Lincoln Place: A Community Victory

The following is the entire article, which is being printed in the Free Venice Beachhead in two parts.

By Amanda Seward

It finally appears that the Lincoln Place war has come to a close.  In reviewing my archives, I was reminded of the work and sacrifices of so many that were involved over the years and it seemed a good time to chronicle the struggle and acknowledge some of those contributions.  I personally have received a lot of accolades for my work on Lincoln Place and I am certainly appreciative and proud of my role in saving this garden apartment complex and the tenancy of the remaining households, but this fight was truly a community David and Goliath effort, won only with the help of a large number of people.

Today, AIMCO, by some estimates the largest apartment owner in the country, and the Venice community, once enemies, now share a common vision of a mixed-income, architecturally significant apartment community that will be rehabilitated in accordance with the Secretary of Interior preservation standards and green building practices.  All 700 remaining units will be preserved; only 99 new units will be constructed on the site, replacing the 99 units that were previously demolished; the new units will be compatible in style, scale, and massing to the original; all evicted tenants who wish to return will be allowed to return; and the intended bucolic open park-like

spaces and common courtyards between buildings will be retained and rehabilitated consistent with the indoor-outdoor living ideas championed by Mid-Century California Modernists and today’s sustainability concerns.

Being the oldest of five girls in my family was good preparation for  the sisterhood that developed between the four unlikely executive team members that came together on Lincoln Place.  For me, the battle began  almost nine years ago through a volunteer effort to have the property designated historic.  A former president of the Modern Committee of the Los Angeles Conservancy, Michael Palumbo, informed me that there was a documentary filmmaker residing at Lincoln Place who had done research that might be helpful.  This was my introduction to one of my Lincoln Place sisters, Laura Burns.

Laura is a Texan, which undoubtedly contributes to her folksy and straightforward demeanor.  She was born and raised in Austin, married to a Frenchman, who is an artist and film industry sculptor with a cultivated style that is probably hereditary as the son of a former French cultural attaché to Italy.  Laura and Bernard, her husband, had lived in Germany and Mexico and settled at Lincoln Place in 1996.   I learned that no one can beat Laura Burns in tenacity, chutzpa, and research skills.  Without her efforts, we would not have won this battle.

I did not initially participate in the tenants’ campaign to avoid eviction.  While I am a firm believer in affordable housing, I first became involved in Lincoln Place because of my interest in Mid-Century architecture.  As I researched the history of the Garden City Movement and principles behind Modern architecture, though, I found that my aesthetic interest in Modern architecture and design was directly related to my attitudes about social justice in housing.  Modern architecture was more than a style; it was also a movement aimed at improving the human environment and condition for the masses.  The Garden City Movement was a design philosophy first developed in Europe after World War I in response to a housing shortage and the challenges wrought by urbanization.  The core idea was that multi-family housing units should be placed in garden-like open settings featuring common courtyards that would stimulate interaction among the residents and foster a sense of community in an urban environment.

Sheila Bernard, the head of the Lincoln Place Tenants Association (“LPTA”), found the architecture and the design of less importance, but she and the strong community of tenants were, for me, the embodiment of the ideals that formed Lincoln Place and proved that architecture played an important role in creating strong communities.  The residents knew each other, looked after one another, and refused to leave their homes in the face of eviction.  Sheila was a teacher by day, and volunteer housing advocate day and night.  For more than 20 years, one battle after another, she led the tenants’ struggle against various developers who sought to replace the rent controlled units with luxury apartments and condominiums.

Another leader of the LPTA was Jan Book.  Jan had been an accountant, had graduated from law school, but was at the time of the evictions, an artist.  She renewed her bar license so that she could help the landlord-tenant lawyer who had been engaged to work with the tenants to avoid eviction in 2005.  I admired Jan because she was so willing to share her and her husband’s resources to help the cause.  Further, she put her art career on hold for years and opened up her home for regular meetings with the Spanish-speaking families to make sure they were heard and knew what was going on.  After reestablishing her legal credentials, she convinced the Attorney General to file an amicus brief in support of the tenants in one of the their lawsuits against the developer and the city to stop the original redevelopment plan.  Jan was also our resident Republican, who with her smile, polished look and confident manner showed that we were not just a bunch of idealistic progressives with whom you could not negotiate.

We came together as a team on December 6, 2005, as we watched 52 households (including 21 children and 65 adults) being evicted from their homes.  It was the largest lockout in a single day in Los Angeles history.  After this, Jan and I joined forces to represent the remaining households, who because of age and disability were given an additional year on the property.  Laura, Sheila, Jan and I met regularly to strategize political, community, media and legal efforts to save the Lincoln Place community.

