The City of Los Angeles held its first community meeting last night to discuss the recently released draft of a newly re-written Baseline Mansionization Ordinance, which aims to tighten up loopholes in the original law that unintentionally allowed the proliferation of over-sized homes in single-family residential neighborhoods. Public questions and comments at the session quickly revealed the camps on opposite sides of the mansionization issue: those who own and love their smaller older homes and the current scale and feel of their historic neighborhoods…and those who design, build and own larger new homes and value their freedom to develop properties to suit their and their customers’ modern lifestyles.
The meeting, attended by about 75 people at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center on Washington Blvd., included an opening presentation outlining the proposed changes in the BMO, with questions from audience members…and then a “public hearing,” during which stakeholders were invited to provide opinions and testimony for the official record.
Details of the Proposed Baseline Mansionization Ordinance Revisions
During the opening presentation, Hagu Solomon-Cary, a planning assistant for the Los Angeles Department of City Planning, presented an overview of the proposed BMO changes, for both hillside and non-hillside neighborhoods. Overall, she said, the proposed changes are aimed at limiting the size of new homes, relative to their lot sizes. The new ordinance would reduce the overall allowed floor space, would contain only about half as many exemptions for certain kinds of floor space, and would eliminate some key opportunities for floor space bonuses. The goal, according to Solomon-Cary, is to more tightly control the size and massing of new homes, and to help maintain light, airspace and shadow patterns in established neighborhoods.
For example, according to Solomon-Cary, the city’s current Baseline Mansionization says:
- The ratio of residential floor space to overall lot size (known as Floor Area Ratio, or FAR) cannot exceed .50 on lots smaller than 7,500 square feet, or .045 on lots 7,500 square feet or larger
- Floor areas of garages up to 200 square feet (whether attached or detached) are not counted in overall residential floor area.
- Floor areas of detached accessory buildings are not counted in overall residential floor area.
- Porches, patios and breezeways (whether covered, uncovered or lattice-covered) are not counted in overall residential floor area.
- Proportional second stories (set back from the footprint of the main floor) are allowed to contain up to 75% of the main-floor floor area.
- Floor area bonuses are allowed for inclusion of certain “green building” features.
- “Sunken” (below-grade) rooms in hillside are not counted in overall square footage.
- Rooms with ceiling heights over 14 feet are counted only once in overall square footage (not as two separate floors’ worth of square footage).
The proposed BMO revisions, however, would require that:
- The overall FAR would be reduced to .45 for lots under 7,500 square feet, and .40 for lots 7,500 square feet or larger.
- Floor areas of attached garages would count in overall square footage, while detached covered parking up to 200 square feet would not count (providing a distinct encouragement for detached garages).
- Covered porches, patios and breezeways would count toward the overall residential floor area (though open or lattice-covered porches, patios and breezways still would not count).
- Proportional second stories would be limited to 60% of the main-floor floor area.
- There are no more green building bonuses for floor area.
- Below-grade rooms are exempt from overall square footage only if they conform to limits governing how far the top of the room extends above grade.
- Rooms with ceiling heights over 14 feet are no longer exempt from counting as floor area on the second floor (the entire second-floor “envelope” space is counted).
Public reaction to the proposed changes was mixed at last night’s meeting, and fell very clearly into two opposing camps.
First, a large number of homeowners, many of them from the Beverly Grove neighborhood (an area hit early and hard by the mansionization trend, and which many described as the “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to defining both issues and solutions), spoke out in favor of the draft revisions, saying they go a long way in fulfilling City Council Member Paul Koretz’s 2014 request to revise the BMO and prevent abuse of its original loopholes by developers.
