Activist Shelley Wagers Reflects on the Recent Planning Commission Vote on the BMO

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NoMoreMcMansionsInLosAngeles’ Shelley Wagers, in a video interview with the Miracle Mile Residential Association’s Ken Hixon

Last week, the City Planning Commission voted to forward the latest draft of a revised Baseline Mansionization Ordinance to the City Council’s PLUM Committee for a final review before it goes before the full City Council for approval.  The Commission also made a couple of last-minute changes to the proposed ordinance, including reducing the allowable Floor Area Ratio of replacement homes to 45% of the overall lot size (instead of the 50% in previous drafts)…and, in a compromise between preservationists’ and developers’ requests, allowing 200 square feet of attached front-facing garages to be exempt from overall floor area calculations (which rises to 400 feet if the garage – either attached or unattached – is at the rear of the home).

Immediately after the vote, stakeholders who have been arguing for tighter, more easily enforced regulations governing the size of replacement homes, expressed general satisfaction with the vote. They also said, however, that they wished the Commission had gone a bit further – especially in discouraging front-facing garages (which add bulk to the front of a house and do not match architectural patterns in most older neighborhoods).

A few days after the vote, the Buzz asked Shelley Wagers, who runs the anti-mansionization advocacy group NoMoreMcMansionsInLosAngeles, for some further thoughts on the current draft of the BMO as final approvals loom.

Overall, Wagers said the Planning Commission’s latest BMO amendments “are clearly not perfect, but they promise substantial improvement over current regulation.”

That said, however, she agrees that garages – in particular – need further discussion.

The Issue with Garages

“The current code doesn’t count attached garages as floor space,” said Wagers.  “That adds 400 square feet of bulk, does away with the buffer provided by a driveway, and disrupts the character of older neighborhoods.”

“The Commission’s compromise does very little to offset the bulk,” she said. “But it does incentivize putting attached garages at the back, which restores the buffer of a driveway alongside the house and fits better with the look and feel of older, established neighborhoods.

Wagers was also featured last week in a video interview conducted by Miracle Mile Vice President and and Communications Director Ken Hixon.  In that interview, she reiterates that garage footage “has been a real flashpoint” and “the really, really hot-button issue” in the ongoing BMO discussions.

Wagers reports in the video that about 50 pro-BMO  stakeholders waited more than 6 hours for a chance to give one-minute comments at last week’s CPC hearing.  Those comments, she says, unanimously supported tighter restrictions for attached, front-facing garages.

And Wagers says the Commission members did hear the public’s message “loud and clear,” and that Commission President David Ambrose even called the testimony “overwhelming.”

But the problem, she says in the video, was that there was no agreement among the commissioners on how to deal with the issue.  So, she tells Hixon, they created “compromise” language that counts only part of the square footage in attached, front-facing garages in a building’s square footage.  That does provide some dis-incentive for front-facing garages, and some encouragement to locate garages at the rear of new homes.  And it helps preserve side driveways, which provide a natural buffer zone between a house and its neighbor. “That was a good move,” says Wagers in the video.

On the down side, however, according to Wagers, the compromise language still doesn’t address the additional bulk created by attached garages at the rear of a house. But at least, she said, people don’t see that bulk from the street, and it’s “out of sight, out of mind.”

Other Concerns

In the MMRA video, Wagers explains that mansionization “isn’t actually about big houses. Instead it’s about houses that are big for their setting.  So it’s really a question of proportion, not sheer size.”  The major problem, she said, is that such houses dwarf and impose on their neighbors, and “disrupt the feel and look of the neighborhood.”

Wagers tells Hixon in the video that she thought the Planning Department’s first draft of the revised BMO, issued last October, was a “good start,” and seemed to be heading in the right direction.  But the Department’s second draft, issued in April, “seemed to go off on a tangent,” with new design standards including required “encroachment planes” and side-wall articulations that are not only more complex, but “harder to enforce and easier to game.”

Wagers also mentioned encroachment planes in her comments to the Buzz, saying those kinds of design standards may be well-intentioned, but will also be hard to enforce and easy to manipulate.

She said she also has concerns about some other elements of the proposed ordinance.

