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little by little

The restored Maltman bungalows in Silver Lake represent an elusive Southern California dream: cute, small houses that don't cost a fortune. Will an L.A. law prompt others to follow?

June 05, 2008|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Architecture Critic

NEAR THE END of 2005, when home prices in Southern California seemed to top themselves by the week, a property whose best days seemed long past appeared on the market in Silver Lake. Located on a hilly stretch of Maltman Avenue, just south of Sunset Boulevard, it consisted of 17 small bungalows, built in 1926 in a boxy, abstracted Spanish style and lined up along a narrow driveway.

The bungalows, all rentals, had some obvious charm. With red-tile parapets and tiny front stoops, they were a reminder that Los Angeles was once quite good at producing housing that combined moderate density, a sense of community and quick access to the city at large. But restoring them as condos wouldn't have penciled out: At about 700 square feet apiece, they were too small to justify a pricey conversion. It seemed likely that the property would be torn down and replaced by a sizable condo or apartment complex -- the usual anonymous, no-soul stucco job sitting atop a concrete bunker of parking and pitched to the high end of the market.

Ultimately, the bungalow court was rescued by an unlikely savior: a piece of legislation called the Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance. Developed by the Los Angeles planning department, passed by the City Council at the end of 2004 and still obscure to most Angelenos, the ordinance allows developers to build a collection of single-family homes or detached town houses on a single lot. It also allows rental properties such as the Maltman bungalows to be converted so that residents can own their units outright, with easements for the driveways and other common areas.

For first-time buyers and those looking in the middle of the market, the ordinance has added a fresh category to the city's housing stock: properties bigger than some lofts and usually closer to the ground -- literally and psychologically -- but still smaller and more affordable than traditional single-family houses. The new homes have their own gardens, however small, and avoid the fees and restrictions associated with condos.

The Maltman property was purchased by Civic Enterprise Associates, whose founders, Mott Smith and Brian Albert, were on the lookout for a small-lot test case. After a thoughtful restoration by the Santa Monica firm Drisko Studio Architects, the bungalows went on the market as single-family houses last year. Each has a shade tree and fruit tree planted in front, and an attached garage that looks capable of holding a Mini Cooper, or maybe a Toyota Prius. Listed in the low $500,000s, all but one have sold. Though not all of the renters were happy about the conversion, three tenants were able to purchase their units. Last month, the project won a preservation award from the Los Angeles Conservancy.

"The houses are only connected by the garages, so there's complete privacy," resident Butch Noland said. "Plus I liked the idea of having an older house that had been updated -- a brand-new old house."

NOW 3 1/2 years old, the small-lot ordinance is very much a work in progress. The first projects are beginning, at long last, to emerge from the approval and construction pipeline. They have been slowed by bureaucratic problems and by infighting and poor communication among the vast number of city agencies -- including the Bureau of Engineering and the Fire Department -- that have a say in shaping the built environment in Los Angeles. Those issues, according to Civic Enterprise's Smith, "are emblematic of the complexity of trying to do infill in a city planned for sprawl."

To succeed as a vehicle for smart architecture and progressive urban design, the ordinance will need substantial refinement, much of it likely to be opposed by those agencies. There are questions about how aggressively the city's planning director, Gail Goldberg, will support changes to strengthen it in the face of complaints from Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and others that denser development will worsen traffic and hurt quality of life.

Nonetheless, the small-lot initiative is a sign of a newly aggressive and creative planning department -- an indication that the city, faced with a housing crisis that even a continuing drop in prices will not fully solve, is working to produce more homes that residents can afford.

Developers find the ordinance attractive because it allows them to build several properties on a single parcel of land without paying the liability insurance that has made condo projects so costly, in extreme cases adding $40,000 or $50,000 per unit. Because it applies only in areas zoned for multifamily or commercial development, it won't change the character of single-family neighborhoods -- an important detail in staying out of the anti-growth movement's cross hairs.

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