The Los Angeles City Planning Commission last Thursday voted 4 to 1 to approve the Mt. Washington-Glassell Park Specific Plan, a sweeping array of building rules that would limit and shape the construction of new hillside houses.
The decision capped a three-year tug of war between city planners and neighborhood leaders over the type of building rules that should be imposed in a 2.75-square-mile area that includes about 8,000 housing lots.
In last week's vote, the plan's citizens advisory committee won a key victory over the size of new hillside houses. The Planning Commission rejected a construction formula proposed by the city staff and approved the rival building rules favored by the community panel.
The neighborhood leaders scored mixed results on other provisions of the proposed development guide.
The commission sided with the citizens committee on front-yard setbacks, but backed the city staff by eliminating downzoning and a scenic view corridor proposal. On other issues, such as special protection for ridgelines, the commission rejected proposals from both the staff and the committee.
After the meeting, however, neighborhood leaders said they were particularly pleased that the commission endorsed their innovative formula to limit the size of new hillside houses.
"I actually feel vindicated," said Louis Mraz, an architect who is president of the Mt. Washington Assn. and a member of the citizens advisory committee.
He said the advisory committee's formula will do a better job of halting "mansionization"--the construction of mammoth houses that are out of scale with the surrounding neighborhood. The committee used a measurement called floor-area ratio and a height limit to restrict the size of new hillside houses.
Mraz said city planners originally presented the floor-area ratio formula to the committee, which adapted it for the northeast area neighborhoods. "Then another level of bureaucracy in the Planning Department tried to throw it out," he said. "But four out of the five planning commissioners thought it was a pretty neat idea."
Some critics of the formula have vowed to challenge it later this year when the City Council considers final approval of the Mt. Washington plan. But the council is unlikely to reverse the Planning Commission's decision on the building size rules because Councilman Richard Alatorre, who represents part of the plan area, supports them.
If a majority of the council approves, the hillside neighborhoods of Mt. Washington and Glassell Park will be the first in the city to use this formula.
"It's a major event in planning in the city of Los Angeles," said Diego Cardoso, an aide to Alatorre.
Before the vote last week, Planning Director Melanie Fallon urged the commission to adopt a different formula to restrict hillside building citywide.
Fallon argued that different building rules in different hillside communities could create confusion. "We have to take care that we don't end up with a cut-and-paste planning system," she said.
But commission President William G. Luddy said special building rules for Mt. Washington were a good idea, "given what I think are some of the unique characteristics of the area."
The semi-rural hillside community, with steep and narrow streets, has many moderately sized older houses that were designed for the neighborhood's rugged terrain.
If the advisory committee's new hillside formula works in Mt. Washington, it could be used in other Los Angeles neighborhoods with special development problems, commission members said.
"If we never venture out and try something different, we may never find out if there's another solution to our problems," Planning Commissioner William R. Christopher said.
Commissioner Theodore Stein Jr. cast the sole vote against the advisory committee's formula and against the specific plan as a whole. He said he did not believe that Mt. Washington's development problems were dramatically different from those of other rugged areas such as the Hollywood Hills and the Santa Monica Mountains.
"I have a problem with adopting a different standard for Mt. Washington," Stein said.
The plan was also criticized by some residents and builders, who vowed to challenge it before the City Council. "I plan to fight it every step of the way," said Henry Marshall, a Glassell Park resident who has built several large houses in Mt. Washington.
Marshall said the committee's formula will result in small, less stable houses in Mt. Washington. He said it will also make it more difficult for him to build the 6,500-square-foot dream house that he and his extended family hope to occupy.
He disputed the mansionization arguments. "I think it's kind of hypocritical for a person to say that because I live in a small house that you should also live in a small house," Marshall said. "That's un-American."
The advisory committee had mixed success with its other proposals.