Lessons from Beverly Grove’s Successful Fight against McMansions

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-On July 14, 2016, the Los Angeles City Planning Commission will consider proposed amendments to the Baseline and Hillside Mansionization Ordinances. As explained in previous City Watch articles, a unanimously adopted City Council motion directed the Department of City Planning to revise the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance by removing bonuses and exemptions that contribute to mansionization. 

Apparently City Planning only got the first part of this message because through many months of ordinance preparation, they have gradually reverted to their tried and true model, gradually slip in mansionization loopholes, whether bonuses or exemptions advanced by real estate developers, even when opposed by nearly all neighborhood residents and organizations. 

As this showdown over the fate of LA’s neighborhoods comes closer, we can learn about the day-to-day realities of mansionization in Los Angeles, including repeated claims and the counterclaims, by examining the Beverly Grove Residential Floor Area District (RFA).  It is now nearly three two years old, and it contains, by the far, the toughest anti-mansionization provisions in Los Angeles, aside from Historical Perseveration Overlay Zones and several residential Specific Plans. 

Beverly Grove RFA historical lessons to date: 

  1. The ordinance provisions that the City Planning staff, alongside the City Planning Commission and the City Council added to the original 2008 Baseline Mansionization Ordinance in 2008 were billed as design enhancements that would curb the visual impact of larger houses. This claim, often advanced by architects, was that articulated front facades, stepped back second stories, breezeways, decks, and balconies reduce the harsh visual impact of McMansions. But, in practice, it was all a hoax. 

These so-called design features were nothing more than loopholes that allowed developers to increase the size of houses by 42 percent through secret ministerial decisions conducted by the Department of Building and Safety (LADBS). To this day, in fact, no one knows what loopholes LADBS used to approve building permits for the thousands of McMansions built in Los Angeles over the past decade. 

  1. When the hard data, including photographs, was presented to the City Planning Commission (CPC) for mansionization in Beverly Grove, the CPC readily conceded that the mansionization bonuses and exemptions they had celebrated five years earlier had totally failed. They even complimented Beverly Grove residents on their thorough case and approved forthwith the Beverly Grove Residential Floor Area District. 
  1. The Beverly Grove RFA episode then became the basis for a unanimous City Council motion directing City Planning to remove the loopholes from the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance. City Planning’s initial response was to take up that challenge and also fold-in the closely related Hillside Mansionization Ordinance. 

Beverly Grove practical lessons to date: 

  1. During the ten years of organizing to stop mansionization, Beverly Grove residents, including their neighborhood association, the Beverly Grove Homes Association (BWHA) never gave up. The residents and the BWHA wrote many articles for City Watch, had repeated contact with reporters and columnists at the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly, and became regulars at Council District 5. They also maintained a professional demeanor and attempted to restrain any rancor towards elected officials, even in the case of former Councilmember Jack Weiss, who was in cahoots with the mansionizers. 
  1. As a result of continued reinvention or their organizing activities, the Beverly Grove community disposed of a phony pro-mansionization astro-turf organization (i.e., top down groups pretending to be grass roots associations) created by some realtors and contractors. The residents also beat back the astro-turf organization’s nuisance lawsuit. To little surprise the astro-turf group pulled up it tent and disappeared into the night the moment the City Council adopted the Beverly Grove Residential Floor Area District. Their POB and web-site also soon vanished. 
  1. Like all other neighborhoods in LA, the mansionizers made a host of the sky-is-falling claims about ordinances that restrict mansionization. In the nearly three years that the Beverly Grove RFA has been in force, all of these claims have been totally disproven by reality. 

The mansionizers claimed the RFA would reduce property values, but, like other RFA’ and HPOZs, local Beverly Grove home values have soared over the past three years. The only trend that can be observed is that houses next to Beverly Grove’s 75 McMansions have not appreciated at the same rate. 

The mansionizers claimed that real estate activity would stall in the Beverly Grove neighborhood, but the same realtors are still hard at work with the same door knocking, mailers, flyers, and ads. They still are shilling with form letters designed to look like hand-written notes from people who claim they want to move into the neighborhood and desperately want to buy a house. 

The mansionizers’ claim that McMansions are built by local residents who need more space has also been shown to be bogus. All of the Beverly Grove McMansions are spec houses, and no local resident demolished their house, moved into a rental property for a one or two years, built a McMansion on the suddenly empty lots, and then moved back to the neighborhood. Instead, the local residents who sold out to the mansionizers sheepishly disappeared, probably loading up moving vans with their prized possessions in the dark of cold and windy nights. 

The mansionizers claimed that McMansions are designed for large, multi-generational families, but the people buying the McMansions have the same family size as other residents. McMansions filled with large multi-generational families were just a fiction. 

Finally, the mansionizers often repeated claim that they are only building to meet a market demand has also not held up. The McMansions sell more frequently than older houses, and often sit vacant for many months with for sale signs. In some cases, the lack of demand caused builders to move into their empty houses, and in other cases turn them into party houses or short-term rentals. 

The real upshot of these lessons in that local campaigns against mansionization must charge on for years and be continually, but not arrogantly, in the face of elected officials and City Planning staff. 

A second conclusion is that the repeated claims of mansionizers are nothing more than self-serving hot air. They constantly make the same bogus Chicken Little opinions, no matter how many times they are rebutted by opponents, or, in the current case, by empirical reality. They nevertheless plod on in the hopes they can eke out a few more spec houses before a new, effective mansionization ordinance finally puts the kibosh on their slimy business model. 

Finally, a third conclusion is that any decisions to add size and bulk to a house beyond what is allowed by-right, must not be a ministerial LADBS decision, but must go through City Planning as a discretionary action.

 

(Dick Platkin writes on Los Angeles city planning issues for CityWatch. He lives in Beverly Grove, and is a Board Member of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association. Please send any comments or corrections to rhplatkin@gmail.com) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.