We Are The Next: Saving the Past By Focusing on the Future

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All photos courtesy of We Are The Next

We walk by them on the way to grab our morning coffee. We sleep in them, we eat in them and most people will eventually die in one. Buildings play a large role in our lives yet many will never be given a second look, or have the nuances in design noticed or their geometry appreciated.

Walking down Broadway, Katie Rispoli does, stopping to run her fingers along the white and purple mini-tiles that decorate the old IAMAW building next to The Potholder Cafe Too.

“Whether or not you care about architecture or about design, you live your lives in buildings,” Rispoli said. “Everyone does. The beauty about buildings, in my opinion, is that they’re for everyone.”

Rispoli is the executive director of We Are The Next (Next) a pending non-profit based in downtown, one that aims to educate communities about ties between sustainability and historic resources and to shift the mindset of future generations. Changing the way people think now and helping them recognize value and connect with architecture can change the tenor of future conservation efforts; if she can get today's youth to fall in love with architecture, tomorrow's City Council members and developers might have a greater penchant for preservation. That’s part of the reason she started the Next.

depot2“I wanted to create an organization that was really inspiring young people to find value in their already-existing communities,” Rispoli said. “Whether or not they seem like they are historic places, everything eventually becomes a historic place if it doesn’t get torn down.”

The other reason was the Civic Center, which was designed by Edward Killingsworth, one of Rispoli's architectural heroes. Although the City’s granting of the project bid to Plenary Edgmoore last year crushed any hope of adaptive reuse or salvaging of the quintessential Killingsworth structures, it sparked an idea in Rispoli’s mind. What if instead of trying to save buildings, she worked to change the mindsets that leads to rampant demolition by stressing the importance of architectural history to today's youth?

“At this point, people have already made up their minds about whether or not these building are important and they don’t really have a lot of faith in them,” Rispoli said, motioning to the Civic Center behind her. “I sort of realized if we had been talking to people about why these buildings are important or sustainable from a time when they were much younger, then at this point they’d be much less likely to say ‘let’s just throw them in a landfill’”

This realization was also one of the first stepping stones that led her to this evening.

For the second time in a week, Rispoli is attempting to move the 107-year-old Southern Pacific Railroad Depot, currently sitting on a trailer outside its former home at the Public Service Yard on San Francisco Avenue. With new permits (clearance of 18 feet 6 inches) to accommodate for taller, more sturdy wheels, she’s confident that round two will end in a knockout victory for preservation.

Even before the move was shut down last week due to safety concerns over the clearance of the Depot—which had its roof cut off to make it shorter—there were multiple obstacles to overcome. The building was stripped of lead and asbestos and partially deconstructed to allow for an easier move, and a map to the Depot's new home at Willow Springs Park had to be carefully drawn out to avoid conflicts with street signs and the lines that the Metro Blue Line runs on. The sheer logistics of moving a building this old took months to plan, then came the really interesting question: Do building movers still exist?

The original inquiry to possibly move the Depot came from the City’s Office of Sustainability. Lary Rich, the city’s sustainability coordinator, a co-architect of the Sustainable City Action Plan and creator of the Construction and Demolition Debris (C&D) Recycling Program—created in 2007, the program requires that 60 percent of construction waste materials be reused—contacted Rispoli’s old employer, JR Van Dijs Inc, a management company in the city specializing in adaptive reuse and historical preservation, to see if it were possible.

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“I was already involved in the project here at Willow Springs and looking for opportunities to match up historic resources with what is a historic resource of a property and I had known about the Depot for quite some time but it didn’t really gel in my mind that it needed to be moved in order to be saved and that this could be a good place for a new home for it,” Rich said.

With Rispoli being the only one with a background in preservation, currently earning her Masters in Heritage Conservation from USC, she was tapped as the construction manager of the project.

“So I really was the only one at the company that had the technical skill and background with the Secretary of Interior standards and all of those elements that go with landmarks to really be working on something like this,” Rispoli said.

The move Wednesday night was an expedited version of what the Next had originally planned. The building zipped through downtown, much faster than the originally-announced glacial pace of one mile per hour. The new permits proved to be unnecessary, as the depot scooted under overhanging street signs on Ocean, gently nudging the illuminated blue and white rectangles reading Chestnut, Pacific and Pine as it headed east to Atlantic. There were no hangups this time around, which was good for the budget, which didn’t include room for having to call out CalTrans and California Highway Patrol (CHP) employees for a third go-round.

The city granted the project just over $418,000 to cover the move, putting the building down on a new foundation and installing a new roof. After that, she’d have to generate funds to cover the restoration of both the inside and outside of the building that is set to be an interpretive use center at Willow Springs. She’s hoping to secure funds from the Long Beach Navy Memorial Heritage Association to cover the restoration of the exterior of the building and is still exploring options for how to fund the renovation and adaptive reuse of the interior.

