Want a lot more? This city may say no

Times Staff Writer

Neighbors along the beachfront strand of Manhattan Beach, where a few homes recently sold for $8 million, have grown accustomed to the sight of a few double-lot homes and a parade of bizarre new construction -- Italian villas, English castles and glassy modern cylinders.

But nothing has struck fear into the hearts of neighbors like the latest addition: the Strand’s first three-lot mansion.

Passersby stopped to stare last month as construction workers erected steel beams for the 16,000-square-foot home that entrepreneur Robert DeSantis is building on about 100 feet of prime beachfront just north of Hermosa Beach.


“It’s Beverly Hills on the beach,” said Walter Hastey, a 40-year-old Manhattan Beach native who manages the nearby Hennessey’s Tavern.

Although home prices are dropping across the Southland as the subprime mortgage crisis spreads, prices are climbing in coastal communities, and newcomers eager to maximize the return on their investment are building higher and wider.

In response, cities, including Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, Rancho Palos Verdes, El Segundo, Rolling Hills, Oceanside, Solana Beach and Beverly Hills, are adopting restrictions on “mansionization.”

Manhattan Beach has seen its share of pricey homes rise.

It is no longer the quaint beach town that old-timers at Sloopy’s on Highland Avenue remember from the 1970s, when college students and surfers could pool their money to nab an oceanside rental.

But because of building-height restrictions and small, expensive beachfront lots, Manhattan Beach largely avoided the South Bay trend toward high-rise beachfront development that earned nearby Redondo Beach the nickname “Recondo Beach.”

“When you hear the word mansion, you might think of Brentwood or Bel-Air, where there’s 40,000-square-foot homes. We’re nowhere near that,” said Wayne Powell, a Manhattan Beach planning commissioner. “But when you look at a home built on three lots, that’s relative to nearby homes. When you have these larger homes surrounding you, a lot of times they block sunlight, air flows and views,” a process known as “canyonization.”

Residents complain about bigger homes sprouting not only on the Strand and the surrounding Sand section neighborhood, but inland. In response, the Manhattan Beach City Council placed a moratorium on three-lot construction in April and created a mansionization committee.

The council is poised to pass a law today that would limit new construction to two lots and add size and appearance restrictions.

About 40 three-lot property owners will be affected, city planners said, including one Strand developer. DeSantis’ project was approved before the moratorium.

For now, DeSantis lives with his wife, Ranae, and two young children in Hermosa Beach in a six-bedroom, 10-bath, 9,884-square-foot home, built across two lots on the Strand.

The home is worth about $5.7 million, according to Hermosa Beach and Los Angeles County property records.

The family plans to move to the new house when it’s done, in the summer of 2009, architect Grant Kirkpatrick said.

Property records show DeSantis’ three Manhattan Beach lots at 212 and 216 The Strand are worth about $29 million. Neither DeSantis nor Kirkpatrick would say how much the new six-bedroom (plus a nanny’s room), 11-bath home is expected to cost.

The plans include two guest suites and an outdoor pool, with only about half the land used for building, Kirkpatrick said.

“It’s not a small home, but it’s not a mansion either,” Kirkpatrick said, adding that he designed the house to be as tall as surrounding homes and have an “old Venice beach bungalow vibe.”

Some neighbors like the design and think the new house will raise neighborhood property values.

“We benefit from that -- we’ll be able to sell our house,” said freelance writer Karen Ross, 70, as she walked by the construction site with her husband.

But the couple, who have lived on the Strand for 15 years, say that along with higher property values come mansion walls, gates, security cameras and more distant neighbors.

“You’ve got nicer maintenance, nicer restaurants, nicer taking care of the Strand, but people miss the coziness,” said Ross, who supports the new law limiting development to two lots.

Helen Grant, a stay-at-home mother, called the DeSantis’ home “a nightmare.”

“Three lots is way too much,” she said.

With mansions, Grant said, “a different breed of people come in. We have wonderful neighbors. When people have too much money, they don’t want neighbors.”

DeSantis declined to be interviewed. Kirkpatrick said the family is very private but often bike along the Strand, play volleyball and “always wanted to be good neighbors.”

DeSantis has described his building plans to the City Council as “non-ostentatious, open, child-friendly” and “consistent with the local community and the town.”

Down on the beach, retired firefighter John Stimfig, 60, was coaching four volleyball players on courts where the city’s famed weekend tournaments are played.

A Manhattan Beach native, Stimfig and his wife bought their house 40 years ago for $22,500 to raise three children in a quiet, cozy neighborhood. But as property values rose, so did boxy mansions.

Now neighborhood children flock to the Stimfigs’ yard because they don’t have their own. As elderly neighbors die, their homes are sold by children who cannot afford to keep them.

Stimfig says his children will probably do the same.