The American Planning Association has named the Los Angeles Conservancy as the 2006 winner of the Daniel Burnham Award for the conservancy’s work in preserving cultural monuments, protecting historic districts and promoting historic preservation principles. The conservancy is the largest historic preservation organization in the United States.

Linda Dishman, a former planner, is the conservancy’s executive director. She spoke in January with CP&DR Editor Paul Shigley.

CP&DR Congratulations on the Daniel Burnham Award. How significant is it to be recognized by the nation’s land use planners?

Dishman We’re incredibly honored to be given this award. To be acknowledged outside of our specific field means that we’re being successful in addressing a broader audience.

CP&DR What area does the conservancy cover?

Dishman Los Angeles County. Obviously more of our resources go to the City of Los Angeles because we are the preservation group for the City of L.A.

The report card has been a really good way to have outreach around he county. We’re working to have one of those every five years.

CP&DR You produced the report card [which gave a grade to every jurisdiction in the county] during 2003. What has been the long-term impact?

Dishman I think that the main thing is that people had an assessment of where they stood on whether they had a good preservation program or not. We heard from a number or cities that did not get a good report card about what they needed to do. It helped us identify where the opportunities are.

We’ve worked with three cities that did not do well. For example, Huntington Park has finished an ordinance that’s about to be adopted. They went from having no ordinance to having one of the best ordinances in L.A. County. The grade really meant something to them. San Fernando got a D, but they have been doing a lot since 2003.

CP&DR What is the state of historic preservation in Los Angeles today as compared with 1978, when the conservancy started?

Dishman We’ve made a lot of progress since 1978. When we were founded there was no preservation group. Pasadena Heritage had started the year before in Pasadena. Preservation nonprofits were kind of a new thing at that point. There had been groups organized to save individual buildings.

Education has been a main component of the conservancy from our beginning. If people don’t know why we need historic buildings, they won’t care about saving them. We do a film series every year. The reason we started the film series 20 years ago is we had this incredible collection of historic theaters on Broadway that nobody knew about. We show old movies in these historic theaters. Now we sell out the film series every year and it’s a big deal.

CP&DR Was there a specific turning point in achieving success, or has it been a slow evolution?

Dishman I do think 1996 was a real turning point, and that was when the conservancy was fighting to save St. Vibiana cathedral, which the Catholic archdiocese wanted to tear down. The entire power structure of downtown was ganging up against the conservancy. We were always fighting against something. The conservancy leadership thought we needed to gear up for a more proactive approach.

We ultimately launched what we call our Broadway Initiative. When we started the Broadway Initiative, there was no talk of housing downtown. Now, there are 3,500 units downtown and 4,000 units are planned. It’s been great to see these old buildings come back to life and get a seismic retrofit at the same time.

Now were going to be devoting more attention to the theaters. We have this amazing historic downtown that is completely in tact. It was just abandoned.

CP&DR How is historic preservation in Los Angeles different than in other cities?

Dishman In some ways there’s a huge stereotype about Los Angeles that people don’t care about their history, that there is no history. My experience has been that, through the growth of our membership — we have more than 8,000 households as members, which makes us the largest preservation group in country — is that there is a huge and a growing need and desire to be part of a group that is making our city better and is fighting to preserve our historic neighborhoods.

In L.A., we’re really seeing the layering of history. What in the 1870s or 1880s had been a German immigrant neighborhood, then became an Italian immigrant neighborhood, then became a Jewish immigrant neighborhood and then became a Latin American neighborhood.

We do not have strong laws here. We can delay demolition of a landmark by one year. It’s not like New York, where you can just deny demolition.

CP&DR Is what you save different from what is saved elsewhere in the country?

Dishman Obviously, our history is different from New York, so obviously our historic resources are going to be different.

But in many ways our preservation is similar to the East Coast. We both preserve buildings that are important to our cultural history. It’s just that our history is different. We’re predominately auto oriented.

Part of what we’re dealing with is the modern resources. A lot of people say that we’re on the cutting edge. In some ways, what we’ve been able to do is bring in a younger audience.

CP&DR What sort of obstacles do you run into?

Dishman We have a couple of obstacles. One is weak laws. The second is that there has been no comprehensive survey of the City of Los Angeles. Only 15% of the city has been surveyed. That has really caused our efforts to be more reactive. A property owner does his due diligence and buys a piece of property and there is nothing to tell him it’s a historic property. He files an application to tear down a 1930s apartment complex that has historic significance. And then there is a hue and cry. Often, by the time someone finds out they have a historic resource, they’ve invested hundreds of thousands in design fees and planning, and have grown attached to their program.

CP&DR How can you improve this situation?

Dishman We’re working really hard to get the survey going. The Getty Institute has been working on how to perform the survey and they are providing a grant to the city to launch the survey. We believe this is important because it has the highest likelihood of leading to the preservation of historic assets.

CP&DR What was the conservancy’s role in adoption of the City of L.A.’s Historic Preservation Overlay Zone?

Dishman Initially, when it was approved in 1982, we were involved in the advocacy and saying this was a necessary ordinance.

We do a lot of technical assistance. We do a lot of meeting with the neighbors and work with them. We do a lot of public policy advocacy.

One of the things that we’ve been doing that is particularly helpful is that when there is a council race — and we did this in the last mayor’s election, too — is we ask the candidates five or six questions about historic preservation. Then we mail the candidates’ answers to all of our members and we post it on our website. This has been really good for our relations with council members. We get them on record as saying what they will support. Usually they remember. It’s also a good introduction for them to the conservancy.

CP&DR What would make the Los Angeles ordinance more effective?

Dishman To have the right to deny demolition of historic monuments. The City of Pasadena has the ability to review demolition of any building that is at least 50 years old.

CP&DR What are your big priorities right now?

Dishman Getting the survey going. We always have plenty of preservation issues. Seeking to stop demolition. We’re fighting to save the last Brown Derby restaurant right now. Two of the CBS studios are threatened right now.

CP&DR What should planners know about historic preservation?

Dishman Preservation is a component of good planning. I don’t necessarily see it as separate. Good communities have historic resources integrated into them. The stories that buildings embody is a way to reach out to people in a way that strip malls can’t.