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Culver City Ice Arena Declared A Significant “City Cultural Resource”

The front of the Culver City Ice Arena
Photo courtesy Los Angeles Kings

CULVER CITY, CA — In a surprise move, on July 28, the City Council of the City of Culver City unanimously declared the Culver City Ice Arena to be a City Cultural Resource at the “Significant” level.

As reported in this space on July 25, the declaration prevents the property owner, Michael Karagozian, from demolishing, removing or altering the exterior appearance of the building, “…in whole or in part, without first obtaining a Certificate of Appropriateness or a Certificate of Exemption.”

Architectural Resources Group, Inc. (ARG), led by Jennifer Trotoux, Associate and Architectural Historian, studied the nomination of the Culver City Ice Arena and found a “…preponderance of evidence that the Ice Arena is eligible for listing in the California Register [of Historical Resources] under Criterion 1 (association with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of California’s history and cultural heritage).”

ARG concluded that the Culver City Ice Arena qualifies as a City Cultural Resource because of:

  • Its association with post-war indoor recreation that catered to youth of the baby boom generation in a developing suburban context and;
  • Its association with ice skating, both for recreation and as organized and professional sports in the form of figure skating and hockey, providing a place to support and cultivate local interest and talent, including individuals who became national and Olympic champions.

The Council could have voted for City Cultural Resource status at the lower “Recognized” level, which offers no protections whatsoever, or they could have refused to declare it as a City Cultural Resource altogether.

Although the City Council’s declaration gives rink supporters more leverage towards development of the property into a state-of-the-art rink, Council members warned that their decision does not directly affect the future of the property, in terms of what it might become once a new lessee comes forward.

“It may not save the rink, but it will save the memory,” said Council member and Vice Mayor Michael O’Leary.

“Making this designation tonight, as I hope we will, doesn’t guarantee the use in the future,” said Council member and Mayor Meghan Sahli-Wells. “It helps…it’s good to recognize the value of this facility and as somebody told me today, it’s not the building itself. It’s what happens in that building.”

“By supporting this designation tonight, I don’t want people to go out and think, ‘Hey! Yay! It’s coming back tomorrow,’” added Wells. “But hopefully, there’s still going to be the means to prevail, possibly, on the owner, to make this into a success.”

Trotoux started off the proceedings with a detailed presentation of ARG’s findings, based on their extensive report (which you can read here: “Culver City Ice Arena Historic Resource Evaluation”), which was followed by public comments.

Culver City resident Lindsay Carlson noted that despite the fact that the Culver City Ice Arena was established in the early 1960’s when racism was often blatant and easily visible, the Culver rink was an exception.

“It’s not really the building itself that’s significant, but rather, what that building represents and what the skating activities at that building represented,” said Carlson. “In addition to being the [Los Angeles] Kings practice facility [until 1994] and having a lot of Olympic ice skaters who skated at that facility in the past, what I felt was really compelling was that it was a racially integrated rink back in the 1960’s.”

“[The report] mentioned a prominent African American skater who skated there [and] a prominent Latino skater,” added Carlson. “It was one of those places that was open to all members of the community—rather rare at that time.”

As stated in ARG’s report, African American figure skater Mabel Fairbanks, a highly-skilled skater who was barred from Olympic trials during the 1930’s due to discrimination, taught at the Culver rink, and 1954 national champion, Catherine Machado, a Latina, skated there.

Others bemoaned the loss of another Culver City landmark.

“I can point out where the [Studio] Drive-In was,” said Culver City resident Melissa Abramson. “It’s now houses. I can point out where the roller rink was. It’s a park. I can point out that there used to be a huge movie back lot. It’s now houses, across [Overland Avenue] from Sony [Pictures Studios]. All these places that are significant to the Heart of Screenland are gone.”

“Culver City has a choice here,” said Brooke Powell, a twenty-year resident of Culver City. “Do we want to support our heritage and not just be [like], ‘ooohh…this is new and different. Let’s get rid of the old and bring in the new,’ or do we want to take a stand, [saying] ‘hey, we live here. We grew up here. We want to preserve what’s here?’”

