UI’s beach house stirs legal debate

Located in Santa Monica, Calif., this landmark cottage sits at the center of a dispute between the UI Foundation and Santa Monica residents. Photo courtesy of Santa Monica City Council

Located in Santa Monica, Calif., this landmark cottage sits at the center of a dispute between the UI Foundation and Santa Monica residents. Photo courtesy of Santa Monica City Council

By Andy Kwalwaser

It’s a cozy, turn-of-the-century cottage in Santa Monica, Calif., with a gabled roof and a view of the Pacific Ocean.

According to the Santa Monica City Council, the house is a landmark.

For the University of lllinois Foundation, it’s real estate.

The foundation has been trying to sell the beachfront property since 2005, when the husband of a late University alumna died and bequeathed it to the foundation.

The organization wants to take the proceeds from the sale of the property and put the money into a scholarship fund.

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But last month, the Council upheld the controversial landmark status that preserves the cottage while lowering its resale value.

“The findings we made are in our ordinance,” said Kevin McKeown, Santa Monica council member.

“There’s no legal reason it’s not a landmark.”

Tucked between condominiums on swank Ocean Avenue, the cottage is all that remains of the small waterfront homes that lined the street 100 years ago.

“We have very few cottages that remain in the city,” Santa Monica architectural historian Ruthann Lehrer said.

“It was like a window to the past.”

The Council received testimony against the landmark designation from PCR Services, a community-planning company working on behalf of the foundation, as well as testimony from activists who defended the cottage’s status.

According to the city Landmark Commission, the cottage meets three of the six criteria required for landmark status in Santa Monica: historical significance, architectural worth and notable location.

Local residents petitioned to preserve the cottage after the foundation applied for a demolition permit in April 2006 but McKeown said the council’s decision to uphold the cottage’s designation was based only on landmark criteria.

“If a building did not fit the criteria but everyone wanted it, it’s not a landmark,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who owns it or what they want to do with it.”

Bradley Hatfield, senior vice president for administration of the University of Illinois Foundation, said the organization always planned to sell the property with the cottage intact.

“As part of our effort to ascertain whether the property would have landmark status, we had to apply for a demolition permit,” Hatfield said. “The foundation never intended to demolish the property.”

Hatfield said the foundation followed city protocol in applying for the permit.

Still, the action made some locals uneasy and spurred the creation of a community organization called “Save the Cottage.”

The City Council originally upheld the landmark designation in June 2007, but the law firm representing the foundation forced a new appeal because not all council members voted at the time.

Last month’s unanimous ruling confirmed the landmark status and ended the appeals process.

The cottage is currently listed at $1.95 million. The foundation hired a realtor, but Hatfield said the cottage’s landmark status drives down its value.

“It’s difficult for people to do things with it,” he said.

McKeown said he believes the foundation can find a solution.

“There aren’t too many houses you can find on the beach in the middle of winter in southern California,” McKeown said.

“I imagine the (foundation) can find something to do with it.”