Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Scam That Keeps on Giving - 2nd Column in a CityWatch Series

The Scam That Keeps On Giving

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In a previous CityWatch column debunking the myth of LA’s “green” McMansions I explained that the widespread mansionization of many Los Angeles neighborhoods is a deliberate rather than accidental failure of the planning process.

I further explained how this scam has been perpetrated by officials who portrayed McMansions as “sustainable” development, even though mansionization is one of the least ecological schemes ever spawned by the real estate industry.
It is even more disturbing to learn that this deception is not an anomaly.  It has been reinforced by previous and subsequent ruses intended to quietly promote mansionization throughout Los Angeles.  This is why these overstuffed houses are popping up at an accelerating rate throughout much of the city.

Yes, it is true that the city’s legally adopted city plans, such as the General Plan Framework Element and the Community Plans, clearly protect the character and scale of Los Angeles’s residential neighborhoods.  In terms of their blue-sky policy language, mansionization is clearly out-of-bounds.  This is even clearer in Do Real Planning, a planning policy document prepared by the previous Director of Planning, Gail Goldberg.

NEUTRALIZE MANSIONIZATION:  Neighborhoods zoned single family deserve protection.  The most pervasive threat they face is the replacement of existing homes with residences whose bulk and mass is significantly lager than the street’s current character – sacrificing greenery, breathing room, light, and air.  Let’s be the champions of a city-wide solution to prevent out-scale residences.

These are beautiful sentiments, but City Hall’s actions speak far louder than these and other noble words.

The first deception was directed at one of LA’s mansionization epicenters, Beverly Grove.  This Fairfax neighborhood area contains 700 mostly Spanish Revival homes constructed in the late 1920s.   Near medical services, parks, shopping centers, grocery stores, restaurants, and museums, Beverly Grove has an ideal location.

Furthermore, it is surrounded by a gated community (Park LaBrea), Historical Preservation Overlay Zones, as well as Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, two cities that have successfully limited McMansions.

Since the contractors and private investors responsible for mansionizing Los Angeles were blocked from those desirable areas, they descended on unprotected Beverly Grove to pick the carcass clean.  The mansionizers have built over 50 McMansions there is the past decade, over half in the past two years.

In response to the sudden appearance of McMansions, Beverly Grove residents beseeched their local Councilperson at the time, Jack Weiss, to take action.   After many delays, Weiss finally moved when his own neighborhood survey revealed that 60 percent of Beverly Grove residents wanted to stop McMansions.  Then, when he balked and protested that 60 percent was no longer solid enough evidence for him, a neighborhood petition campaign raised the threshold to about 75 percent.

Unable to retreat further, Weiss reluctantly granted the community an Interim Control Ordinance (ICO) to stop McMansions.  It had wonderful Whereas clauses, but Weiss’s trickery was buried in the details.  His ICO allowed new homes to be built as large as 6,600 square feet, or 2,000 feet larger than the McMansions he pretended to stop in response to community complaints. 

Furthermore, Weiss got the last laugh because his fraudulent ICO set the precedent for the equally fraudulent citywide Baseline Mansionization Ordinance that replaced it.

But Weiss did not stop there.  As a Councilmember, he also proposed that the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance grant a bonus to new houses that became LEED certified.  This, then, is the origin of the debunked urban myth that LA’s McMansions are sustainable development.

Weiss’s suggestion soon appeared in City Planning’s draft mansionization legislation.  It then sailed through the City Planning Commission and the City Council.   The Mayor, always a booster of “greening” Los Angeles, quickly signed off on it over the objection of the Director of Planning.

Because the public objected to this fraud at official hearings, the final mansionization legislation created a Residential Floor Area Overlay Zone (RFA).  In theory, this provision gives local communities relief from mansionization.  In other words, to actually end mansionization, a local community must devise an elaborate escape route from the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance.

The first step is a request to their local Councilperson to submit an RFA motion to the City Council.  If the motion is submitted and adopted, the Department of City Planning then has the authority to reject it.  This is exactly what has already happened to several communities.

For example, in Valley Village the community undertook a detailed survey that resulted in a Council RFA motion to stop mansionization.  But, because the Department of City Planning chose to ignore it, the Valley Village RFA died on the vine.   After two years the City Council declared its own RFA motion void because of City Planning’s inaction.

But, why would City Planning rebuff Council RFA motions?  One reason is that when the City Council created the RFA option, it did not fund any City Planning staff.  Since the Department of City Planning, however, has over 200 staff members paid for from the City’s General Fund, the real explanation runs deeper.  Once the RFA option was created, the City Planning Department then established 10 pages of intricate administrative steps to prepare an RFA ordinance.

In other words, the “we don’t have resources for such a large undertaking” is really a self-inflicted wound that blocks these overlay ordinances.  The intricate and arbitrary steps required to stop McMansions, ensure that few, if any, such RFA ordinances will ever be prepared or adopted.  The result is, as probably intended, quietly maintains the mansionization process while officials can publicly object to them.

This is why these mysterious investors and their contractors are still feverishly bulldozing large swaths through beautiful older LA neighborhoods.

Furthermore, as I previously wrote, there are many simple fixes to this web of deceit that could turn the tables on the mansionizers and their many stealth friends at City Hall.  For example, the Mount Washington neighborhood of Los Angeles has an ordinance that requires all new homes to go through environmental review.