Support Was Far From Unanimous Until The End

Although the City Council vote was unanimous, three Council members, Jim Clarke, Jeffrey Cooper and Andrew Weissman, appeared to oppose the potential declaration going into their July 28 meeting.

Clarke noted that the landmark “Ice Skating” sign was culturally and historically significant, but strongly implied that the rest of the property was not. He went on to ask if the sign could be moved elsewhere and still be considered significant.

Trotoux replied that the location is a critical factor to the cultural designation.

“The first [aspect] of [historical] integrity is location, so if something is moved, in order to still retain significance, it could be moved only if it were to a comparable location that still had the same meaning to it,” she stressed. “If it were moved someplace else—no, you couldn’t really, because I’m assuming that the significance of the sign would be tied more to things that we judge signs on—its location, its position relative to the building, to the street, within the city.”

“For example, if it were moved to a street that was not equivalent to Sepulveda Boulevard, in terms of being an auto-related thoroughfare developed during a particular time period, then it would lose its meaning,” she added. “If it were moved a block down the street, it might be a different story, but the integrity of location and setting would be affected and those are important factors.”

Cooper expressed concern that the designation would thwart future efforts to bring an ice rink back to the property.

“I feel that it’s two different issues that are coming up together that’s really making it very, very difficult,” he said. “I just feel that if it was strictly an ice skating rink issue, that’s one issue, but historical designation is another issue. I don’t think the two fit together.”

Cooper went on to suggest that some sort of exhibit about the Culver rink at whatever the property might become could be sufficient.

“If they had an homage to the former incarnation of what it was, or for whatever it was that the developer sold it to somebody and they added a room with a museum—are we achieving the same thing?”

Trotoux stated emphatically that an exhibit would not keep the Culver rink in the community’s memory.

“You rely on things like community memory and [the building] bears that association with that time period, even though you can’t really tell if it’s for a particular use, like ice skating,” she noted. “The designation is something that keeps things in community memory, even as they change uses and change their outward appearance.”

Despite that, later in the meeting, Weissman asked, “Wouldn’t photographs or videos displayed someplace…”

But before he could finish his question, Trotoux cut him off.

“Oh no,” she emphasized. “Here’s where that comes in handy—where it’s essential, really. Let’s say the building becomes occupied by a different use. In that case, you’d want to see video and photographs and illustrations of what used to happen there. That’s what helps you understand when you’re in that space. ‘Oh, ok. This was an ice skating rink and this is what this building was for.’”

“If you have it off-site, it doesn’t really mean anything,” she added. “If you have it in a different building that’s on the site, then you don’t have a historical place anymore.”

Clarke stated that he was “ambivalent” about the potential declaration.

“I’m pretty ambivalent about all this that we’re voting on because I don’t see that there is any significance of what we do tonight that will [have] impact on the future of the building or its use,” he said. “The Kings have reached out [on] several occasions to the owner and they’ve gotten no response from him. I have met with the owner and he has no intention, at this point, of making it an ice rink.”

Clarke also agreed with Cooper that City Cultural Resource status would be a road block to building an ice rink at the location. But he added that the property was not likely to become a new ice rink, anyway.

“Let’s assume that the owner changes his mind and would be open to the Los Angeles Kings,” he said. “The fact that there is historic designation would make it extremely difficult to build a modern ice rink there. But I’m ambivalent about it because the reality is that there’s not going to be an ice rink there.”

“It’s going to be a grocery store, a department store or a tire store,” he added. “That sign is going to be gone and you can drive by and say, ‘that was great. I remember when that was something else.’ But it won’t be an ice rink and there won’t be anything there unless they put something there, in terms of pictures or videos or something else, for people to even remember it.”

In her remarks, Sahli-Wells pilfered a rather infamous comment from Eric Garcetti, Mayor, City of Los Angeles.

