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Bigger isn't better, some residents say

A clash over huge new homes on average-size lots has divided Valley Village and led to an L.A. ordinance that would limit the size of houses.

July 19, 2007|Ari B. Bloomekatz | Times Staff Writer

Standing outside her home on Hesby Street, Breice Reiner points to a new house a block away as an example of the mansionization creeping into her Valley Village neighborhood of nearly 45 years.

"This is a box," said Reiner, vice president of the homeowners association. "This is not an articulated home."

Reiner and others argue that the oversized structures -- many built on small lots and stretching up to 5,000 square feet -- are ruining the character of their suburban community.

But many, such as Morris "Fritz" Friedman, a Valley Village Neighborhood Council board member, oppose more building regulations for homeowners.

Friedman has even suggested that the community be split in two, with east Valley Village adhering to strict new anti-mansionization regulations and the west side retaining the current building rules.

The proposed split has raised tempers in the community and has even brought religion into the debate because a majority of the neighborhood council's 15 members are Orthodox Jews, many of whom support Friedman's motion.

One resident compared Friedman's proposal to the division of occupied territories in Israel.

Because of the controversy, neighborhood council meetings often are standing room only and community newsletters are filled with articles about development.

Many residents have become instant housing experts with a knack for estimating square footage and an uncanny knowledge of floor-to-area ratios.

"This just brought out passion on both sides of the issue," said Tony Braswell, secretary of the neighborhood council. "You didn't have anybody that said, 'Aw, shucks, this doesn't really bother me that much.' It's a very black-and-white issue."

Nevertheless, changes may be on the way to halt the push for big-box homes that is remaking neighborhoods across the city and has spurred a backlash in such communities as Valley Glen, Sunland-Tujunga and Cheviot Hills.

Some residents refer to the newer homes as "McMansions" because of their alleged poor construction.

"The quality of the material and the quality of the construction work tends to be subpar," said Kevin Hughes, president of the Cheviot Hills Homeowners Assn. "Not only are [developers] trying to fill out every bit of living space, so they make a box, but they're doing it quick and cheap."

Responding to those concerns, the Los Angeles Planning Commission last month passed an ordinance that demanded reduced floor space for new homes that are developed in most areas of the city, excluding hillside and coastal zones.

If the City Council approves the ordinance, it would affect more than 300,000 properties, said Betsy Weisman, principal city planner. The ordinance's regulations would vary, based on two primary factors: zoning and lot size. The ordinance effectively redefines current size limitations with stricter language that targets large homes.

Using a 5,000-square-foot lot as an example, Weisman said the proposed regulations would limit home size to 2,500 square feet. A 20% size bonus could be allowed if a house met certain design criteria.

"We were careful to respect both the needs of the property owners who were trying to develop their homes and the very real concerns people had of a lack of privacy, concerns about bulk in particular and large box-type homes," Weisman said.

Peter Sanchez, president of the Valley Village Homeowners Assn., said mansionization became a major issue in the community in 2005 when a developer bought a plot, split it into three parcels as small as legally possible and built three large homes on them.

People were "complaining about the loss of privacy, the loss of sunlight due to large homes being put up next to their own homes," Sanchez said.

More than 27,500 residents call Valley Village home, according to the 2000 census. Protected from sprawl, the community is bordered by Burbank Boulevard to the north, the Ventura Freeway to the south, the Hollywood Freeway to the east and the Tujunga Wash to the west.

For years, it has stood as a model of post-World War II suburbia. On its tree-lined streets sit 1,700-square-foot, single-story Spanish and ranch-style houses on lots that average 5,000 square feet. In June, the median price of a house there was $819,500, according to DataQuick, a real estate research firm.

"It really is a wonderful family enclave where people know their neighbors and folks really care about their immediate community," Braswell said.

Residents said they never expected religion to enter into the housing debate, and most said that seemingly anti-Semitic remarks made at council meetings were unintended consequences of impassioned debate.

At least nine of the 15 neighborhood council members attend Orthodox synagogue. The majority of them oppose additional restrictions on building and seven of the nine voted to pass Friedman's motion to split the community.

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