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Not a Tuscan Villa: The “Encino Surprise” Can Happen to You


MORE ANGST IN THE ‘HOOD – I always chuckle a little when I read Christopher Hawthorne, the LA Times’ architecture writer, critiquing the design of a proposed development in Los Angeles.  I chuckle not because Hawthorne is funny (though sometimes he is), but because so often the initial building designs we see from developers are no more likely to resemble what’s actually built than I am to win the lottery this weekend.  In LA, the promise of a project design is no guarantee that it will be.

Unlike the mass and scale of developments, which are dictated by the zoning code, design is generally not regulated by the city.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the unpredictability that sometimes results is one of the prime causes of angst in our neighborhoods … the notion that you can go to sleep at night feeling secure about your neighborhood aesthetic, but wake up the next morning and risk a conniption at the sight of something so totally unexpected it sends you over the edge.

It’s particularly galling when the building was approved to be bigger or taller than the zoning code allows, and when the developer promised a particular design but then changed it without informing the community.

There’s no better example of this phenomenon than the “Encino Surprise,” a mixed-use commercial and residential building that opened last year on Ventura Boulevard.  The “Gold Mountain Project” (perhaps so called because a mountain had to be leveled for the developer to extract the gold) was approved with a zoning variance and a Specific Plan exception that enabled a bigger building with more units.

The project was met with stiff opposition from homeowners and businesses concerned about a variety of issues.

Through the entitlement process, the developer stood by a design proposal that showed residential units stepping down, in tiers, as if built into the hillside.  The Tuscan villa façade was a modern play on a classic … you could imagine the Mediterranean out the front door!  On some days, when the neighbors fighting the project felt like nothing was going their way, they at least could find some consolation in the design.  It was the project’s saving grace.  Or so they thought.

Fast-forward five years, and the project is finally under construction.  As it takes shape, neighbors notice that the building’s frame doesn’t reflect the contours of the rendered image.  As the façade is constructed, they realize the look is different, too, with no relation whatsoever to the Tuscan villa with which they had felt comfortable.

Said one nearby resident of the emerging building: “[It’s] a disgrace to architecture and a shame and a slap on the face to all people that had anything to do with its development.  What happened to the Mediterranean design we were expecting?”

“Who ok’d this?” asked another neighbor.

Well, the fact is no one ok’d the design modification because no approval was required.  The building is in an area with no design standards (typical of most of the city).  The developer, be it the original applicant or some other builder who may come along, can alter the look as he sees fit.

In this case, despite the implied promise from the developer, no meaningful design conditions were made mandatory as part of the project’s approval.  Yet everyone associated with the project knew full well the community’s expectation, and project design was considered one of the trade-offs as the discretionary entitlements were hammered out.

Clearly, the city councilman whose office was involved in negotiating project conditions failed the community by not binding the developer to the design given its relative importance.  And the developer failed the community by not voluntarily sharing the new design with the neighborhood council or homeowners associations, not even with key individual stakeholders who were involved initially.

This story isn’t about what constitutes acceptable design; that’s in the eye of the beholder.  Nor is it a plea for one-size-fits-all design standards; they would not work in Los Angeles.

No, this story is about being surprised, and not in a good way.  When there are discretionary entitlements and design is a critical concern, there should be no surprises.  It’s very reasonable to bake mandatory design conditions into the mix, and to ask the developer to come back to the community if he proposes a significant change.

In the interest of predictability and respect for neighborhoods, many other cities consider this operating procedure standard.  To their credit, some community-minded LA developers do it as a matter of course.  But they are the exception, not the norm.  In a city where the Encino Surprise can happen to you, any day, it’s no wonder development remains a continual source of angst in the ‘hood.

(Cary Brazeman, a CityWatch contributor, is a neighborhood council board member and founder of LA Neighbors United.  Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or through www.LAneighbors.org .) -cw

Tags: Tuscan Surprise, Encino, developer, councilman, Zoning Code, Los Angeles

CityWatch

Vol 9 Issue 54

Pub: July 8, 2011

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