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Tue, May

One More ‘Last Stand’ against Mansionization in Los Angeles!

LOS ANGELES

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-The City Planning Commission hearing on amendments to the two citywide mansionization ordinances – the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance (BMO) and the Baseline Hillside Ordinance (BHO) -- took place on Thursday, July 14, 2016. To get a full report on what transpired, please open this link.  

If you are concerned about mansionization -- the hasty and often illegal demolition of smaller, less expensive houses to clear building pads for pricey, oversized, out-of-character McMansions -- then these amendments are the big one. In Los Angeles, the mansionization process began in the Beverly Grove neighborhood, where I live, over a decade ago, but has since spread over the entire city. Contractors have bulldozed thousands of well-priced, middle class homes to make way for a crowd with apparently with more money than taste. 

With plenty of City Council and City Planning Department support behind them, the investors, contractors, and realtors in the mansionization business have been able to neutralize six previous attempts to stop McMansions by smothering them in loopholes. As a result, there has not even been a blip in the number of affordable houses demolished and then replaced by extremely expensive, intrusive monster houses in more and more LA neighborhoods. 

In this relentless cycle of real estate speculation, the only areas able to protect neighborhood character and scale are about 30 Historical Preservation Overlay Zones (e.g. Hancock Park), several residential Specific Plans (e.g. Mount Washington), and four neighborhoods with Residential Floor Area Districts (e.g., Beverly Grove).

While important, these zoning overlay ordinances only shield small areas. They oil loud squeaky wheels so truly awful planning practices can roll through the rest of Los Angeles unperturbed by multiple anti-mansionization policies in adopted and approved city planning documents. 

While these local anti-mansionization ordinances cannot unring a bell, they can at least protect the remaining homes in a handful of neighborhoods. But that also means that the rest of Los Angeles will not have dependable protection against mansionization until the City Council adopts a strong, citywide anti-mansionization ordinance. The current BMO-BHO amendments could finally provide that protection, but it will be a knock down, drag out fight over the coming months. Many neighborhood David’s are already facing off against a small army of Philistines, who are in league with City Hall decision makers taken in by the mansionizers’ frequently repeated but always debunked talking points.  

Breaking news: The City Planning Department recently issued their staff report for the Thursday hearing, and it does have some good points: 

  • It recommends reducing by-right FAR from 0.50 to 0.45 on R1 lots of less than 7,500 square feet. 
  • It calls for the full elimination of the exemption for covered porches, patios, and breezeways. 
  • It calls for public hearings for all waivers (10% Zoning Administrator Adjustments) decided by the Department of City Planning. 

But the staff report falls far short in other key ways: 

  • In hundreds of public comments and letters, Angelinos living in “the flats” identified the exclusion of attached garages from a house’s floor area (a 400 square foot freebie for mansionizers) as the single most damaging loophole. Even the City Planning staff report concedes that this has been “one of the most requested changes” and that if included, it would encourage detached garages with driveways that “provide increased separation between houses.” We would also add that the elimination of this loophole results in smaller houses. 
  • But city planners recommend keeping the exemption for attached garage space, even though the City Council expressly directed City Planning to eliminate all loopholes that promoted mansionization. 
  • Communities in the hillsides that are covered by the Hillside Mansionization Ordinance asked, above all, that the City drop the 1,000 square foot floor area minimum for non-conforming lots and tighten grading and hauling allowances. 

But city planners recommend keeping the 1,000 square foot minimum, as well as excessive grading and hauling allowances. 

Communities with larger lots (RA, RS, and RE zones), such as Tarzana, first and foremost requested that the City eliminate the same square footage bonus loopholes in their zones that they removed in R1 zones. 

But the city planners recommended keeping these bonuses, asserting that larger lot sizes and smaller FARs “make these zones better able to accommodate” the bonuses/loopholes. The bigger question, why there should even be a secret (ministerial) process to enlarge houses above their initial by-right size without a public, discretionary process, was, of course, not asked and not answered. 

Finally, all LA neighborhoods repeatedly requested that City Hall keep the amended mansionization ordinances as short, straightforward, and enforceable as possible. They knew, from bitter first hand experience, that LA’s Department of Building and Safety cannot understand and/or will not enforce the most basic mansionization provisions, such as the required posting of demolition and construction permits. They know that anything exceeding a barebones mansionization ordinance will be easily gamed by the mansionizers. 

They also realized that the inclusion of new design features lifted from re:code LA, encroachment planes and side wall articulation, are nothing more than lipstick on a pig. These are complicated, hard-to-enforce design provisions whose rationale, camouflaging bloated houses, is a myth. They are no different than the existing loopholes that the Council ordered City Planning to eliminate from the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance because they promoted mansionization. The locals know these design gimmicks utterly failed over the past eight years, and they will not work if again forced upon LA’s neighborhoods. Like before, they are nothing more than a recipe for further mansionization pretending to be fancy architectural doodads.

The first draft of the current BMO/BHO amendments in October 2015 received over 600 responses, and the Planning Department reported that these comments favored tighter limits on McMansions by a margin of almost 4-to-1. The second draft drew over 1000 responses, and there is no reason to think that public sentiment suddenly changed in favor of loopholes, whether old or new. 

But the Planning Department’s summary of “the most representative comments” pairs every objection to its reinstatement of loopholes with an opposing comment, while leaving out any mention of relative frequency, the actual validity of claims and counter-claims, and the instructions of the City Council. 

At the hearing on Thursday, speculators and realtors were expected to be out in force. Some of them have a simple, short-term outlook based on making a quick buck, regardless of the consequences for other people. Others are simply so ignorant they have not noticed that the neighborhoods with the highest property values are those, like the HPOZ’s, that protect neighborhood character. Finally, others clothe their greed in long-winded architectural discourses that boil down to “wear shirts with vertical stripes if you want to appear thinner.”
NEXT STEPS: We all know what we need to do: Show up at the hearing!  And, after the hearing, submit testimony directly to the City Planning Department, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council. This way, your testimony will be contained in the official file forwarded to the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Committee (PLUM) for its public hearing on the same amendments. Plus, you can also present your testimony again at the PLUM hearing. These are the City of LA staff that you should contact. Remember to include CF 14-0656 in the subject line. 

City Planning Commission: [email protected]

City Council PLUM Committee: [email protected]

Tom Rothmann:   [email protected]

Nicholas Marrakech: [email protected]

Phyllis Nathanson:   [email protected] 

Niall Huffman: [email protected]

Another round of emailed public testimony will show support for meaningful reform of LA’s repeatedly flawed efforts to stop mansionization. 

For further information on the next stages in the adoption process, this website will have all the information you need.

 

(Dick Platkin is a former LA City Planner who reports on local planning issues for City Watch. He welcomes comment and corrections at [email protected]. He also thanks Shelley Wagers, who wrote an earlier version of this column.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

 

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