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The monstrosity next door

How big is too big for L.A.'s huge new homes?

February 17, 2008|Todd Gish | Todd Gish is an architect and urban historian in Los Angeles.

The City Council is considering a proposed ordinance that would curtail "mansionization." If the measure passes, the maximum allowable size of a house on many residential lots would drop from about 7,000 square feet (excluding garage) to about 3,000.

The use of the word "mansion" here is not complimentary. It's meant to conjure up a scenario in which a residential street of, say, 1920s cottages or 1950s ranch houses suddenly gets a new neighbor -- a 3,500- or 4,000-square-foot house with two full stories. Though meeting the required setbacks, the building's bulk makes it more visually prominent than the older houses on the street. What's more, it may have an architectural style or features that some find ugly -- or simply out of place on the block. The result: unhappy longtime homeowners bemoaning the changing character of their neighborhood -- loss of privacy, sunlight, views or charm -- and demanding that City Hall do something.

Replacing older, smaller houses with newer, bigger ones is not new, of course, in Los Angeles or elsewhere. It is part of the continuing process of urban -- and now suburban -- redevelopment in any maturing region. The fact is, much of the housing stock in Los Angeles is old. According to the 2006 census, about 700,000 dwelling units (half of the city's 1.36-million total) were built in the 1950s or before.

Many of these are private houses: shingled bungalows from the 1910s near the central city, for example, or stucco cottages from the 1920s and 1930s in West and South L.A., or post-World War II ranch houses in the San Fernando Valley. These older dwellings were built when the list of standard domestic amenities topped out at two or three bedrooms, a bathroom, a small kitchen and a living room shoe-horned into 1,200 square feet or so. Over the years, owners added a family room here, a bathroom there, a master bedroom suite in back or on top to enlarge their living space.

But the demand for more space has continued to grow, and the amount of square footage has reached new levels.

Critics of mansionization blame greedy developers for building boxy monstrosities, and they excoriate the owners of such houses for grandiosity, bad taste and self-indulgence. But the reality is that, in the decades since the older homes were built, culture and technology have changed Americans' consumption of domestic space.

Consider the bathroom. Where one bathroom was sufficient for a typical family until the 1950s or so, and two serve many households today, the standard is approaching one bathroom per person in high-end residential development. Homeowners also want more spacious bedrooms, family rooms, kitchens and even garages.

So why shouldn't houses be bigger today? And aren't property rights a cornerstone of the American dream? How dare City Hall dictate to property owners what they can or cannot build on their land? About 304,000 lots in the flatlands of L.A. would be affected.

But this freedom has always come with official strings attached. Laws in the 19th century prevented property owners from operating such "nuisances" as slaughterhouses, lest they disturb the neighbors' "quiet enjoyment" on adjacent land. Government's right to dedicate easements and to tax the value of land are also long-standing. The number of these strings has increased over time, as more people have come to live in closer proximity (multiplying incidents of conflict). It is simply incorrect to think that an owner's rights in real property have ever been absolute in the United States.

The history of urban planning and development in the U.S. is rife with debates over these issues -- what planning and urban historian Robert Fishman calls "the urban conversation." The path to public regulation over private property has never been linear or even.

Every new rule imposed on property owners -- including those now taken for granted, such as height limits, setbacks, land use, structural design, required parking -- has been proposed, opposed, imposed, enforced, ignored, resisted, sued over, changed, ruled on and only finally become accepted over a period of years or longer. This back and forth -- taking place in council chambers, courtrooms and voting booths, on newspaper pages, over the airwaves and online -- is the "conversation" Fishman writes about.

Los Angeles homeowners have been vocal in this conversation for more than a century. As more people have moved here and built houses, apartment buildings, stores and factories, conflicts between neighbors have multiplied. Once the hue and cry gets loud enough to reach City Hall, officials react with a new law to try to solve the problem.

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