City Planning Commission Approves BMO Revisions

La Brea -Hancock
A Spanish style bungalow is dwarfed by its new neighbor in the La Brea – Hancock area, just to the north east of the Miracle Mile.

A well-attended City Planning Commission hearing yesterday brought out a large number of Los Angeles residents eager to weigh in on proposed revisions to the city’s Baseline Mansionization Ordinance, which governs the size of replacement homes in city neighborhoods.  And in the end, the Commission voted to support a recent draft of the ordinance, forwarded by the City Planning Department, with just a few specific changes.

Overall, mansionization has been one of the most passionate city planning topics to come along in recent years, stirring high emotions on both sides of the issue. It pits people who want to preserve the character of the neighborhoods they’ve invested in, often for decades or longer, against new buyers who want the freedom to build what they want on properties they purchase, and developers who can reap huge profits by replacing smaller homes with new ones two or three times their size.

The original BMO was created in 2008, with the intention of stemming the tide of teardowns and mega-size replacement homes in single-family residential neighborhoods. But a number of loopholes in the original law turned out to encourage the trend instead of reversing it.  So in 2014, the City Council passed a motion requesting that the city revise the ordinance to make it more effective in its original purpose.

The first draft of the new BMO was released last fall. It eliminated a number of square footage bonuses (e.g. green building incentives) and exemptions (e.g. attached garages) contained in the old ordinance…but many preservation advocates felt it didn’t go quite far enough.  A second draft was released this spring, which reversed the exemption for garage footage (allowing, once again, its exemption from the overall square footage count of a house), retained an exemption for the square footage of covered porches and patios, and added some new provisions about the “massing” requirements for new buildings, including “encroachment planes” that would push the more of a building’s mass toward the back of a lot, and mandated articulation of long side walls.

When the Planning Department passed off the most recent draft to the Planning Commission earlier this month, however, it included some additional new recommendations:  to reduce the overall square footage of new homes from 50% of the lot size to just 45%, and an elimination of the exemption of covered porches, balconies and patios.

Planning Commission Adjustments

At yesterday’s hearing, after hours of testimony by residents from neighborhoods all over the city, the Planning Commission voted to support most of the Planning Department’s draft, and several of its last-minute recommendations. But the Commission also added a few twists of its own.  In brief, the Commission recommended that the new BMO:

  • Limit overall square footage of new homes to 45% of the lot size (for lots 7,500 feet and under).
  • Count the square footage of covered porches, balconies and patios in the overall square footage of the dwelling  (reversing the earlier exemption for such space).
  • Allow the exemption of the first 400 square feet of either attached or detached garages at the rear of the home…but require that anything over 200 square feet of space in attached garages at the front of the house be included in the building’s overall square footage.
  • Retain the Planning Department’s newer directives about encroachment planes and side wall articulation (which many activists had said needlessly complicate what should be a very simple set of guidelines).

Public Comments

In public testimony at yesterday’s multi-hour meeting, long-time residents of lower-scale older neighborhoods, which have seen the increasing intrusions of larger “McMansions,” spoke passionately about the loss of the consistent character and charm in those neighborhoods, and the devaluation of neighboring homes when new homes suddenly tower over theirs.  Several of the speakers, according to attendee Karen Gilman, a resident of Larchmont Village, were moved to tears when speaking about the negative changes overbuilding has brought to their beloved neighborhoods.

Others, however, spoke of modern families’ needs for more space and the right to freely develop their properties as they wish.

And yet another very specific group of residents – those who (or whose parents) still own smaller homes in neighborhoods (such as Pacific Palisades) where the balance has now tipped significantly toward new construction – also argued against the tighter new restrictions.  These residents, according to Gilman, argued that they are being left behind in the rebuilding race, and will be financially harmed if, when they are finally ready to sell their homes, the buyers are not allowed to tear them down and build new homes as large as those of their new neighbors.

Frank Rosato, one of seven La Brea-Hancock residents who spoke in favor of the new BMO at the hearing, said later that he appreciates the city’s efforts so far, but does think the restrictions should be even tighter.  For example, Rosato and his neighbors strongly favor a requirement for detached garages, and stronger prohibitions for attached, front-facing garages.  Rosato said that in addition to better matching existing neighborhood patterns, “The (side) driveway (for a detached garage) gives me a nice big space between my home and my neighbor’s house,” which would disappear if houses were built with front-facing attached garages instead.

Rosato said the majority of the speakers at the hearing did seem to be on the side of tighter restrictions, and that he wasn’t convinced by the “woe is me” comments of many pro-development speakers…even those who fear for their ability to sell older homes in neighborhoods already overtaken by new development.

“I understand that argument,” he said, but even under the new restrictions, he noted that he would be able to enlarge his 2,000 square foot home to 3,300 square feet on the same lot, which would easily accommodate family life.  “There’s still plenty of room for development.  I don’t think it takes away from the value of the house.”

Overall, Bob Eisele, one of the other La Brea-Hancock speakers, said, “I think we had a small victory. The CPC President was sympathetic, and a compromise was reached regarding the exemption for attached garages….Let’s hope this compromise stands as the amended BMO/BHO moves through PLUM and City Council.”  (Those groups will provide the next level of review and final approval of the eventual new ordinance.)

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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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