Fighting to protect Beverly Hills from the billionaires' bulldozers

Historic architecture under threat from demand for new homes
  • @guyadams

They are as much a part of the civic landscape as palm trees, five-star hotels, and celebrities dodging paparazzi outside luxury goods stores. But in a bid to preserve what remains of its cultural heritage, Beverly Hills is seeking to stop its well-heeled residents from building ever larger McMansions.

The City Council is considering a plan to halt the demolition of culturally significant pieces of architecture by the endless tide of millionaires and billionaires seeking to create a dream home in the famously extravagant neighbourhood, where large properties, with a couple of acres of garden, fetch upwards of $20m (£12m).

At present, Beverly Hills is one of the few areas of Los Angeles where landowners are free to demolish existing historic properties and build a brand new one. In recent years, that has resulted in a succession of buildings designed by important 20th-century architects being razed to the ground.

The problem came to a head last week, when the council voted to place a moratorium on plans by a property developer to destroy the so-called Kronish House, designed by Richard Neutra in 1954, until a preservation project could be properly considered.

"We need to button down some sort of ordinance that addresses preservation needs," the local mayor Barry Brucker told the Associated Press. "There is something wrong with having a historically important building [where] you take out a demolition permit, and 10 days later you can take a sledgehammer to it."

For much of the city's history, which stretches back a century or so, Mr Brucker said the rich and often famous residents of Beverly Hills have generally been prepared to spend freely to preserve and live in elegant homes of yesteryear. But today's wealthy incomers often consider older homes to be too small. The average size of a detached home within the city's 90210 postcode area, which has about 35,000 inhabitants, has risen from roughly 4,000sq ft in the 1970s to more than 7,300sq ft today.

Faced with a choice between making do with a historic property and plonking down a bigger new one, most opt for demolition. The Shussett House, built by John Lautner in the early 1950s, is currently in the middle of being replaced by one three times its size.

Properties by Paul Williams and Frank Lloyd Wright have also disappeared in the past decade. And the trend has also led to the loss of buildings occupied by some famous former residents of Beverly Hills. In 2005, George Gershwin's former home, a Mediterranean villa later owned by the singer Rosemary Clooney was torn down.

Mr Brucker said he hopes to create a new planning law which adopts a carrot-and-stick approach to preserving history. As well as banning the demolition of important properties, he will provide incentives to homeowners prepared to safeguard existing ones. He will also carefully phrase the new law so as not to provide blanket protection for any home which was once inhabited by a famous person, a move which would in theory limit development of a huge proportion of the properties in the city. "You have homes that various famous [people] lived in, but does that make them historic?" he asked. "I really want to send things off to the planning commission so we're not all over the map and protecting a home that Ozzy Osbourne lived in or Beckham lived in just because they were famous."

Opponents of the move say it tramples the rights of landowners to develop their property as they see fit. In a time of economic downturn, they say that it will also hurt a construction industry which is already suffering from high unemployment rates.

But Adrian Fine, the director of advocacy at the Los Angeles Conservancy, which supports the proposed new planning laws, told The Independent that there is a "public good" in protecting historic buildings, even if many of the most important ones in Beverly Hills have been designed so they cannot be seen from the road. "There is a need for growth and development in any community, but there is also a need for preservation," he said. "Homes by important architects are part of what makes Beverly Hills unique and different. While people may not be able to see them, they know they are there and their very existence is one of the things that makes the city so special."