Four married women spending so many years on a volunteer effort that was often a full-time job have to thank the husbands for their support.  My husband, Hans Adamson, became the ideal supporter.  He took photographs of the property and developed them in accordance with the strict requirements of the National and State historic nomination guidelines.  He read and edited court filings, he served papers in Sacramento and Los Angeles, and he attended court hearings, State Historic Resource Commission hearings, City Council meetings, and community meetings.  He made copies.  But most of all during dark moments when the battle seemed overwhelming, he would not let me give up.  Once, when there was a lot of pressure for me to accept what was in my view a flawed settlement proposal, he told me I could not give up because this was his fight too; he had put in a lot of time and effort in this as well and his opinion also had to count.

Another asset we had was the Venice community.  It is a community of activists, in which, for example, a City Council candidate with more financial backing than her opponent and with the endorsement of an effective incumbent, was defeated because of a grassroots email campaign that reported her financial support from developers.  Two Venetians especially stand out because of the time they put into our effort.  They are David Ewing (Preacher) and Laura Silagi.  They are both filmmakers and produced a powerful short film on the Lincoln Place struggle that often left viewers in tears.  We showed it every chance we got, including a screening at a City Council meeting.  It also was uploaded on YouTube.  Preacher bought stock in AIMCO and attended stockholder meetings.  He attended one meeting at AIMCO headquarters in Denver and discussed our plight with one of the founders and chairman of the company.  AIMCO initially owned 50% of Lincoln Place and later replaced Robert Bisno, becoming the sole owner of the property.  Preacher kept track of AIMCO’s activities nationwide.  Both Preacher and Laura S. (to distinguish her from Laura B.) helped us plan strategy and did community organizing and social conscious lobbying on our behalf.  As I go through my emails from the years of battle, I am once again struck by their dedication and monumental support and contribution.

We also had the support of the Venice Neighborhood Council.  The Neighborhood Council under the leadership of Dede Audette, and later, Mike Newhouse, consistently supported our efforts.  Proclamations, condemnations, and letters from the Neighborhood Council were written to the Mayor, City Council and owner of Lincoln Place denouncing the demolitions and evictions.   The Neighborhood Council also formed a task force to weigh in on the controversy.  Its Land Use and Planning Committee sponsored a well-attended forum on the future of Lincoln Place.

Many of the tenants stayed involved, even after they were evicted.    They car-pooled to court proceedings, spoke at City Council meetings, held demonstrations, and distributed flyers.  Tenants who were photo- graphers took pictures.  Those that were filmmakers documented the story on film.  Tenants who were graphic designers created posters and flyers.  Writers wrote copy.  Web designers Tracy and Brian Creech designed the website and kept it updated, a monumental task.  Musicians performed at our events.  Some memories stand out.  I recall Carol Beck, an Army veteran, who tirelessly stood watch in front of the rental office to discourage other tenants from signing a so-called “voluntary” termination agreement.  She also was one of the organizers of Tent City, the symbolic encampment we formed to protest the evictions.   Gloria Morales, an  elderly tenant, was an effective advocate at City Hall.  She spoke Spanish, English, cried, whatever we needed, wherever we needed her.  I will never forget 80-year-old Lucy Siam who consistently said she would have to be dragged out if she ever left Lincoln Place.  She never considered moving and regularly attended meetings, demonstrations, and vigils.  I am just so happy she is able to remain at Lincoln Place and we will not have to see her evicted by the sheriff.

A couple of tenants, Frieda and Spike Marlin and Ingrid Mueller, brought several lawsuits in their names against the owner and the city under various legal theories designed to halt the evictions and redevelopment of the property.  If they lost, they risked having to pay the owner’s attorneys fees.  Still, they forged on.  Rose Murphy, a senior tenant who moved at the insistence of her children, continued to travel to Lincoln Place by bus from San Bernardino to attend hearings, City Council meetings and to visit and support the remaining tenants.  One tenant who had been forcibly evicted, Douglas Eisenstark, planned weekly vigils featuring various themes.  One week the theme was faith, another week, anger, another the beauty of the architecture.  Pastor Tom Ziegert of the Venice Methodist Church led one on the power of ritual and storytelling.  He asked participants to walk around the property in silence and after returning to the meeting spot he asked us to write down and later to share our thoughts.  It was a healing experience for many.

Some of the tenants encouraged their priests, rabbis and ministers to support the cause.  At one ecumenical service at Tent City, I recall the words of Father Tomas Elias of St. Clement Church.  He addressed the fear that some immigrants have about being active in protests in this country.  His words strengthened us all.  He said that when we are doing God’s will we don’t need to be fearful and that we have to have faith in the power of God’s will.  It became my mantra.

