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Down with the old and up with the huge

Mansionization irks some residents even as it aids city budgets.

July 20, 2003|Michelle Hofmann | Special to The Times

From SUVs to fast food, Americans love to go big. And homes are no exception. Lack of inventory and a shortage of raw land in many areas have owners and developers tearing down older homes to accommodate the preference for more square footage.

Although building a larger home on the footprint of a smaller structure is not a new concept, the practice is creating a stir among Southern California residents and leaving some areas with an architectural identity crisis as quaint charmers fall beneath the shadows of larger neighbors.

From beachside villages to tonier towns, teardowns are a welcome source of increased property tax revenues. But growing concern about the "bash-and-build" trend in Hancock Park and Windsor Square, for instance, prompted the Los Angeles City Council in April to approve an interim control ordinance, a yearlong ban that regulates demolition permits that would change more than 51% of the existing structure of homes in the two neighborhoods.

Jim Wolf, president of the Hancock Park Homeowners Assn., said a rise in the number of leveled homes there, which increased from three in 1998 to eight last year, coupled with the "mansionization" of various teardowns in recent years, raised eyebrows among some residents. But two things happened to mobilize homeowners: A "demolition derby" in 1998 and '99 razed three properties designed by famed architect Paul R. Williams, and many in the neighborhood united to protest plans to demolish a house and rebuild it as a synagogue.

"We are finally coming to the conclusion that we have something to preserve," said Hancock Park resident Marguerite Byrne, who has lived in the area for 36 years.

During the ordinance's interim,Wolf said, Hancock Park, which lies close to the heart of Los Angeles, is being evaluated for eligibility as a historic preservation overlay zone, a designation that creates a review board and allows stricter zoning regulations on the external facade of a building or property in a historic district. Windsor Square also is being considered for eligibility.

"Having the zone doesn't prevent modifications," Wolf said, "but it acts as a check on what is going to happen in the home."

Preservationists hope to save vintage properties built in the 1920s and '30s, which account for about 80% of the area's 1,207 homes. Liberal zoning regulations have enabled builders to tear down stately 4,000-square-foot homes, Wolf said, and replace them with monster-mansions twice that size. The homes appear "to virtually fill the lot, " he added, and dwarf neighboring properties.

Loss of sunlight, privacy and mature trees are common complaints among residents in areas with high teardown activity, according to Jim Lindberg, who co-wrote "Taming the Teardown," a report by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Loss of value also could be an issue for adjacent owners, Lindberg said. "If that teardown overshadows its neighbor, then you have really reduced the value of that existing home," he said. "So then its only value becomes its land."

However, Lou Bourgeois, owner of Manhattan Beach-based Bourgeois Development LLC, said many older homes aren't worth as much as the land under them.

Rather than destroying the character of a property, the former insurance industry fire claims adjuster believes that most developers improve property values by recycling community eyesores.

"Rarely do we tear down a home that has a nice character," Bourgeois said. "Most developers are going after homes that people wouldn't want to live in anyway."

Bourgeois said his most recent investment was so dilapidated that the city wanted to condemn the property. He purchased the 75,000-square-foot north Redondo Beach lot, which contained a pair of two-bedroom, one-bath homes built in the 1950s, for $460,000 in March and plans to build two 2,400-square-foot, four-bedroom, 3.5-bath homes and sell them for $700,000 each next year.

To determine if buying a teardown will be profitable, Lindberg said developers and real estate agents use "a rule of three." The newly built home should sell for three times the original purchase price. A developer who buys a house for $270,000, pays $30,000 to demolish the property, spends $400,000 to build and sells the home for three times the purchase price could earn about $100,000 profit, Lindberg said.

Julianne Worrell, co-owner of Worrell Realty in Pasadena, said owners and developers who rebuild in an architectural style consistent with the neighborhood stand the best chance of profiting.

"But if you build a giant-jumbo house that is inconsistent with the architecture of the area, you would probably lose money, because typically most buyers are looking for that charm," she said. "If a house misses the mark on charm, forget about it."

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