The Challenges of Historical Districts

A touch of Old Mexico, Olvera Street, Los Angeles, California
A touch of Old Mexico, Olvera Street, Los Angeles, California

For more than two years, I was appointed by L.A. Mayor Garcetti to serve on the El Pueblo Historical Monument Authority. This City Commission oversees the historical district that contains the world-famous Olvera Street, a cobbled street populated by local street vendors, family owned shops, and restaurants that truly encapsulate the spirit of the birthplace of Los Angeles. If you’ve never been, go. You’ll be doing yourself a favor and experiencing the beating heart of Los Angeles’s history.

Historical districts are a rare breed, and not just because so few exist. Their special character can only be defined as “unique,” for at their heart, no two historical districts are identical; and even the most similar ones have a variety of differences, either due to geographic location and proximity or their historical importance. Comparing any historical district to another is nearly impossible for these reasons, and marking them as identical is an oversight to all the nuanced differences that make each unique.

Preserving the character of historical districts takes a great deal of care and attention, especially if they involve commercial communities and entities as well. Publicly owned districts, such as Olvera Street, often operate with policy-making groups that set the rules for the district. And this presents a completely different set of challenges. Unlike private property, overseeing bodies have to consider not just the physical presence of vendors (plots of land) but the people that run the stores and restaurants, many of which have deep ties to that community which run far deeper than the storefront.

This is where the balancing act truly begins and leads to a larger question: How do you balance all these separate (the district, the stores, and the owner’s) interest and keep everyone happy, especially in terms of profitability?

The harsh reality of rent getting raised seemingly arbitrarily is, often the result of poor communication. There’s the key issue: poor communication. Rents are often raised due to a mandate from a separate organization to keep the rents at a “market-rate”. This mandate needs to be communicated clearly, and so do the steps in the process, the timeline in place, and crucially, the limitations of the mandate. All parties involved need to understand that a publicly owned asset, such as a historical district, has a limited amount of leeway from the laws and city ordinances that govern the process.

Transparency, as always, makes a difference. An open line of communication can be all it takes to taken a poorly run conglomeration of interests and turn it into a tightly knit community. And what’s really being preserved in these districts isn’t a collection of old buildings or artifacts, but a community that has a strong past. And the goal of the the governing entity is to keep that heart beating from the past into the future.

rounded_corners_John_B_AvatarJohn Bwarie is an impact professional working to connect people and solve problems while focusing on an actionable outcome. He has worked for elected officials directly and serves dozens of others in other capacities. Follow him on Twitter andLinkedIn.