L.A. may limit size of big homes

Times Staff Writers

To protect the character of neighborhoods being dwarfed by the construction of oversized homes, Los Angeles officials are weighing a law that would radically limit the square-footage of new or remodeled houses across the city’s flatlands.

The proposed anti-mansionization measure would stem a trend fueled by the meteoric rise in home values and address a backlash from residents who complain that the spread of large, boxy homes is spoiling the architectural flavor of established single-family neighborhoods.

Some neighborhood activists welcome the proposal, while others complain that it doesn’t go far enough.

Residents such as Paul Soady believe the law is overdue. He and his wife bought their 1926 English Tudor nearly two decades ago in a tree-lined neighborhood of quaint, smallish homes on the Westside. When Soady looks next door today, he sees a rectangular, two-story rebuild rising like a giant shoe box 10 feet above his roof.

“Look at this thing,” Soady said, pointing to the house that will be more than 3,000 square feet. “It’s a behemoth. It’s even worse on the side. . . . Are they going to put a gun turret up there?”


Leaders in other Southland cities have already taken tough action against the kinds of remodels and rebuilds that can block out the sun.

Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Planning Commission called the phenomenon a pervasive threat to long-established single-family neighborhoods.

The City Council may act as early as next month to impose limits through a proposed law that would affect 304,000 lots in the flatlands of Los Angeles.

Many other cities in Southern California long ago set rules that are more restrictive than those now under consideration. But the issue has proved especially controversial in Los Angeles because its history and political culture are tied closely to real estate development.

Residents of older neighborhoods complain that the proposed Los Angeles law doesn’t go far enough to preserve privacy, views and the architectural character of existing houses on their streets. Developers and other homeowners, meanwhile, say the measure will harm property values and slow redevelopment where it’s needed most.

Residents of Brentwood Park, an exclusive nook west of the 405 Freeway that resembles suburban Connecticut, say the law, coupled with the way their area is zoned, would make it harder for some to sell their homes to those who want to rebuild.

“You’re in a difficult position when you go to sell because obviously the person buying the house is buying to tear it down,” said Jonathan Rosenthal, a Brentwood Park resident, pointing to the many older and smaller homes in the neighborhood. “No one is going to want to pay if they can’t build on it.”

City planning officials say the proposed law would affect a majority of Brentwood Park residents, those who live between Sunset and San Vicente boulevards on the north and south, and between South Canyon View Drive on the east and South Rockingham Avenue and 26th Street on the west. Officials are preparing an additional zone change to address residents’ concerns about limits on development.


The size of homes in Los Angeles has grown steadily over the decades, reflecting a national trend. The median size of a new Los Angeles home in 2005 was 3,520 square feet, far exceeding the size of the average home in the Western United States, which is 2,500 square feet, city planners say.

Los Angeles is much more permissive than neighboring cities when it comes to regulating the size of homes. In many parts of the city, homes can be three times the square-footage of a lot minus the required setbacks from property lines.

The rules were not a factor during the city’s initial wave of growth in the 1920s, when many homes were built smaller than the law allowed, creating a sense of scale to which residents had grown accustomed.

But the recent development boom, beginning in the mid-1990s, has led to the spread of large homes, often gaudy boxes, that make full use of the city law.

For example, a homeowner in West Los Angeles tore down an 1,886-square-foot home and replaced it last year with a two-story, 13,874-square-foot residence -- on a 13,000-square-foot lot. The home could have been even larger under city zoning laws.

Such practices have brought complaints. Sunland-Tujunga residents have waged a relentless campaign in recent years to limit development in their rural area at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Neighborhood activists say the expansion of two-story houses, some approaching 3,000 square feet, does not fit in with an area known for its soaring trees and cabin-like homes.

“They just rape the land, put up the box, add concrete and a little patch of grass,” said Cindy Cleghorn, chairwoman of the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council, whose one-story home is dwarfed by its two-story neighbor.

Robert Hall, who has built about 40 large homes in the community over the last decade and attracted criticism for his efforts, said he provides a service to families in one of Los Angeles’ more affordable communities.

“I’m not in the business of building mansions. I’m in the business of building houses,” he said, adding of his critics: “They haven’t been to Beverly Hills and Calabasas. Those are mansions.”

After a variety of neighborhoods asked for interim ordinances to control the size of homes in the last few years, the Planning Commission approved the proposed law last summer. Commissioners called the new ordinance generous, saying it would allow neighborhoods to evolve while preventing the most egregious cases of overbuilding.

“It seems to me the role of government is to allow people to live close and harmoniously,” said Jane Usher, president of the Planning Commission. “Overbuilt houses aren’t comfortable for their neighborhoods or for their environment. So it falls to government to protect everyone, but with a soft touch.”

Under the new law, homes in single-family R1 zones -- about 234,000 houses -- could have square footage equal to half the size of their lots, plus another 400 square feet for a garage. The height limit of 33 feet for R1 homes would remain the same but could be reached only with a pitched roof, a requirement intended to discourage shoe box-style houses.

Homes in seven other residential zones would face tighter restrictions. Owners in all zones could gain additional square footage if they agree to build smaller upper stories or set back part of a home’s front. Those requirements, too, are intended to dissuade people from building big boxes.

While the law would limit the most monstrous of homes, new houses could still end up two to three times as large as existing homes in many places. The law also does not dictate or regulate taste or set up more rigid design review by city commissioners -- something that Beverly Hills has done. Neighborhoods in L.A. that want to preserve architecture or a unique look would have to go another route: They could create a historic preservation zone that greatly restricted renovations and demolitions, or put more regulations in an updated community plan. Neither is easy to do.

Not everyone thinks there’s a problem.

Oren Benmoshe is helping build one of the new large homes in L.A.'s Beverly Grove neighborhood for his brother. A 3,500-square-foot residence will replace a 1,300-square-foot home that was torn down.

“The foundation was wrecked, there was a lot of mold, it was run-down,” Benmoshe said. “I feel like I’m adding to the neighborhood. Families are moving back here. People will leave, people will move in. It’s always going to be like that in a neighborhood.”

Lobbying against the proposed ordinance has intensified in recent weeks. Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan recently joined the fray, phoning council members to argue that the law would drive away the wealthy -- and the jobs they create.

Council members also appear divided.

“The city of Los Angeles is a city of great neighborhoods,” said Councilman Tom LaBonge, who asked for the new ordinance. “Mansionization has destroyed our neighborhoods.”

But Councilman Jack Weiss, who represents the Westside and is a member of the council’s planning panel, said officials have failed to weigh all its possible effects.

“When I drive though a neighborhood such as Beverly Grove, do I personally wish for architectural consistency and integrity? Yes,” Weiss said. “But should government take a very long pause before impacting the nest egg of hundreds of thousands of residents? Absolutely.”

Some in Beverly Grove see the issue as another manifestation of Los Angeles’ long-running affair with the development industry and worry that the proposed law -- like some interim laws -- will do little to stem the spread of mega-homes.

“I’m not insisting that everyone have a quaint 1920s bungalow,” said Shelley Wagers, a Beverly Grove resident who is leading the group Angelenos Against Mansionization. “I just want people who rebuild or renovate to do so in a way that’s respectful of the neighborhood.”