Shelley Wagers, a Beverly Grove resident and head of the anti-mansionization activist group NoMoreMcMansionsInLosAngeles, was among those who spoke in favor of the revisions, and added that the city should go even further. She said open and lattice-covered porches, patios and breezeways should not be exempt from overall square footage, because they still add bulk to a building and affect its overall mass and impact. She also said that while the new second-floor limits are helpful, the formulas for calculating main-floor space (which affects second-floor percentages) need to be tightened up. And, finally, she noted that the revised BMO would still include a currently-active provision that allows a Zoning Administrator discretionary power to grant up to 10% in additional floor area to a project, which she said is both arbitrary and not necessary when the city already has a variance process in place.
Several other speakers echoed Wagers’ comments, and added their particular support for the new encouragements toward detached garages. Several speakers noted that detached garages more closely match the existing architectural patterns in our established Los Angeles neighborhoods, help activate communities (though more front-yard interaction of neighbors), and also provide a buffer (in the form of driveways between neighboring houses) for adjacent homes. Attached garages with no driveway buffers, they said, create more insular properties and allow homes to encroach closer to their lot lines, reducing separation and privacy.
Real Estate Agent/Developer Perspective
The homeowners’ comments were quickly countered, however, by a number of real estate agents, developers and owners of newer homes, who pointed out that side-yard setback laws still apply whether a garage is attached or detached. They also said that because modern garages are much bigger than the single-car garages built in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, putting a modern two-car garage in a back yard eliminates valuable recreational yard space and prevents owners from installing pools and other highly-desired amenities.
Several agents and developers argued that, because of such restrictions, the proposed revisions would result in an overall loss of property values in the city, because potential buyers would have no interest in purchasing properties they would not be able to tear down or rebuild to suit their more modern lifestyles.
Meir Kroll, a Beverlywood resident and real estate agent, warned that if the proposed revisions are implemented, “We’ll never see new construction again,” and people “might as well just pitch a tent” in their yards because old houses from the ’20s and ’30s “just don’t work for people today.” He also said people discussing the issue today are among the few immediately affected by the BMO, but the eventual impact will be much wider: people who aren’t currently in the market for a new home, but who do decide to buy one later, “don’t know their new houses are being taken away from them.”
Kroll’s comments were met with boos and hisses from many of the homeowners in the audience, who immediately emphasized that they love their older, smaller homes and have no trouble living and raising families in them.
Kroll also contended that some neighborhoods, such as Little Holmby, which have enacted temporary building restrictions in the form of Interim Control Ordinances (while waiting for the BMO revisions to be completed), have already experienced declines in property values, because “no one wants to repair” existing homes…and they won’t be able to build larger new homes to replace them. Others at the meeting, however, noted that home values in their ICO-protected neighborhoods are holding nicely, if not increasing, because of those protections. Planning Department officials at the meeting also pointed out that larger replacement homes will still be allowed under the re-written BMO – they’ll just face slightly tighter restrictions.
Another speaker, who said he designs “complex” hillside homes for “the 1%,” argued that the new, more restrictive regulations will hurt not only his customers, but the other 99% of the city’s population. High-end home building, he said, is “a living testament” to ‘trickle-down'” economics…and curbing the construction of hillside homes, in particular, could result in the loss of hundreds of construction jobs.
Outreach and Input
Finally last night, a number of speakers said they were only recently informed of the proposed changes, and are still absorbing and confused by many of the issues. They complained that the city has not yet done a good job of getting the word out and explaining what it all means. One speaker suggested that copies of the proposed revisions, and the full hearing schedule, be posted at every Dept. of Building and Safety counter, to help inform people who are applying for building permits.
The Planning Department’s series of community meetings on the revised BMO continues tonight, with a westside meeting at 7:00 p.m. at the Belmont Village Senior Living Westwood, 10475 Wilshire Blvd. Two more meetings are scheduled for December 15 (downtown) and 16 (Van Nuys).
In addition to testimony at the public meetings, those who would like to weigh in on the proposed BMO revisions can also send comments to the planning staff via Ms. Solomon-Cary at email@example.com until January 16. After that, comments can be sent directly to the City Planning Commission until March 16.