyers to write flowery letters to convince sellers that they should be the chosen party among several competitive bids, the letters take on a familiar tone after you’ve seen a few of them. Sellers should definitely try to look past generic praise for more specific information about why a buyer particularly connects with the property.
But even that may not be enough…because such letters, no matter how detailed or personalized, are not legally binding. Sellers are quite free to do anything they want to with a property after they purchase it. And people who are able to pay very large sums of money for real estate that they can potentially make even more money from by rebuilding very much know how to play this game. That’s a lesson the Coles and others have learned the hard way.
Do look into presvation options well before you put your home on the market.
Yes, historic preservation does take time, and it can cost a pretty penny, depending on the type and scope of protection you may seek. But, as David Cole, the seller of 361 N. Citrus, said in his initial letter to the media on October 19, “We should have applied for historic protection while we had the home.” Sellers should definitely think about what may have the greater odds of success – putting in the cost and effort to protect a beloved property while they still own the home, or just trusting that a future owner will be as committed as they were to preservation, either officially or unofficially.
Be aware of the many kinds of preservation options.
While many people have heard about the often complicated and contentious process of having entire neighborhoods declared historic (see HPOZs, below), and either don’t want to go through that process or don’t think they can get enough neighbors on board for it to work, properties can actually be designated worthy of preservation in a number of different ways.
Historic Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZs) – As noted above, HPOZs protect entire neighborhoods, or sections of neighborhoods, which are deemed historic and worthy of preservation by the City of Los Angeles. To be designated an HPOZ, the neighborhood must document its historic merit and percentage of original buildings through an architectural survey, and also document support for the historic designation through a petition signed by a large percentage of residents. An HPOZ doesn’t prevent historic homes from being demolished, but it does put a more extensive review process in place, as well as guidelines for what can and can’t be built on the site, and how a new structure would have to fit into the historic context of the area. But HPOZ designation can be a long and expensive process, and it can also be hard to win the level of support needed from neighbors. Also, the city currently has a long list of HPOZ applications under consideration, and the future of such efforts may also be jeopardized by new state-level housing laws, such as SB330, which aim to minimize preservation efforts, especially in low density neighborhoods that could be redeveloped with more housing units in the same space.
Historic Cultural Monuments (HCMs) – If a property is individually noteworthy for its architectural features, as the work of a noted architect, as a prime example of a remarkable architectural style, or if it is culturally important in some way, it could potentially be designated a local landmark by the city of Los Angeles. Again, an extensive history would be needed to document the buiding’s heritage and worthiness…but if a building does qualify, city landmark status can be simpler and easier than having a whole neighborhood declared historic, especially if it’s the building’s owners who are applying for the designation. Also, it’s worth noting that local landmarks don’t have to be just buildings, or even full buildings – the Los Angeles Office of Historic Resources, and the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission, which play a large role in approving local landmarks, have shown their willingness to extend the definition of historic resources to include things like historic trees…or to designate just parts of an historic site, such as a facade, leaving the door open for redevelopment of the rest of a designated property.
National Register of Historic Places – If local designations are not possible or practical for some reason, certain residential districts, notable for their architectural and/or cultural significance, can apply to be listed on the National Register, which also provides certain kinds of protections. Several of our local neighborhoods, including the Beverly/Fairfax Historic District, and part of the Wilshire Park neighborhood, have succeeded with this kind of designation, which bypasses city bottlenecks and would also not be affected by new state laws such as SB330.
Conservation Easements – According to the Los Angeles Conservancy, “The best way to truly preserve a historic place is through a conservation easement, a legal document that permanently prohibits the demolition or insensitive alteration of a property — even by future owners.” More specifically:
“An easement is basically a private or partial legal interest transferred by a property owner to a qualified preservation nonprofit organization (in this case, the Conservancy) or government entity. The owner continues to own the property but transfers the specific set of rights represented by the easement to the easement-holding organization.”
“Many owners of historic landmarks look to conservation easements because they provide even stronger protection than traditional landmark or historic district designation. Many local preservation ordinances — including the one for Los Angeles — allow for only a delay, not denial, in the demolition of a designated landmark. Easements also are not subject to political issues that can threaten designated properties.”
Currently, according to the Conservancy, 31 properties in LA, both residential and commercial, are protected by Conservation Easements. For more information, see https://www.laconservancy.org/resources/guide/conservation-easements-permanent-protection-historic-places. It’s definitely an interesting idea we’ve heard much less about than the other options listed above.
In the case of 361 N. Citrus, a 2,356 square foot house that was 1.) designed by architects Henry Knauer & Clarence Smale as a design showcase home, 2.) a lovely, unaltered, example of Tudor-revival style architecture, and 3.) located in the Citrus Square neighborhood, where the historic character has already been deemed preservation-worthy by SurveyLA, it’s possible that any of several of these methods could have been used to gain legal protection. That never happened…but it’s still possible that some good could come from the loss. For example, Neighbor Hartig says he’s been newly motivated to pursue HPOZ status for the neighborhood, to help “save what’s left” of the area’s treasures. And the situation could provide a powerful lesson for other homeowners and potential real estate sellers as well.
[This story was updated on 11/14/19 to clarify who the GWNC invited to its Land Use Committee meeting.]