“It seems clear-cut to me,” she said. “I want to go with [ARG’s] recommendation and the recommendation of the Cultural Affairs Commission. The report was a fascinating echo because the exact things that made it culturally significant in its era are still the exact reasons that its important in our community today, that’s to say the recreation, the development of recreational opportunities, especially for youth, and the development of competitive sports. As we’ve heard on numerous occasions from the community, to borrow a phrase from my fellow Mayor in Los Angeles, this ice rink is a big f-ing deal.”

For the record, Sahli-Wells did not utter the expletive, as Garcetti did during his remarks at the Kings’ 2014 Stanley Cup Championship Celebration at Staples Center on June 16.

O’Leary also expressed support.

“There are two other pieces of significance that I hope don’t get lost here today,” he noted. “One is that this ice rink had survived for so long. That, to me, is significance, [along with] the way it maintained the community integrity—what it meant to the community, what it meant as a safe haven, back when the Baby Boomers were old enough to appreciate a facility such as the ice rink.”

“As stated in the report, it should be noted that a lack of architectural significance does not mean that the building itself is expendable,” he added.

The Swing Vote

At that point, it appeared that there were only two votes to declare the rink a City Cultural Resource. Weissman was the final Council member to speak and he said nothing to change that, at least, not at first.

“A designation of significance is, essentially, a neutral act, in my mind,” said Weismann. “It doesn’t add anything to the overall decision that may, ultimately, have to be made when and if the property owner and a prospective tenant comes forward and wants to change the use of the property. They’re going to have to go through the same analysis, the same zone change/use change. Now we’re going to have a CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) component that would be imposed if we grant significance, but I don’t see that that fundamentally changes anything. It has nothing to do with maintaining the use as an ice rink. That’s a decision that would be made by the property owner…it is their property to do with as they choose. We may have a variety of preferences, in terms of what we’d want to see there.”

But then, Weissman’s remarks took a 180 degree turn.

“I was very impressed with the detail in the report,” he indicated. “I was very pleased with the conversation that [Trotoux] and I and staff had this afternoon and I don’t think that I’m capable of making an informed, subjective opinion of my own that would necessarily result in a change…it seems to me that I will be compelled to support the Cultural Affairs recommendation, not because I believe that the action is, in any way, going to affect what the building is going to be used for, but the process that we’ve set up for ourselves requires that that’s what I do.”

Shortly thereafter, the Council voted unanimously to adopt the motion. It appears likely that Clarke and Cooper voted in favor of the designation after seeing that the motion had the votes needed to pass so they could avoid being on record as opposing it.

Shock, Surprise

Shannon Takahashi, a long-time, now former employee of the Culver City Ice Arena who is one of the leaders of the campaign to save the rink, was overjoyed at the outcome, but flabbergasted, at the same time.

“I’m in shock,” she said. “I thought it was going to go—not good, but we got the great outcome. I’m looking forward to the possibility—we’re one step closer to providing ice skating to everybody again.”

“I felt like we only had two out of five [votes, based on] what some of them have said and [based on] other meetings,” she added. “I’m a wishful thinker, but I went in with a gut feeling that this might go really badly, especially with some of the things that were posted recently by the [Culver City] Chamber of Commerce and [Weissman’s] first response in the Culver City News a couple of days ago.”

“I was really worried that they weren’t going to listen to their community and yet they did. They totally surprised me.”

Takahashi stressed the value of the Culver rink to the city.

“The rink is very important to the city and the route that the landowner was taking made me unsure of his desires to keep a rink, so we were trying to do everything we possibly could to work in the best interests of keeping a rink in that location,” said Takahashi. “One of the avenues was historical and we filed [the application] in January in hopes that it wouldn’t get that far, but if it did, we would have at least that because we do believe that [the rink] is historical. It’s important to keep things like that in the city.”

“It helps because if it looks like an ice rink and it says ‘ice skating’ on the sign, yes you can change the purpose of it, but it obviously means a lot to the city and why not take offers that are good that want to keep it a rink and keep it going,” added Takahashi.

“It might take a year or so, but it’s going to be a bigger, better facility. I can’t wait for that, and growing up in Culver City, I can’t imagine Culver City without the ice rink and we’re getting close to making that happen again.”

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