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L.A. may limit size of big homes

In an effort to stem an increase in large, boxy houses, the city may make square footage proportional to the lot's.

December 11, 2007|Steve Hymon and Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writers

To protect the character of neighborhoods being dwarfed by the construction of oversized homes, Los Angeles officials are weighing a law that would radically limit the square-footage of new or remodeled houses across the city's flatlands.

The proposed anti-mansionization measure would stem a trend fueled by the meteoric rise in home values and address a backlash from residents who complain that the spread of large, boxy homes is spoiling the architectural flavor of established single-family neighborhoods.

Some neighborhood activists welcome the proposal, while others complain that it doesn't go far enough.

Residents such as Paul Soady believe the law is overdue. He and his wife bought their 1926 English Tudor nearly two decades ago in a tree-lined neighborhood of quaint, smallish homes on the Westside. When Soady looks next door today, he sees a rectangular, two-story rebuild rising like a giant shoe box 10 feet above his roof.

"Look at this thing," Soady said, pointing to the house that will be more than 3,000 square feet. "It's a behemoth. It's even worse on the side. . . . Are they going to put a gun turret up there?"

Leaders in other Southland cities have already taken tough action against the kinds of remodels and rebuilds that can block out the sun.

Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Planning Commission called the phenomenon a pervasive threat to long-established single-family neighborhoods.

The City Council may act as early as next month to impose limits through a proposed law that would affect 304,000 lots in the flatlands of Los Angeles.

Many other cities in Southern California long ago set rules that are more restrictive than those now under consideration. But the issue has proved especially controversial in Los Angeles because its history and political culture are tied closely to real estate development.

Residents of older neighborhoods complain that the proposed Los Angeles law doesn't go far enough to preserve privacy, views and the architectural character of existing houses on their streets. Developers and other homeowners, meanwhile, say the measure will harm property values and slow redevelopment where it's needed most.

Residents of Brentwood Park, an exclusive nook west of the 405 Freeway that resembles suburban Connecticut, say the law, coupled with the way their area is zoned, would make it harder for some to sell their homes to those who want to rebuild.

"You're in a difficult position when you go to sell because obviously the person buying the house is buying to tear it down," said Jonathan Rosenthal, a Brentwood Park resident, pointing to the many older and smaller homes in the neighborhood. "No one is going to want to pay if they can't build on it."

City planning officials say the proposed law would affect a majority of Brentwood Park residents, those who live between Sunset and San Vicente boulevards on the north and south, and between South Canyon View Drive on the east and South Rockingham Avenue and 26th Street on the west. Officials are preparing an additional zone change to address residents' concerns about limits on development.

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The size of homes in Los Angeles has grown steadily over the decades, reflecting a national trend. The median size of a new Los Angeles home in 2005 was 3,520 square feet, far exceeding the size of the average home in the Western United States, which is 2,500 square feet, city planners say.

Los Angeles is much more permissive than neighboring cities when it comes to regulating the size of homes. In many parts of the city, homes can be three times the square-footage of a lot minus the required setbacks from property lines.

The rules were not a factor during the city's initial wave of growth in the 1920s, when many homes were built smaller than the law allowed, creating a sense of scale to which residents had grown accustomed.

But the recent development boom, beginning in the mid-1990s, has led to the spread of large homes, often gaudy boxes, that make full use of the city law.

For example, a homeowner in West Los Angeles tore down an 1,886-square-foot home and replaced it last year with a two-story, 13,874-square-foot residence -- on a 13,000-square-foot lot. The home could have been even larger under city zoning laws.

Such practices have brought complaints. Sunland-Tujunga residents have waged a relentless campaign in recent years to limit development in their rural area at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Neighborhood activists say the expansion of two-story houses, some approaching 3,000 square feet, does not fit in with an area known for its soaring trees and cabin-like homes.

"They just rape the land, put up the box, add concrete and a little patch of grass," said Cindy Cleghorn, chairwoman of the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council, whose one-story home is dwarfed by its two-story neighbor.

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