Another Venetian, Suzanne Thompson, helped in several critical ways.  She was one of the key organizers of a rally in support of the Lincoln Place struggle on Martin Luther King Day one year.  Every Venice-based community organization I can think of sent a speaker and signed a petition of support.  Suzanne also introduced us to Stanley Sheinbaum, a longtime supporter of progressive causes, who along with his wife, well-known sculptor, painter and philanthropist Betty Sheinbaum, hosted a fundraiser for the cause at their home in Brentwood.  Susan Adelman, Jodie Evans, Jane Fonda, Don Geagan, Elliott Gould, and Gary Phillips served as co-hosts.

Stanley later introduced us to Congresswoman Maxine Waters, a force of nature, who pledged to help even though Lincoln Place was not in her district.  She later attended a meeting we called with various governmental representatives, including state, federal and local officials, to discuss political support for saving Lincoln Place.  She then arranged for me to testify in Washington, D.C., before the 110th House Committee on Financial Services hearing entitled, “Affordable Housing Preservation and Protection of Tenants.”   Waters is Chairwoman of the Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity.  By the time I testified at these hearings, we were in settlement discussions with the owner and so I needed to be tactful, but it was important as it resulted in significant national relationships in case our struggle needed to go national.

When involved in grassroots efforts to influence decision makers you face the common belief that developers have an advantage.  The popular wisdom is that they control the playing field through the use of lobbyists, hiring of major law firms and through campaign contributions.  One high point in this grassroots campaign was the support and votes of the State Historic Commission, which repeatedly found the property historic, despite the owner’s all-out lobbying effort to turn around votes.  The drama was heightened when the Commission that had previously voted for historic designation was comprised of a majority of new appointments by Governor Schwarzenegger.  After the Commission had been sued by AIMCO for its vote in favor of designation, the new Commission decided to settle with the owner and void the previous vote.  This was all done in closed sessions and in private meetings between the owner’s attorney and the State.  Despite these efforts, in a subsequent vote of the new Commission, the property was once again designated historic.  It seemed the application and supporting documents stood on their own merit despite all the lobbying by and connections of the owner and its representatives.  Some of those Commissioners withstood lawsuits filed against them personally.  The staff and Commissioners who stood up for the integrity of the process prevented the demolition of this property.  They are:  Wayne Donaldson, FAIA, Cynthia Howse, W. Knox-Mellon, Maryln Lortie, Stephen Mikesell, Tara Todd, Claire Bogaard, Lauren Bricker, Philip Choy, Trish Fernandez, Kathleen Green, Anthea Hartig, William Hildebrandt, Luis Hoyos, Mary Maniery, Rick Moss, Carol Novey, Julianne Polanco, and Richard Shek.  I did not know any of them before this process began.  It was heartening when one Commissioner said during an early hearing that she had to go see the property herself after all the material she received in opposition from the owner.  She said she walked around Lincoln Place and understood why it was so special, noting the “livability” of the environment.  It meant a lot that someone of such privilege could recognize the value of an apartment community built for the working class and that she was willing to speak so eloquently and effectively in support of the nomination.

The Commission received many letters in support of the designation, included among them was an endorsement from the AIA Los Angeles Chapter; the National Trust for Historic Preservation; the California Preservation Foundation; The National Organization of Minority Architects; Julius Shulman, premier photographer of modernist architecture; Diane Favro, then President of the Society of Architectural Historians; Dorothy Wang, author of the National Landmark and National Register nominations of Baldwin Hills Village Green, by all accounts, the most influential garden apartment complex in California; Bradford C. Grant, President of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture; Gail Sansbury, Board Member of the Society for American City and Regional Planning History; and Wesley Howard Henderson, Associate Editor of the Biographic Dictionary of African-American Architects.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigoso, Senator Barbara Boxer, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Congresswoman Jane Harmon, and then State Senator, Debra Bowen also wrote letters of support.  The Venice Historical Society, many architects, landscape professionals, and architectural enthusiasts weighed in, as well.  The local chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects (“NOMA”) made a presentation about Lincoln Place at the organization’s national annual conference, featured an article in NOMA’s national newsletter, organized a tour of Lincoln Place for its local members, and participated in community forums.  Again, the historic designation campaign was truly a community effort and this support helped us counter the arguments against designation raised by expert consultants hired by the owner’s representatives.

