Neighborhood Conservation Meeting Presents New Zoning Options for the Larchmont Heights ICO Area

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On Saturday, June 11, the City Planning Department held the latest in a series of “Neighborhood Conservation” meetings for neighborhoods currently covered by Interim Control Ordinances, which provide temporary protection against teardowns and the construction of oversized replacement homes while the city’s Baseline Mansionization Ordinance is being rewritten.

The ICOs will expire in 2017, and the neighborhood meetings introduce a menu of possible new permanent zoning designations for the 15 current ICO neighborhoods. The new zones could supercede the rewritten BMO restrictions with more neighborhood-specific rules for building massing, lot coverage and setbacks.  According to the city, the Planning Department will use feedback gathered at these meetings to craft “new regulations for neighborhood conservation,” which will be presented to the City Planning Commission later this summer.

Saturday’s meeting, which included a brief “open house” session, a presentation of the possible new zoning options, and a Q and A session in which neighbors were asked to identify things they like about their neighborhood and want to protect, focused on the Larchmont Heights ICO area…but was similar in content to the presentations being made to all 15 current ICO neighborhoods.

In the main presentation, city planner Christine Saponara introduced two new zoning options – R1-C and R1-E, which she said would be most appropriate for the existing single family areas in Larchmont Heights, which has lot sizes mostly under 6,000 square feet and original homes less than 2,000 square feet. The two new zones are similar, but the R1-C zone would encourage locating most of the building mass toward the front of the lot (thus preserving back yard space and leaving more room for a rear garage), while the R1-E zone would encourage the majority of building mass toward the back of the lot.

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Both the R1-C and R1-E zones would include provisions requiring an angled “encroachment plane” (something also included in the most recent draft of the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance) on front and side walls more than 20′ in height, to reduce the hulking appearance of larger replacement homes and to help preserve light and airspace for smaller, older buildings next to larger new ones.

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City Planner Christine Saponara explains how new building envelope guidelines could affect the shape of new houses in the Larchmont Heights ICO area.

Interestingly, although the new zoning options were described as “conservation” measures for ICO neighborhoods, they do not address the actual preservation of either existing buildings, or neighborhood patterns of building sizes or architectural styles.  Saponara said the new zones are aimed more at preserving things like original light and shadow patterns for older homes…but not necessarily the homes themselves.  She said Los Angeles was originally a “tract city,” built with large swaths of similar (often small) homes…but as older homes are being replaced with larger new homes, the older ones tend to be “out of luck” when it comes to having their light and airspace blocked by new construction.

Saponara said that it’s “understandable” that people want to build new, larger homes in urban neighborhoods, but the city would like to regulate how those homes are built, and how they can be built with less impact on older neighboring buildings.  “This is what Planning wanted all along,” she said, referring to the original Baseline Mansionization Ordinance, passed in 2008.  She said, however, that last-minute amendments before the original BMO was enacted by the City Council left loopholes that created an ineffective control measure that allowed the proliferation of hulking, boxy-shaped houses.

Saponara said the original BMO addressed only floor area ratios (the ratio of a building’s area to its lot size), without dealing with the shape or massing of a new building’s “envelope.”  But simply reducing floor area does nothing to control the bulky appearance of many new larger homes, or the way they loom over and shade their smaller neighbors, which has caused at least part of the outcry over new “McMansions” in older neighborhoods.

Saponara said the current re-zoning effort for ICO neighborhoods does not attempt to address the style of replacement homes because, “One person’s ‘ugly’ is another person’s ‘beauty’…And it’s hard to dictate the right kind of ‘beauty.'”  So instead of creating design guidelines or a design review process (something which, she said, can often result in bitter fights among neighbors), the city is simply trying to “pre-design” replacement homes with specific, objective rules for size and shape.

In the question and answer portion of the meeting, however, in which Saponara asked the audience a series of questions to determine what they like best about their neighborhood, audience members called out exactly the kinds of things the new options do not address — architectural style, character, consistency and scale.

Rory Cunningham, a St. Andrews Square resident who attended Saturday’s meeting, was one of the audience members who doesn’t think the proposed new zones go far enough for true neighborhood “conservation.”  “The proposed zoning ordinance is NOT about preserving the architecture,” he said after the meeting, “but about trying to keep the same residential feeling of neighborhoods with similar massing and setbacks. It is trying to correct the wrongs that allowed McMansionization but will do absolutely nothing to stop the wholesale destruction of unprotected historic neighborhoods.”

More comprehensive protections were requested by others, too.  When Saponara asked what neighbors don’t like and would like to change about their neighborhood, audience members said they would like to see teardowns prevented (something else not addressed with the proposed new zones) and they would like to see no square footage exemptions for garages, which tends to encourage the construction of attached garages that don’t match established architectural patterns.  (Saponara said the garage exemptions are currently under discussion, and noted that City Council Member David Ryu is also on record opposing them.)

At least one other attendee disagreed, however.  Josh Brooks, a Larchmont Village resident who recently received a hardship exemption from the ICO to expand the home he owns in the neighborhood, said the current ICO is “so restrictive it spooked everyone,” and that the proposed new zoning rules would be “better” than the current regulations.

joshbrooksWhen Saponara asked the neighbors what measures they would recommend for their neighborhood, those present agreed that a Floor Area Ratio of .5 or less would be ideal (the proposed new zones would meet that threshold), multiple stories should be allowed, and garages should be placed at the rear of the property.  Several people also suggested that if builders or remodelers want even more square footage, they should consider going down instead of up – by building full basements, which are not restricted in either current or proposed regulations.  Also, Saponara noted that the city may be moving toward new laws that eliminate altogether the requirement that houses have garages, if they do provide some other sort of off-street parking.  Those changes, however, may be several more years down the road.

Some residents at Saturday’s meeting also suggested that the city do more to encourage stylistically appropriate development, by pointing permit applicants to examples of existing examples of homes from the original period of construction, examples of neighborhood-sensitive new construction, some sort of style guide for permit applicants, or even by having a group such as the American Institute of Architects provide renderings of acceptable building styles and elements.

The full set of presentation materials from Saturday’s Larchmont Heights Neighborhood Conservation presentation are available at the Planning Department’s website.

Materials from a similar meeting, held on June 4 for the La Brea-Hancock ICO area are also online.  Residents of that neighborhood will continue their discussions about the new zoning options at their own neighborhood meeting tomorrow (Wednesday) evening.

Comments and questions on the proposed zoning options can be sent to Christine Saponara at christine.saponara@lacity.org.  She also recommended that comments be sent to neighbors’ city council representatives, who will have the final vote on enacting any new zoning ordinances.

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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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