Newport may make it easier to update historic cottages rather than tear them down and rebuild

Low-slung mid-century cottages in Newport Beach alternate with taller, more contemporary homes in older neighborhoods.
(Courtesy of city of Newport Beach)

Architect and Corona del Mar resident Ron Yeo favored a modern look for the homes he designed for more than 50 years from his studio on Jasmine Avenue, typically sketching more striking lines than those that form the silhouettes of his neighborhood’s signature beach cottages.

But he’s found himself disappointed with the changes he’s seen over the years during his regular daybreak walks to the shore: cottage after traditional cottage bladed, their modest mid-century simplicity replaced with tall, narrow 21st-century revivals of a statelier Colonial, Cape Cod or Mediterranean aesthetic.

He’s photographed and cataloged the cottages — about 400 just in the dense “flower streets” north of Coast Highway — noting their eras, waist-high picket fences and other details like the multi-paned windows borne out of the difficulty of getting large single sheets of glass immediately after World War II. He’s noted which cottages have disappeared recently, like a cream- and blue-colored, bay-windowed model on Marigold Avenue from 1949.

Yeo doesn’t expect a proposed change to Newport Beach code, which would remove some barriers to expanding or updating older homes, to fully stop the replacements — time only moves forward. But the ordinance could slow its march.

“We’ve passed the tipping point on saving [all] the village’s cottages, but the longer you can extend it the better,” he said.

The definition of “cottages” is difficult to pin down because they’re not limited to certain eras or architectural styles, according to city planner Jaime Murillo. But he describes them as typically smaller and single-story.

They tend to be in CdM, Balboa Island, Balboa Peninsula and Newport Heights, painted in sherbet pastels or neutrals, with low-profile, gently pitched or flat roofs, eaves with meringue-style peaks over clapboard or shingle siding and diamond-grid windows. Their gardens are tidy, dressed up with Adirondack chairs and jewel-toned annuals and perennials. They reflect pride of ownership, Yeo said.

Most of them are, in planning and zoning parlance, “grandfathered” “nonconforming” properties because they don’t meet current parking standards. As such, they are limited to additions of no more than 10% of existing floor area. That can be as little as 80 or 100 square feet for homes that were typically built in the 1930s, ‘40s or ‘50s for quick getaways, not daily living.

This 1940s-era cottage is on Larkspur Avenue in Corona del Mar.
(Courtesy of Ron Yeo)

Renovation projects in Newport Beach also have a valuation threshold — if a homeowner spends more than 50% of the structure’s value on improvements, the whole building must be brought up to current code.

For homes that have shifted from more spartan vacation accommodations to modern year-round residences with high modern property values, the restrictions can be difficult to pencil out.

“Those costs really deter people and drive them toward simply demolishing the home and just starting fresh,” Murillo said.

The proposed rules would allow additions up to 50% of existing floor area with a 500-square-foot maximum and relief from the valuation-based code trigger. To ensure compliance, the city would place a deed restriction, which could be removed if the property owner wants to undertake even bigger redevelopment.

The new rules would apply only to cottages up to triplexes — zoning for those are common in some of Newport’s oldest neighborhoods — and homes restored under the program would be barred from being offered as short-term lodging. Two-story cottages would be prohibited from adding rooftop decks, and second floors added to single-story buildings would be restricted to the back half of the building to limit bulk.

The 1940s-era cottage pictured at left on Marigold Avenue in Corona del Mar was torn down in 2017 and replaced with the house on the right.
(Courtesy of Ron Yeo)

When Yeo bought his Jasmine Avenue studio in 1967, it was a duplex that he gutted to be his office.

Now mostly retired, he has swapped out his drafting tables for work benches and materials storage for his current avocation, found-object art that he makes out of discarded detergent jugs, coffee canisters, bottle caps and busted vacuum cleaners. He lives a block away in a house on Iris Avenue that he bought for $23,500 in 1964.

About three years ago, Yeo said, cottages outnumbered recent builds about 60% to 40%. Now that’s reversed. The taller new homes cut the light and privacy for low-slung cottages next door, he said.

Tom Houston, who has lived on Balboa Island for 50 years, said large homes in historic neighborhoods don’t work.

“There’s areas if you want a 10,000-square-foot house. Go down the road a bit and you can do it,” he said.

Support our coverage by becoming a digital subscriber.