One day when speaking with a former colleague at Warner Bros., Jeremy Williams, Jeremy asked me what I was up to and I recounted the story of Lincoln Place.  By that time, I was representing the remaining tenants and had defeated a summary judgment motion for eviction brought by the owner.  But there was a trial pending, and Jeremy said he admired my intentions but for a trial I would need real litigators.  I explained that the tenants had tried to get assistance, but were unable to get help they could afford, and at that point there was no funding for eviction lawyers.  Jeremy said he would make some inquiries because he thought there should be someone willing to represent the tenants on a pro bono basis.  True to his word, he and another Warner Bros. attorney, Dale Nelson, sent out inquiries and found a partner at a major law firm, Alexander Pilmer of Kirkland & Ellis, who agreed to represent the remaining households.  Another lawyer at Kirkland & Ellis, Pantea Yashar, worked with me on preliminary hearings.  Fortunately, we never went to trial after AIMCO dismissed the eviction cases against the remaining tenants.  But, Alex’s and Pantea’s willingness to help made me confident we would be ready for a trial.  Free of that concern, I got more creative in making my own motions to the court, rather than merely responding to what the owner’s attorneys argued.

Earlier on, another lawyer, David Rosman, offered the use of his law library and gave Jan and me research advice.  As an entertainment transactional attorney, it had been a long time since I’d been in a law library and Dave advised Jan and me on useful legal treatises and resources.  After almost five years now in and out of court on behalf of Lincoln Place, I now realize how inexperienced and naïve we must have seemed.

Several eviction lawyers offered advice and legal forms that accelerated our learning curve.  Eviction Defense Network attorneys Elena Popp, Robert Reed and Leah Simon-Weisberg helped, as well as Steve Collier from the famous Tenderloin Housing Clinic in San Francisco who had tremendous experience in Ellis Act evictions, a state law that allows owners to evict tenants if the owner intends to get out of the rental business.  It was the Ellis Act that the owners of Lincoln Place invoked to evict the tenants.

Susan Brandt-Hawley, a California Environment Quality Act (“CEQA”) lawyer, graciously wrote a letter to the State Historic Preservation Officer offering a legal response to AIMCO’s attorneys’ last-ditch argument that the historic designation process violated CEQA.  I remember being very grateful that I did not need to try and become, overnight, a CEQA expert.

The Attorney General’s office took the lead in the case brought by the owner against the State Historic Resources Commission and me, as the author of the nomination.  In the second lawsuit against us challenging the designation, the Commission did not settle and the designation was upheld.  I learned a lot from the lawyering skills of Deputy Attorney General Gary Tavetian.

Media coverage also played a role in this story.  Bob Pool wrote a feature in his inimitable story-telling style regarding the preservation efforts, which was published in the Los Angeles Times.  I think he admired us for trying, but did not think we would pull it off.  Roger Templeton of theVenice Paper attended and reported a key vote of the State Historic Resources Commission in Fresno.  He and Tibby Rothman, then editor of theVenice Paper, covered material aspects of the story over the years, as did The Argonaut, the Santa Monica Mirror, the Santa Monica Daily Press, Daily Journal, the LA Weekly and the Los Angeles Times.  Jim Smith and the Free Venice Beachhead could not have been more supportive.  Jim never let the “he says, she says” form of reporting in the name of neutrality confuse him; he called it the way he saw it.  The Free Venice Beachhead could have been titled the Lincoln Place Chronicles.  I also appreciated the thoughtful acknowledgement of Christopher Hawthorne, the Los Angeles Times architecture critic, who wrote in an article that Lincoln Place was an important example of the low rise garden apartment that was part of Los Angeles’ legacy in bringing sophistication to the affordable home.  Peggy Clifford, the former editor of the Santa Monica Mirror was relentless in her support.  Terrence Lyons, also of the Mirror became a familiar face covering all aspects of the story during all the ups and downs.  Martha Groves of the Los Angeles Times once overheard me digging up information at the public counter in the Planning Department and gave me her card asking me to call her and keep her updated on what was going on.  Linda Immediato of the LA Weekly  went so far as to interview each City Council person to get their office’s response to the controversy and reported each response prominently.

Local broadcast media covered the preservation efforts as well as the evictions.  The Spanish-language stations broadcast the visuals of the evictions repeatedly.  We often had trouble with the media merely repeating what the owner said without giving us a chance to respond.  The Spanish-language stations consistently reported our side of the story.

The images of us demonstrating at the home of then City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo to protest the lack of support from the City Attorney’s office under Delgadillo’s leadership also drew attention to our cause.  KCRW featured a debate about our story and KCET featured it in a web documentary.  NPR also took interest and featured the controversy in a report about housing in the United States.  Getting the story out was important to help hold all decision makers accountable and to let people know this was an important issue.  The media committee, headed by Judy Branfman and Clare Sassoon, worked tirelessly to get coverage.

