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Call it L.A.'s really big show

Despite economic hard times, the ultra-rich build mega-mansions. It's a matter of comfort and ego, experts say.

June 12, 2008|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

In Beverly Hills, a 32,000-square-foot beaux-arts mansion that will be sheathed in Portuguese limestone and adorned with gold-plated doorknobs fashioned in France is rising on Sunset Boulevard.

A few miles away in Bel-Air, businessman Eri Kroh has requested permits to lop off the top of a hill, fill in a canyon and then, after moving some 68,000 cubic yards of dirt, replace the chaparral-covered lot with a 30,000-plus square-foot single family home with Pacific Ocean views.

Just down the hill, workers recently were building retaining walls for a giant lot that real estate experts say could soon feature one or two giant palace-like homes.

Anyone who assumed that the construction of mega-mansions would grind to a halt as the economy worsens must not be familiar with the customs of the very rich.

"Does anybody need 40,000 square feet?" asks real estate agent Stephen Shapiro of the Westside Estate Agency. "No, [but] these are our current-day aristocrats and feudal leaders . . . and this is what they want."

Builder John Finton, who is overseeing construction of the 32,000 square-foot house on Sunset Boulevard for businessman C. Frederick Wehba Sr. and his wife, Susan, said he knows of at least 20 20,000-plus square-foot homes under construction or about to break ground in what he called the "platinum triangle" of wealthy areas in Los Angeles County: Beverly Hills, Bel-Air and Holmby Hills.

Few properties are as infamous as the site where Finton is building the Wehbas' home. At Sunset and Alpine Drive, it is being built on one part of the former estate of Saudi Sheik Mohammed al Fassi. Known as "the statue house," it became infamous decades ago when it was painted lime green and the nude statues surrounding the property were decorated with representations of genitalia.

Real estate experts give various explanations for the continuing popularity of mega-mansions.

"People are spending much more time at home," Finton said. "They want to be comfortable."

Indeed, for the super-rich, being comfortable can mean turning your home into a resort.

Real estate agent Drew Fenton said that no one sets out to build a mega-house; it just happens.

"You keep adding the rooms you think you need. The ballroom. The screening room. Masters with his and hers and a beauty salon and a massage room. And the house keeps growing." Added Fenton: "I can't explain why someone needs a gift-wrapping room or a florist room. That is a question of culture."

Others had another explanation: ego.

"Each year it seems there are more extremely rich people with ever larger egos that have to be right on top of the mountainside . . . so everyone will know -- aha -- there is the richest person on the hill," said Joe Edmiston, director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which has fought to preserve open space in the hillsides.

If there are 20 residences of 20,000-plus square feet in the works for Los Angeles County, it would represent a surge of mega-mansions. According to records from the Los Angeles County assessor, there are fewer than 60 homes with more than 20,000 square feet in the county and fewer than 10 with more than 30,000.

Still, real estate agents said assessor records aren't always accurate because they may not measure pool houses, cabanas and other similar living spaces.

Currently, many of the largest homes in the county are concentrated in the neighborhood of Beverly Park, a gated community in the hills south of Mulholland Drive in the city of Los Angeles; several houses there are at least 25,000 square feet.

The largest home in Los Angeles County remains the 50,000-plus-square-foot, 123-room Holmby Hills estate of the late Aaron Spelling, which has a bowling alley, doll museum and gift-wrapping room.

Kroh, who has filed plans for the house on top of the knoll with the city of Los Angeles, insisted that there is nothing remarkable about them.

Though paperwork on file with the city shows a house of 39,000 square feet, Kroh said it will actually be smaller. He also said he may not build the home after all.

Current plans call for two stories of 10,000 square feet each above ground, along with 12,000 square feet -- including a movie theater and an indoor pool -- below ground.

"I could find you hundreds of homes like that. Hundreds," Kroh said.

But even as plans are drawn for ever-larger homes, there is a growing chorus of people who are questioning the concept of the mega-mansion.

Spurred by complaints from homeowners that "mansionization" is ruining the character of many neighborhoods, the Los Angeles City Council last month approved new limits on the sizes of many Los Angeles houses.

The law applies only to the city's flatlands, but officials are working on a companion law for the city's hillsides, where many of these giant homes are slated to be built.

That is little comfort to homeowners who say an influx of giant homes has already hurt their neighborhoods.

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