Santa Anita Considered for National Register of Historic Places

In a move that could have significance on any future development plans for Santa Anita Park, a California commission has recommended that the track be made eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

The Santa Anita Companies, Inc., owner of the 304-acre property as part of Frank Stronach's Magna Entertainment Corp., opposed the nomination and as a result, Santa Anita cannot be placed on the National Register, according to Cynthia Howse, an acting supervisor and historian for the California Office of Historic Preservation.

However, on a 4-3 vote May 5 in Sacramento with one abstention and one absence, the commission found Santa Anita "significant and eligible" to be registered. The recommendation will be forwarded to the U.S. National Parks Service's Keeper of the Register for a final determination. Its eligibility was based on two factors -- Santa Anita's role in the history of California horseracing following the sport's legalization in 1933 and for its part as a detention area when Japanese Americans on the West Coat were deemed dangerous to the United States and confined during World War II.

Were it to be deemed eligible by the Keeper of the Register -- which has 45 days to review the nomination after receiving the recommendation -- all future development at the Arcadia, Calif., track would be subject to local planning review and restrictions as an historical resource, Howse said.

Westfield Corp. Inc., which owns a large shopping mall adjacent to Santa Anita, made the nomination. Hollywood Heritage, Los Angeles Conservancy, Pasadena Heritage, the Japanese American National Museum and others supported it. Magna Entertainment ran afoul of many of the region's historical preservation groups in 1999 when it removed a portion of the track's art deco fa├žade to make way for elevator towers to a new clubhouse restaurant, The Frontrunner, which now occupies a significant section of the original grandstand.

Magna now is proposing "The Shops at Santa Anita," a retail and entertainment development of 1.1 million square feet on a largely deserted parking lot south of the track's grandstand. The development, to be built by Caruso Affiliated, faces stiff opposition from Westfield, which sits in plain view of the proposed site. The promenade project -- to include upscale shops, restaurants, a community performing arts center and theater complex -- in a park-like setting is currently in environmental impact review. Residential units, part of the original plan when it was announced by Stronach two years ago, have been dropped due to objections from the surrounding community.

Brian Cornelius, vice president for tenant and construction services for Caruso Affiliated, said a change in historical designation would have little practical effect on the project. He said Magna and Caruso acknowledge the importance of Santa Anita to the region's history and would have preferred to "enter into discussions with the preservationists rather than be part of a political process.

"They see it as a victory ... and there may be some public relations value in it for Westfield because they can say we were opposed to being placed on the Register and that makes us look like the bad guys," he said. "But it isn't really much protection. You just have to make it part of the (EIR) process."

Christy Johnson McAvoy, principal for the Historic Resources Group, the spokeswoman for the preservation groups, was out of town this week and did not respond to an e-mail message. A representative for Westfield could not be reached for comment.