This administrative procedure could be adopted throughout Los Angeles.  It would be based on the principle that McMansions have clear environmental impacts, and when communities, like Beverly Grove, are extensively mansionized, these impacts become cumulative.

Each new McMansion adds to the community’s energy needs, as well as producing emissions, noise, dust, asbestos, loss of parking, loss of trees and parkways, loss of solar access, and loss of rain water percolation.  In combination, these environmental impacts are significant, with the downsizing of these monster homes the only real environmental solution.

But, as was made clear in the previous article, the problem is not a lack of technical solutions.  It is City Hall’s continued, but unstated commitment to mansionization.

(Dick Platkin is a city planning consultant who teaches sustainable city planning at USC’s Price School of Social Policy.  He is a CityWatch contributor and can be reached atrhplatkin@yahoo.com or on his blog: http://www.plan-itlosangeles.blogspot.com/)
CityWatchVol 10 Issue 81Pub: Oct 9, 2012

Monday, October 1, 2012

Debunking LA’s Urban Legend: “Green” McMansions

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WHERE WE LIVE - New York might have alligators roaming its sewer system, but LA can now boast of its own urban legend: “green” McMansions.  Yes, that’s right; in Los Angeles, McMansions, those boxy, oversized, energy-demanding suburban houses plopped into the middle of older neighborhoods are officially considered to be sustainable development.
How could this be?  After all, McMansions require huge amounts of energy to assemble their building materials and move them to job site.  Furthermore, the houses themselves are massive, which means enormous heating and air conditioning bills, even if their windows are double-paned, their walls padded with extra insulation, and their restaurant-sized refrigerators and stoves Energy Star rated.

Then we need to consider their multiple bathrooms and heated outdoor pools and spas, the most energy intensive features of modern houses.

Other McMansion features also have their detrimental environmental effects.  During demolition they release dust and asbestos into the air.  After construction, their large patios, pools, spas, and double driveways reduce natural open space.  Combined with their elimination of parkway trees and landscaping for driveway cuts, the cumulative result is a heat island with less penetration of rainwater.

Last, but certainly not least, we need to factor in their transportation system.  All McMansions are built on single-family residential lots located away from bus stops and transit stations.  This is why McMansion residents rely on their cars to get around; the only difference being that most of their vehicles are large, thirsty SUVs.

Given this environmental profile, some advanced jurisdictions, like Marin County, require a full energy audit of all new houses larger than 3,500 square feet.  Many other cities, like West Hollywood, simply restrict the size of R-1 homes to prevent McMansions.

But, certainly not in Los Angeles where the treatment of McMansions has raced in the opposite direction.  Our city government offers a “green” incentive to contractors so they can super-size their McMansions.  Finally, all this is done through a misnamed ordinance, the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance.  It purports to stop mansionization, but, in fact, does exactly the opposite.

Just like the Patriot Act, that curbs civil liberties, the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, that stops the regulation of derivatives, and the Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act of 2011 that bars the EPA from regulating soot, the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance -- despite it name -- is deliberately filled with enough exemptions and bonuses to permit McMansions to still be built by-right in most of Los Angeles.

Since 2008, after two years of detailed research and preparation by the Department of City Planning, public hearings and adoption by the City Council, and then signed by Mayor, mansionizers still have a free rein in most of Los Angeles.  This is why they are building McMansions at an accelerated rate as market conditions improve.

This fraud was deliberately and carefully crafted as follows:  Unlike large lots, the 77 percent of the LA’s single-family lots zoned R-1 grant homes a Floor Area Ratio (FAR) of .5.  This means that in Los Angeles houses built on a typical 6000 square foot R-1 lot begin at 3000 square feet, already a thousand square feet larger than the average R-1 home.  Then, if the contractor adds such green features as extra insulation, double-paned windows, and new appliances, they get an additional 600 square feet through a 20 percent “green” LEED bonus, for a total of 3,600 square feet.

After that, the McMansions' attached garages, which are often surreptitiously used as play rooms or storage, are exempted for an additional 400 square feet.  This increases the McMansion total to 4,000 square feet.  Next are the exemptions for high entryways and semi-enclosed decks and balconies.  They legally raise the total to 4,350 square feet.  In some cases slip-shod plan check and inspections appear to allow even more massive structures.

Voila.  These tricks result in the same McMansions that were built before the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance was prepared and adopted under the pretense that it would stop McMansions.

How easy would it be fix this fraud?  The answer is that it is simple.  A minor amendment to the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance would stop mansionization in its tracks.  If R-1 lots were treated like large lots, and their by-right FAR became .35, most of the work would be done.

To put some frosting on the cake, if the exemptions and bonuses, especially the “green” bonus or the garage exemption, which are spurious to begin with, were ratcheted down to 900 square feet, McMansions would then be limited to 3000 square feet.  This is the size of the largest existing homes in most R-1 neighborhoods.

But the real questions are not technical because municipalities all across the United States have devised many effective legislative and administrative procedures to stop mansionization, such as design and environmental review.

In Los Angeles, the real question is political.  Do we have any elected officials who are willing to show leadership and prevent vast swaths of Los Angeles’s residential neighborhoods from being quickly wrecked by speculators bulldozing charming older homes and then building and flipping McMansions?

*Dick Platkin is a city planning consultant who teaches sustainable city planning at USC’s Price School of Social Policy.  He is a CityWatch contributor and can be reached at rhplatkin@yahoo.com .

Vol 10 Issue 79
Pub: Oct 2, 2012