Linda Dishman and the Los Angeles Conservancy were instrumental in the preservation effort.  The Conservancy sponsored a free walking tour of the complex that was designed to educate decision makers and leaders in the community on the rich history and architectural importance of Lincoln Place.  Linda also provided testimony in favor of the nomination and helped me prepare for an important presentation.  She advised me to focus on my own story about Lincoln Place rather than to allow opposition arguments to define the presentation.  It was one of the best presentations I gave on the nomination.

The Conservancy also participated, along with the California Preservation Foundation and the National Association of Minority Architects, and 20th Century Architecture Alliance, in litigation challenging the demolition of some of the buildings on the property.

The case established that the demolition was illegal and stopped future demolitions until certain conditions were met.  This gave us time to firm up the historic nomination in the interim.

I also would like to thank David Busch for his leadership on Tent City.  David is a homeless community activist who led efforts to staff our “symbolic” encampment, where we held around-the-clock vigils to  demonstrate the plight of the homeless and the lack of affordable housing.  David made it safe for us to be there through the night.  Up until about 11:00 p.m., sitting at Tent City was like sitting around a campfire with friends.  But after that, it sometimes got scary.  Too many people roam the streets at night, some just down on their luck and others who appear rather menacing.  David knew the difference; he engaged the former and encouraged the latter to move on, while treating everyone with respect.

One of the people we met there one night had gone to college with Councilman Eric Garcetti and true to his word he appeared at a City Council meeting and spoke on our behalf.  Councilman Garcetti recognized this fellow and it made for a more personal engagement about the lack of affordable housing and the importance of saving Lincoln Place.

Speaking of City Council members, Bill Rosendahl was wonderful.  Councilman Rosendahl and I had our differences over preservation; he saw the fight as people over buildings.  I argued that for no other reason, he should see preservation of the buildings as an effective strategy to support the people by ensuring that quality affordable and workforce housing could not be so easily demolished.    He rose above our conflict and was there for everything we needed.  Without his support and the hard work of his staff, we would not have reached settlement.  He made Lincoln Place his number-one issue.  His staff, especially Mike Bonin, Mark Antonio Grant, Norman Kulla, and Arturo Piña, assisted us in every conceivable way.

Many other Venetians acted as consultants or participated in one or more of the three settlement attempts over the years.  Steve Clare advised us on affordable housing issues.  Linda Lucks helped us with the Mayor’s office and community outreach.  Jataun Valentine assisted with community outreach and spoke at various City Council and community meetings in support of Lincoln Place tenants.  Frank Murphy, William Garner, and Joseph Murphy of Venice Collaborative tutored me on real estate development issues.  Other activists and community leaders helped, including Aris Anagnos, Elinor Aurthur (deceased), Jim Bicker, Marianne Brown, Larry Gross, Dennis Hathaway, DeDe McCrary (deceased), Stan Muhammad, Mindy Taylor- Ross, Sabrina Venskus, and Laddie Williams.  Rick Tuttle, a former controller for the City of Los Angeles, gave us invaluable advice on organizing political support, testified before the City Council, and lobbied for us behind the scenes.  Many hosted or attended house parties and contributed to the LPTA.  All of these and other local leaders argued our case to anyone who might be inclined to oppose our efforts, and through their work, we were able to present a united front.

Negotiations for peace commenced and failed twice.  Only the third time did we reach agreement and close the book on a twenty year controversy.  The settlement negotiations were another adventure in themselves.  But briefly, settlement required the support of the owner of the property, the preservationists, the tenants, the community and various city departments and took years of negotiation assisted by judges, mediators and arbitrators.  The Mayor’s office, the Housing Department, the Department of Water and Power, the City Council, and the City Attorney’s office all played a part in moving the settlement forward.

Along with the preservation efforts and eviction cases that were my focus, there were many lawsuits and grassroots campaigns over the years, causing more than one judge to call it the Lincoln Place saga.  This letter does not attempt to recall the entire saga and does not attempt to recognize all those who contributed to the struggle to save Lincoln Place.  There were companion battles and battles that preceded my involvement, including, for example, the political opposition led by Ruth Galanter, then City Council member, and the legal efforts from lawyers engaged over the years by the tenants including Jan Chatten-Brown, Amy Minteer, Susan Brandt-Hawley, Elena Popp, John Murdock and his team, and Noel Weiss.  And I am sure others have been overlooked.  Also, it is not intended that AIMCO and its representatives are painted as villains.  The company’s executives and its representatives came around to make this a win-win victory.  This is merely my thank you and acknowledgments for the work of our team.

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