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Curbing the big, the bad, the ugly

Los Angeles is studying citywide limits on the size of houses. Could McMansions become a thing of the past?

August 27, 2006|Gayle Pollard-Terry | Times Staff Writer

As hard as it might be to imagine, new McMansions -- those large homes crowding small or average-size lots -- could one day become an endangered species in Los Angeles.

City Councilman Tom LaBonge has asked the planning department to come up with citywide guidelines on how big is too big. He is seeking to replace the temporary solutions and current hodgepodge of neighborhood-specific restrictions with an ordinance that applies to all teardowns and to vacant lots on hillsides.

"I would hope we could rethink it to allow a person to build their American dream, their castle," LaBonge said, "and have them in scale with the neighborhood."

He's got plenty of support from people who own one-story houses and prefer not to live in the shadows -- literally. They want to preserve the character of their streets by keeping out towering villas that block sunlight, eliminate views, destroy mature trees and create sightlines that invade the privacy of bedrooms and backyards. But there are others who view the construction as an improvement over the small, old houses -- some of them decrepit -- that the McMansions are replacing. Plus, there are plenty of buyers who want four or more bedrooms.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 30, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
McMansions: An article in the Aug. 27 Real Estate section about mansionization in Southern California misspelled the last name of Doris Sosin as Sosis. Sosin is the founder of the North of Montana Neighborhood Assn. in Santa Monica.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 03, 2006 Home Edition Real Estate Part K Page 4 Features Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
McMansions -- An article in the Aug. 27 section about Southland mansionization misspelled the last name of Doris Sosin as Sosis. Sosin is the founder of the North of Montana Neighborhood Assn. in Santa Monica.

Nationally, 39% of new homes built last year had four bedrooms, said Steve Melman, director of economic services for the National Assn. of Home Builders. That compares with 23% in 1973, despite the fact that the average American family shrank to 2.6 people from 3.1 in the same period.

"Clearly, new homes continued to get bigger," Melman said.

Consumer demand for more space -- a bedroom for every child, a guestroom for the mother-in-law and his-and-her offices -- motivates many large remodels and the construction of grand houses in Southern California. Take, for example, the five-bedroom, 4 1/2 -bathroom, 5,300-square-foot Mediterranean that sits on a 7,720-square-foot lot on Dunleer Drive in Cheviot Hills and is listed for $2.849 million.

Daniel Sidis, a general contractor, built the house on spec after tearing down a 1,520-square-foot, one-story home with three bedrooms and two bathrooms that was built in 1950. The frontyard remains the same size, he said, and the backyard is bigger because the old, U-shaped house surrounded a patio.

"From a financial point of view," he said, "the lots are too expensive to build small houses."

The mansionization of Southern California first began to attract notice about 20 years ago in Bel-Air, Brentwood, Pacific Palisades, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Palos Verdes Estates, San Marino and other affluent areas.

Stephen Shapiro, co-owner of Westside Estate Agency, a real estate brokerage firm in Beverly Hills, described how in 1985 dentist Alan Khedari partnered with a savings and loan, snapped up old houses, tore them down and built 15 bigger homes a year in the flats between Santa Monica and Sunset boulevards. Huge bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens and closets became standard.

Grander homes, some as large as 25,000 square feet, were also going up in the hills north of Sunset. That got the attention of the Beverly Hills City Council, which revised existing development standards in 1987 to make sure hillside homes didn't become so large they changed "the scale, integrity or character of the area."

The Los Angeles City Council, in 1988, asked the planning department to study the spread of big houses, Deputy Director Gordon Hamilton said, and subsequently approved setback and side-yard requirements and height restrictions.

Setting a ceiling

The recession of the early '90s slowed mansionization, but the trend picked up again a decade later.

As property values escalated and suitable land became scarce in sought-after neighborhoods, more developers bought teardowns and built jumbo houses on spec. The result: the good, the bad and the ugly, including boxy behemoths built out to property lines and wedding-cake-like creations adorned with oversize columns.

The trend has the potential to "affect many neighborhoods adversely," said Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn. In his area, he points to large, two-story homes built next to 1950s ranch-style houses.

"They are too large, taking up most of the land, creating privacy issues, creating a permanent shadow," he said. "If you're out in your backyard, you have someone staring at you."

A bigger-is-not-always-better backlash has prompted many cities, among them San Marino, Burbank, Glendale, Rancho Palos Verdes and Westminster, to rein in the size of new houses. And, in a few cases, to arbitrate taste.

Beverly Hills restricts new houses to 1,500 square feet plus 40% of the lot size, said Audrey Arlington, a principal planner for the city. That permits a 4,620-square-foot house on a 7,800-square-foot lot. Plans for houses larger than 15,000 square feet have to go through a different process.

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