“Hillside residents have concerns about allowances for grading and hauling and about guaranteed minimums for homes on non-conforming lots. Residents in RA, RS, and RE zones have concerns about the retention of bonuses that got eliminated in R1 zones…and Zoning Administrators’ “adjustments” [which will still be allowed on a discretionary basis under the new rules] will be more transparent…but why do we need them on top of variances?”

Environmental Issues

In the Miracle Mile video, Wagers notes that an environmental review of the proposed ordinance is also still underway, and must be completed before the final version of the ordinance can be completed or enacted.  She said she doesn’t anticipate there will be any negative environmental effects noted for the ordinance, however, because downsizing houses actually has “tremendous environmental benefits — less debris, less material, less envergy consumption, less permeable land being covered, and less damage to mature street trees.”

Wagers says that keeping home sizes smaller actually fits right in with the city’s larger sustainability objectives. “Larger single family homes do nothing to address density issues,” she said, “because they still house only one family. They do nothing to address affordability issues (in fact, they’re going in the opposite direction because they’re tearing down a more relatively affordable house and replacing it with a showplace a speculator really hopes to cash in on).  And – while you’re at it – you’re consuming more materials and more energy, and placing a great strain on the city’s infrastructure.”

Wagers also noted that one argument in favor of larger homes is often that they can house multi-generational families.  But, she said, that tends to be a “red herring,” and is not how most of them wind up being used.  She said the multi-family argument is also “irrelevant,” because “You can’t go to your neighbor and raid his refrigerator because you have more mouths to feed”…so “you’re not entitled to his air and his light and his privacy so you can house this multi-generational family in grand style.”

Current Obstacles

Wagers said that although the approval process for the new regulations are heading into the final stretch, there are still some obstacles.

First, there are speculators, developers and realtors who “would love to keep the party going.”  She also noted that there are “pockets of resistance” to tighter regulation among current homeowners…who fear they may not be able to sell their smaller homes for as much money if developers can’t replace them with significantly larger houses.

For those objectors, however, Wagers notes that rather than loosening the city’s overall restrictions on home size, neighborhoods could be given early access to the city’s new menu of zoning options, so they can customize the needs of their individual areas without giving them “veto power over the rest of the city.”

“We shouldn’t be pulled off course by the concerns of a vocal minority,” she said, noting that the character of what gets built in our neighborhoods affects those areas for a long time to come.  “We used to say the [new] houses were like Hummers,” she said, “but the Hummers are most gone now, and the houses are still here and will likely be there for decades.”

Staying Involved

Wagers also cautioned people in favor of the new ordinance, as currently presented, not to get too complacent.

“As we move towards hearings by the PLUM Committee and the full Council,” she told the Buzz, “most of us have concerns about the tendency of many L.A. officials to put the interests of developers ahead of the interests of the community.  City officials need to hear loud and clear — and often -– that the amendments already incorporate major concessions, and they must not be weakened to accommodate special interests or a very vocal minority.”

In other words, Wagers urges those who care about stricter regulations not to drop their guard just yet, and to stay involved and vocal through the last few months of the approval process.

“All we have is our numbers,” she reiterates in the MMRA video.  “The developers and the realtors and the speculators have an inside track in a number of ways.”  Those include “backstage access” to elected officials, which she contends is often the result of campaign funding.  She says regulation proponents do seem to outnumber opponents, but “if they do not hear us and they do not see us, we do not stand a chance.”

Overall, says Wagers, “we are in a better place than we were” with the proposed BMO, “and if the amendments as they stand today were enacted as they are, we would see a very substantial impact in houses being more in scale with their neighbors, and more in keeping with the neighborhood.”

The proposed mansionization ordinance will likely be heard by the City Council PLUM Committee sometime in August (a specific date has not yet been announced). Then it will go to the full City Council for final approval. Full implementation of the new law could happen by the end of the calendar year.

 

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About Elizabeth Fuller

Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - first in the Sycamore Square neighborhood, and since 2012 in West Adams Heights/Sugar Hill. She was long-time board member of the Sycamore Square Neighborhood Association, currently serves on the board of the West Adams Heights/Sugar Hill Neighborhood Association, spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and is the co-owner/publisher of the Buzz.

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