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Stricter Building Standards to Be Focus of Hearing

Times Staff Writer

Hotly contested proposals intended to moderate the impact of rapid apartment construction go before the City Council in a special public hearing on Monday.

Opponents say the proposed standards would kill or cripple development. Supporters say they are needed to preserve single-family neighborhoods.

The proposals, the result of a six-month study by the Planning Commission, were sought by the City Council, which has been besieged for more than a year by residents--both tenants and single-family homeowners--complaining that apartment construction is blocking breezes and sunlight, invading the privacy of people in single-family homes, exacerbating parking and traffic problems, crowding schools, boosting crime, forcing residents to move out and lowering the value of homes.

The complaints have been countered by developers arguing that apartment construction is needed to satisfy unabated demand for affordable, convenient housing, that property rights should be respected and that the development has boosted property values. In addition, some owners of single-family homes want to sell to developers and object to any obstacles.

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The standards are a far-reaching set of proposals setting tougher restrictions on height, building density, front-yard setbacks, landscaping, recreational space, utility enclosures and storage space.

As the proposals have neared council action, maneuvering has accelerated.

On the development side, Batta Vuicich, chairman of a developers lobbying group, met privately on March 3 with councilmen David York and Chuck Bookhammer and two members of the Planning Commission. And City Clerk Patrick E. Keller, backed by the developers group and a homeowners organization, used the official city clerk letterhead in a mailing two weeks ago telling 1,400 property owners “it is not too late to stop any of this.”

On the other side, many tenants and residents have kept up the pressure at council meetings. On March 17, a group of tenants supporting the proposals raised the long-dormant issue of rent control in the city, saying that rents are rising as new apartments are rented out for top dollar and landlords of existing buildings raise their rents to match.

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The development standards have also become part of the campaigning for the City Council election Tuesday, the day after the public hearing.

Two of the candidates, Larry Guyer and Dick Mansfield, are generally supportive of the development proposals. Ginny McGinnis Lambert is withholding comment, saying she has not studied the proposals and wants to hear more comment on them.

City officials are concerned that the complex set of proposals has not been explained clearly. At the Monday hearing, Mark Subbotin, acting planning director, will present a slide show on the proposals. The meeting, which was shifted from City Hall to the larger Hawthorne Memorial Center, 3901 W. El Segundo Blvd., will begin at 8 p.m.

The most important elements of the proposals are:

- Height restrictions--The current limit is 2 1/2 stories or 35 feet for R-1 and R-2 zones, with limits in R-3 and R-4 that require an additional foot of side yard for every two feet of height above 35.

The proposed limit would be two stories or 20 feet to the top apartment ceiling (not the roof peak, as measured in the existing limits) in the R-1, R-2 and R-3 zones. Heights in R-4 zones would be unlimited except for small lots (12,500 square feet or narrow lots (less than 64 feet in width), where the 20-foot, two-story limit would apply.

Supporters say the new height limits would ban any more three-story buildings that overshadow neighboring properties. Critics say it would significantly reduce the number of potential units on a lot and would make it more costly to build a two-story building with underground parking.

- Density restrictions--In the R-3 zones, where most of the development is taking place, builders would need 1,250 square feet of lot area per unit for small lots (less than 10,000 square feet). Current code requirements for lots of less than 10,000 square feet range from 1,250 square feet of lot area per unit to 800 square feet per unit.

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For lots with more than 10,000 square feet, the proposed requirement would be 1,000 square feet of lot area per unit. The existing requirement is 800 square feet per unit.

- Setbacks--Current requirements call for a 15-foot front yard and five-foot back and side yards.

The proposals would keep the same back and side yard requirements in general, but require the second story of building fronts to be set back an average of 20 feet.

Supporters complain that the existing standards permit the construction of box-like apartments that overshadow streets. Critics say the new requirement would make design more difficult and reduce the number of potential units.

A debate is under way as to whether the proposals would accomplish the council’s stated goal, preserving single-family neighborhoods, without killing development.

Planning Commission Chairwoman Barbara Workman said that large areas of Hawthorne will become slums if the current building boom continues with no change.

Planning Commissioner Ray Sulser, who is also a developer, said the new standards are needed because “a builder will build what he can get away with.”

Vuicich, one of the city’s most active and politically influential developers, said, “The general effect, in my opinion, will be . . . that it will decrease the value of property. It will substantially, maybe totally, slow down construction in the city of Hawthorne, almost kill it.”

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But city officials say that the effect on a particular piece of property will depend on a number of factors, including the particular zoning, the type of construction already on the lot and the quality of neighboring structures.

Much of Hawthorne is zoned R-3, high-density residential, but many R-3 areas were developed with single-family homes, duplexes or small apartments.

Developers now are paying about 45% more for small R-3 lots than owners of single-family homes can get by selling to someone who wants to live in the home, real estate officials say.

Vuicich, working out prices under the new rules, said the prices developers will pay will be about the same as what a family looking to live in a house might pay.

Asked if the proposed requirements, which give less economic incentive to sell to developers, would accomplish the council’s goal of neighborhood preservation, the developer replied: “The arithmetic says it might do what they want it to do. But you are down-zoning.

“We are granted a bundle of rights, in the form of a deed, guaranteed by the Constitution. That bundle of rights has been clouded more and more by restrictions,” he said.

But Sulser said that much of the development that has been disruptive to single-family neighborhoods in R-3 zones has been possible because the council gave property owners more leeway with the adoption in 1984 of a compact-car parking ordinance. By allowing developers to squeeze more parking spaces onto a site, the number of units could be increased.

Council members have said that they wish to handle the issue quickly, and could vote on the new standards on Monday night.


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