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The term “adaptive reuse” is an alien phrase to most Americans who are used to replacing the old with the new. Rispoli said that the problem is multi-pronged. Yes, it is spurred by the country’s propensity toward consumerism, but it also deals with the relative youth of the nation that in her opinion creates a disconnect with our heritage. The Untied States’ just-under 240 years of history pales in comparison to European countries that hold their history, and by extension, historical architecture, dear. They integrate medieval buildings and cathedrals with contemporary ones because of logistics, but also because of pride, something the Next is working to instill in Long Beach and surrounding communities.

“It happens because they feel a sense of identity with their history, they’re proud people and have a strong cultural identity and that protects their historic resources,” Rispoli said. “If we had a stronger cultural identity here, then we would have that same connotation.”

The Depot move was made easier by the City, and in particular, Rich’s embracing of the ideas of recycling and adaptive reuse. The fact that the city had a C&D program in 2007 was both rare and ahead of the curve according to Rispoli. But the recent implementation of the Adaptive Reuse Incentive Program in January 2014—much like the one Los Angeles implemented 15 years ago to convert its vacant office spaces to residential, leading to the massive revitalization of its downtown core—allows for the streamlining of many of the permitting and zoning pitfalls that make tearing down a building more palatable in other cities.

“It shows how the city was really wanting to go the extra length to promote the idea of adaptive reuse in private development which is a mechanism of preserving historic buildings,” Rich said. “To me, this is an example that the city is willing to practice what it preaches.”

Rich added that since 2007, the programs that Long Beach installed have become more prevalent, with C&D programs becoming much more common, which is a good thing. And even prior to the adaptive reuse ordinance being enacted last January, the city had already done a lot of work in order to preserve and reuse existing structures.

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“That’s certainly something that we want to see,” Rich said. “We don’t want to be the only city doing this. We want to be a model for other cities and see it everywhere.”

The ordinance provides a framework for how a space or building can be nominated and converted for reuse, but it also goes beyond the State’s Historic Building Code to include non-historic structures as candidates for reuse. Previous examples in the city include The Attic on Broadway transitioning from residential to restaurant, the Walker Building downtown going from commercial to residential as well as projects Rispoli has previously had a hand in: the rehabilitation of the Royal Palms Apartments on 1st and Atlantic, City Hall East and turning the American Hotel on Broadway into a mixed-use space.

“It makes it much more convenient if you’re looking to reuse a plot of land or reuse a building if you can re-zone it,” Rispoli said of adaptive use ordinances. “If you can turn an old store into an office you can increase its likelihood of being successful.”

Keeping buildings out of the dump is a win-win for Rispoli. Citing the nearly one billion square feet of buildings that are demolished every year in the US, Rispoli said that it comes down to much more than keeping materials out of landfill. Because the Depot, which was built the same year as the Gamble House in Pasadena, is in “shockingly great condition,” as many buildings from that era were constructed with materials that surpass what new growth trees can provide. You save buildings and trees with adaptive reuse.

“It’s not just the amount of pounds saved from the landfill,but also the amount of environmental impact of not having to build a new visitor center,” Rispoli said.

Video by Jason Ruiz

When the Roosevelt Naval Base was demolished in 1998, Rispoli likened it to a nail in the coffin for preservationists ever wanting to work in Long Beach again. She notes getting calls from professionals working in the field saying they’d stopped taking calls pertaining to structures in the city decades ago; “it was a losing battle and not worth it,” Rispoli recounted.

She’s hopeful that with the efforts of the Office of Sustainability, increased education and advocacy, and her work with the Next, Long Beach will no longer be seen as a place where historical buildings are inevitably torn down and replaced. She’s written extensively about the architecture at Cal State Long Beach, and admits that she’d love to create an education program on campus, if not preserve the structural heritage of her alma mater altogether. The Depot though, is a start.

As the CHP convoy and building movers started to vacate the darkened lot at Willow Springs, Rispoli sat atop a mulch pile at the yet-to-be-opened park. With the Depot sitting at the base of the pile, finally moved to its new home where it will be teaching tool of the city’s history, it seemed like the weight of the structure had been lifted off her small shoulders. Preservation, once considered an afterthought by outsiders to this city, is happening in Long Beach, and she’s glad to give the naysayers her historical grand tour to prove it.

“I’m really proud to be based here and to let people know that there’s stuff happening here,” Rispoli said. “I want Long Beach to really take credit for this strong foundation we’re creating in the new preservation movement in Los Angeles County. I like that it’s starting here, because Long Beach for so long has been off the radar preservation-wise.”



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