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NEIGHBORLY ADVICE

Chic makes itself at home

May 21, 2006|Therese Kosterman | Special to The Times

"North of Montana" is a real estate designation that may soon have the cachet of Bel-Air or New York's Upper East Side. But long before toddlers simply had to have their own bathrooms, this area of Santa Monica was a popular family neighborhood.

Beginnings

The area of Santa Monica north of Montana Avenue has two major population groups: the well-off and the loaded. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Palisades tract west of 7th Street developed as an enclave of mansions and second homes with views of the ocean and Santa Monica Canyon. The lots are large and some houses were designed by notable architects, including John Byers and Robert Stacey-Judd.

In the 1920s, King C. Gillette, inventor of the safety razor, purchased the area east of 7th Street and subdivided it into small lots of 50 by 150 feet. It was always an upscale neighborhood but more in the range of middle-class professionals and prosperous small-business owners until the '90s boom.

What it's about

The flat sidewalks, tree-lined streets, excellent schools and short stroll to the beach and shopping on Montana Avenue have made this area desirable -- and pricey. April Smith's mystery novel "North of Montana" fueled the image of a neighborhood in transition, with its depiction of the overprivileged nouveau riche alongside more down-to-earth longtime residents. And that fiction is not so far-fetched.

The neighborhood has been undergoing a face-lift suitable to a community now colonized by Hollywood types. With homes selling for $2 million and up, structures of more than 4,000 square feet are emerging where bungalows once stood.

Not everyone thinks curb appeal has been enhanced.

Maryanne LaGuardia, who has lived in the area for more than 20 years, describes many of the new homes as "having all the appeal of a federal prison with the size to match."

In the late 1990s, residents asked the City Council to limit the "footprint" of homes in the area -- with some success. Required space between the houses has increased, and new homes must have "step backs" or design features that reduce the second-story mass. Underground parking garages, which essentially gave the homes a third story, are no longer permitted. But a recent survey conducted by the North of Montana Neighborhood Assn. shows that the size of new homes remains the No. 1 neighborhood concern.

Insider's view

The beach is within walking distance, sidewalks are flat and lined by magnificent, mature Canary Island pines, date palms, magnolias, ficus and other trees.

LaGuardia and her husband moved here more than 20 years ago because they wanted an enjoyable place to walk around or ride their bikes.

"We wouldn't live anywhere else," she said.

She raised her children here and sent both through the public school system. With one child in college and another a senior at Santa Monica High School, she and her husband find themselves surrounded by young families.

On a typical Montana Avenue afternoon, fit-looking young mothers push high-tech baby strollers down the sidewalks and into the restaurants and cafes. The newer storefronts include sellers of chic maternity wear and children's stores where a pair of toddler jeans can cost more than $100.

The next generation, decidedly more affluent, has discovered the pleasures of living north of Montana.

Good news, bad news

If easy access to very expensive soap dishes is high on your priority list, Montana Avenue's updated shops are a plus. But the changing nature of the commercial strip is a downside for some in the area.

"There used to be a hardware store, a nursery and a sporting goods store -- and they're all mostly gone," LaGuardia said. "I think it's a loss.

"There was a bookstore and there used to be affordable children's clothes," she added. "People likened it to a little New England village. The kinds of things you want to buy most of the time are gone."

Instead, stores are stocking wares of a different stripe. Ultra-high-end homeware stores, such as Room With a View and Shabby Chic, where a throw pillow can cost more than $200, are found on the Montana strip these days.

However, some neighborhood hangouts remain. The neighborhood bar, Father's Office, made the transition and still draws a crowd. The Duck Blind liquor store has been on the corner of 11th and Montana since the early 1960s. You can still open a charge account at Regent Square Pharmacy, where they actually deliver.

Housing stock

A common sight in the neighborhood is the tiny bungalow flanked by massive stucco structures.

Unless they are among the few designated as historically significant, the charming English cottage, Spanish revival and Cape Cod style homes may be unlikely to survive the real estate remodeling boom. In their place, Mediterranean-style homes have appeared, often with more than triple the original square footage. As is true of the rest of the Westside, prices continue to rise but at a slightly slower pace than the past few years.

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