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The McMansion Fight: Soon a Neighborhood of Kleenex Boxes

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CARTHAY SQUARE-As I stood across the street from the two-story framed box being built on my block and raised a camera to record its enormous size, a young carpenter swung down off the second story and ran towards me, his hammer still in his hand.  “Why are you taking pictures,” he demanded.  Respecting the hammer more than the carpenter, who I would later learn, was the developer of the property, I lied to him that I really loved the design of the new building.  The opposite, unfortunately, is true.  

In Carthay Square I have been part of a movement for over ten years now which proposes to protect the architectural character of the buildings in the neighborhood by establishing a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone, (HPOZ).  In the 12 block neighborhood comprising 347 homes, mostly a mixture of Spanish Eclectic, English Tudor style cottages with clinker brick chimneys and 1-story bungalows, no house has up to now been built with a two-car attached garage accessed from the front of the house.  

Our young builder, with approval from the City, had to chop down a fifty foot street tree to clear the driveway into the garage.  To me, the tree was as important to the look of our street as the structure of the new house itself.  The house is a modernist design, a McMansion in the style of a Kleenex box with huge areas of glass that many readers of this article have seen popping up all over Los Angeles.  

On each side of this two-story structure and dwarfed by it were the clay-tiled roofs of homes built between 1924 and 1936, technically known as the “period of significance,” when most of the homes in our area were originally developed. 

It’s not an easy task to go about instituting a zoning change.  But up until four years ago, the Planning Department with its Office of Historic Resources, had been promoting this program city wide.  

Community meetings were held with planners stepping out from behind their office desks to discuss the virtues of preservation and conservation.  Guidelines were published called “Preservation Plans” that were unique to each individual neighborhood in the program.  Review Boards were established with one-member representing the Neighborhood Association, but also with participation by professionals appointed by the City to guide development in ways that would reinforce the look of a community rather than destroy it.  As of this writing there are 31 designated HPOZ’s in the City of Los Angeles.  The zoning restriction offers the strongest protection so far against inappropriate development.  

For many home-owners their private property is the largest investment they will ever make.  To restrict its appearance and development flies in the face of a principle that can be summarized by the phrase, “my house is my castle.”  This was true in the neighboring community of Carthay Circle, now an HPOZ.  One owner actually built himself a stone castle complete with turrets, crenellations, and heavy chains flanked by cast-stone lions. This whimsical structure was a turning point in that neighborhood.  I have visited a board meeting of the Carthay Circle HPOZ and have been impressed by the interaction between owners and city planners.    

In my Carthay Square neighborhood, we also have a bit of whimsy.  In the 1000 block of Hayworth just south of Olympic an owner has constructed an Egyptian mausoleum in the style of Third Dynasty architect, Imhotep, who lived 2700 years BC.   As we did our architectural survey, we learned that adjacent to the mausoleum there are 17 historic duplexes designed by the architect S.Charles Lee, designer of the Los Angeles Theater in 1931, and of about 400 other movie theaters throughout California and Mexico. Lee built his own house on Hayworth Ave. and lived here during this time in Carthay Square. 

In December of 2010 our neighborhood won a matching grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to complete our work to obtain a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone.  It was not a huge amount of money, $7850, and we were able to match it through generous donations from Councilmember Paul Koretz, from the Carthay Square Neighborhood Association, and from private parties.  The money went to hire an architect who was qualified by the City to evaluate our housing stock.  The rest involved thousands of volunteer hours from our committee to prepare a survey of individual properties and to document what we found.  


 

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We also wrote a history of our neighborhood in the form of a Context Statement.  The architect, Katie Horak at ARG, judged that our neighborhood was indeed qualified to become a HPOZ.  Her Draft Report in 2012 stated that over 90% of the structures in our area were of significance.  The housing was originally designed by developer/builders on small lots reflecting the expansion of our City on a path of transportation along Eulalia Avenue now named San Vicente Blvd, as Los Angeles stretched westward toward the sea.  

We got to the stage where the Planning Department was holding public meetings to discuss the content of our Preservation Plan.  That was in the early months of 2012.  Then everything went on hold. We were told there was not enough staff in the Office of Historic Preservation to write the Plan or to administer it.  We were told to wait.  This was not a problem during a recession when there was a lull in building construction.  It has become a concern recently as the house up the block has been completed and is now up for sale as are a number of properties down the block. So we visited the open house.T

he new house is very open and airy with high ceilings and expensive finishes.  The developer was there, this time without a hammer.  First he complained how unkind the neighbors had been to him during construction.  Then he told me he had done everything according to code.  

When I said that the City requires a developer to plant two trees to replace the tree he had taken down in the parkway, he explained that he had provided the two trees but the City had chosen not to replant them.  

The City comes up again and again in these discussions, whether it be about HPOZ or a revision to the Mansionization Ordinance.  It seems impossible to get planning officials to fulfill their responsibilities in spite of 10 years of community initiative.  

We need the Office of Historic Resources to allow our and other pending HPOZ’s to finally move forward.  We need a Preservation Plan in Carthay Square to be approved quickly and to stop so called mini-mansions from replacing historic housing.

 

(Peter Merlin is a Carthay Square neighborhood resident.)

-cw

 

 

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 12 Issue 73

Pub: Sep 9, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

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