The Importance of Cultural Heritage in Long Beach
A city is only as rich as its culture. How do we maintain that richness? Well, there's a Cultural Heritage Commission (CHC) in Long Beach that strives to do just that. Today, we sit down for a Q&A with CHC Chair and Environ Architecture President, Alan Burks.
How and when did you first get involved with the CHC?
In the mid 1970s I participated in the first survey of significant structures in Chicago for the Illinois Landmarks Preservation Council. Since then I was always interested in preserving and reusing the historic buildings that create places. In 1980 I co-founded Environ, Inc. Some of our early projects in Chicago repurposed warehouse and factory buildings into grocery stores, spas, housing and offices. We also designed renovations at several National Register sites, such as the Chicago Academy of Sciences and the Field Museum of Natural History.
My interest in historical buildings continued after I established Environ Architecture, Inc. in Long Beach. While working with the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles, we provided the design for many building improvements in the historic Pico-Union district, as well as the Westlake and mid-Wilshire districts. We also renovated the Watts Wilmington Train Depot and created the restoration plan for the Chinatown Gates. Knowing about our work, Amy Bodek asked me if I would be interested in serving on the Cultural Heritage Commission. I agreed, and then-Mayor Bob Foster appointed me in 2012.
How is your role as Chair different than serving as a Board member?
Every organization should have a spokesperson that leads the conversation. The CHC elects a Chair and Vice Chair every year. I have had the privilege to serve as Chair for several years. We realize that most applicants feel that the Cultural Heritage Commission is another time-consuming and costly hurdle. We are now trying to be more understanding of the applicant and want every project to benefit from our experience and advice. As Chair I am attempting to foster a spirit of cooperation, while preserving and enhancing our historic districts and buildings.
When it comes to preserving historical buildings, how strict are the criteria, and how do you determine what is and is not allowed?
The ordinance that created the CHC is specific about enforcing the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for historic preservation. While we use these standards as firm guidelines, there are aspects of the standards that are ambiguous. This means that we have some discretion. There is also negotiation. There are many times when the Commission cannot achieve the ideal result. In these instances we are pleased to simply make it better. For instance, instead of replacing all windows with historically appropriate windows, we would approve replacing only those that are most visible.
The CHC isn't just about historical preservation. Can you tell us more about the "cultural" part of the commission and what makes a structure culturally significant?
Every neighborhood and every building has a back-story. Most are ordinary, while some are significant. We want to tell the story of the significant neighborhoods and buildings. We really need to do more with the “Cultural” aspects of our community. Most of our landmarks and historical districts are designated as such because of their architectural or physical character. I feel it is the Commission’s responsibility to tell more about our city’s history and to designate buildings because of their cultural significance.
Why are these things important?
We all want to feel a connection with our surroundings. Knowing the history of a place helps this. Understanding how a city came to be can create a sense of pride. This is why what we do is important.