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To Many in Laguna Beach, That Mansion Was Too Much

Some blame the home for the slide, but experts doubt that. Still, it's seen as building excess.

June 03, 2005|Dan Weikel and Jeff Gottlieb | Times Staff Writers

It sat on an unstable hillside, 6,300 square feet of concrete, stucco and glass overlooking the ocean -- an embodiment of the California dream, and to some an oversized symbol of coastal development run amok.

By Bluebird Canyon standards, the low-slung modernist house at 925 Oriole Drive in Laguna Beach was a palace that dominated the hillside like a miniature Getty Center, dwarfing nearby homes.

But the mansion, built by investors in 2001, never sold and had never been occupied. Defects riddled the property, and the super-sized house insulted the sensibilities of some local residents who dubbed it "the mausoleum" and thought it too big for the geologically sensitive area.

The "Sinatra house" -- so named by locals based on false rumors that relatives of singer Frank Sinatra owned the property -- is now a wreck, its once-sleek lines a jumble of obtuse angles. It was among the roughly 18 homes destroyed or badly damaged in Wednesday's landslide in Bluebird Canyon. The home's size immediately fueled speculation that the structure somehow led to the slope's failure.

Geologists doubt that theory, but the home's demise struck a deeper nerve as well. Some people in town consider it a sign of what has gone wrong with Laguna Beach in recent years -- large-scale construction projects that are slowly eroding the quaint charm of the seaside community.

"The city is in too much of a hurry to let the real estate industry make money," said Roger Von Butow, a Laguna Beach resident and environmental activist. "People say that these are their dream homes. But obviously some of these dreams are becoming nightmares."

Laguna Beach, with a population of 24,500, has been wrestling with a significant identity crisis. Increasing affluence is forcing out the storybook village atmosphere. Craftsman cottages and simple stucco houses are giving way to palatial homes of blocky contemporary design and lavish developments such as the Montage Resort & Spa.

Local environmentalists and other community activists lament that Laguna is not the same place where civic leaders and residents once stood arm-in-arm to protect open space from large-scale development.

In recent years, some of that frustration has been directed at 925 Oriole Drive -- an unsold "spec" house that has been beset by construction problems, unpaid taxes and creditors seeking millions of dollars.

County property records show the house is owned by the 925 Oriole limited liability partnership. They list the president as Barbara A. Sinatra of Laguna Niguel, who happens to share a name with Frank Sinatra's widow.

The name led to the mistaken belief in Laguna that the entertainer's family owned the house.

"I have no idea how that rumor got started," said Frank Sinatra's granddaughter, Amanda Erlinger, 29, an artist who lives in Laguna Beach. "The last thing we want is people in this community being upset with us or the family for land we have nothing to do with."

The mansion is like many that have gone up in Laguna during the recent housing boom -- grand hillside homes that appeal to young millionaires and professionals.

"That's the bling to them," said Mike Folgheraiter, an Orange County Realtor. "They want that curb appeal -- when you drive up the hill and say ... 'This is my crib.' It means a lot to the younger person with the image."

But even before the house went up, its proposed design irked many Bluebird Canyon residents. They showed up in droves at city Design Review Board meetings in June 1998 with pictures of the ocean views they would lose permanently. Others said the proposed home's scale wouldn't fit into the neighborhood.

Bluebird Canyon contains many bungalows and smaller ranch-style houses, most from the 1950s and '60s. Most are 2,000 to 2,500 square feet -- about a third of the size of 925 Oriole.

Longtime Laguna homeowners Joseph and Jeannette Peterson also noted to city officials that the property was near slide areas. They questioned whether grading and construction would make the hills unstable.

"Is this a possibility?" the Petersons wrote to the Design Review Board.

Geological reports on file at City Hall show the property is both on and near old, inactive landslides, including the site of the 1978 slide that destroyed 24 homes in Bluebird Canyon. The property's soil is characterized as loose, silty sand and clay. The bedrock was found to be highly fractured and extremely weak to moderately weak.

Nevertheless, the home's plans were approved by city officials, and construction began. As the house was going up, Walter Viszolay, 56, a Laguna Beach resident for 35 years, said he didn't mind the size of the home, but hated its design.

"It looked like a medical center," said Viszolay, an art gallery owner who lives around the corner from 925 Oriole.

"I thought, who is going to live there?"

No one. According to the Multiple Listing Service, the house -- with five-bedrooms, 5 1/2 baths and a four-car garage -- was on the market for 480 days from 2001 to 2003.

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