By Dick Platkin
If your Los Angeles neighborhood is now suffering from mansionization,and you want to know why this is happening and what can be done about it,then this article is for you.
On paper the fight against the mansionization of Los Angeles’s neighborhoods has already been won. After a decade of tough skirmishes at City Hall and in local neighborhoods, the City of Los Angeles now has legally adopted anti- mansionization planning policies and two city-wide ordinances. At the policy level, the Los Angeles General Plan, its Land Use Element, the 35 Community Plans, and the City Planning Commission’s “Do Real Planning” policy declaration all support restrictions on mansionization–the process of real estate speculators demolishing older single-family homes and then replacing them with over-sized, out-of-character suburban-style spec houses.
Another important victory was in 2008, when the City Council adopted the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance (BMO) and, several years later, the Baseline Hillside Mansionization Ordinance.
But, as anyone who drives through vast swaths of Los Angeles can plainly see, the mansionization process never stopped, and it is now in overdrive. Based on these simple, observable facts, the City Council’s and City Planning Commission’s adopted mansionization policies and their implementing ordinances are strictly ornamental.
To, therefore, uncover exactly how the City of Los Angeles still manages to approve McMansions, anti-mansionization advocates initially determined that the culprit was the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance itself. After all, this ordinance was sabotaged by last minute exemptions and bonuses unsuccessfully opposed by the former President of the City Planning Commission, Jane Usher, and by the former Director of City Planning, Gail Goldberg.
We have since learned, however, that there are two other, lesser-known governmental processes that also promote the construction of McMansions. The first one is Building and Safety’s publicly inaccessible procedures for reviewing McMansion building permits. This is the critical moment when Building and Safety dishes out the bonuses and exemptions that allow the construction of McMansions. The second process is the Department of Building and Safety’s totally deficient–and outright scary-oversight of house demolitions.
While we have little doubt that the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance (BMO) is only effective until that moment when local real estate economics reach a mansionization tipping point, we now understand the full process is more complex. This is why amendments to eliminate those fatal, last minute BMO loopholes, are only the first step. While these amendments are critical, they are still not enough to stop mansionization.
The second step is also essential, making the internal review and enforcement processes of the Los Angeles Department of Building Safety transparent to the public.
Finally, the third step to stop mansionization is major revisions in the Department of Building and Safety’s procedures for permitting and inspecting house demolitions.
Let us look at these three steps in more detail.
Step 1: Eliminating most or all of the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance’s exemptions and bonuses.
The exemptions are straightforward. Incredibly, the size of a house does not include attached garages, vaulted entranceways, and semi-enclosed breezeways and balconies. Together, these exemptions allow a house to increase its size by 750 square feet. For example, ona 6000 square foot lot, by-right development begins at 50 percent of lot area (Floor Area Ration or FAR = .5) or 3000 square feet. These exemptions add 750 square feet without any public knowledge, and this inflates the FAR of a house from .5 to .625.
The mansionization bonuses, however, are trickier. A McMansion contractor has three alternative methods to increase the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) of a house by 20 percent or about 600 square feet on a standard 6000 square foot R1-1 lot. This bonus then raises the real square footage of a house to 4,350 sf, for an actual FAR of .725 or nearly 50 percent larger than what is by-right.
Voila! The municipal ordinance that was supposed to stop mansionization lays out a red carpet to the mansionizers. By now this red carpet has been used so many times, it is covered with constructionmud!
The first bonus option is stepping back the second story of a house by 25 percent. Mansionization activists have never observed a new McMansion with this design feature, but that does not mean anything. Building and Safety could grant this bonus again and again, and no one outside that agency would ever know.
The second bonus option requires contractors to recess 20 percent of the front façade of a house for 20 percent of the structure’s depth.
From what neighbors can observe, a few supersized houses might qualify for this bonus, but this is conjecture since on-line building permit data does not reveal which FAR bonus LADBS granted to a McMansion contractor.
The third and most suspect option is the “green” bonus. From June 2008 though January 2011,a contractor could claim he complied with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) at the certified level and then expand the square footage of a proposed house by 20 percent. From January 2011 to date, the path to this green bonus changed to ompliance with Tier 1 of the new Los Angeles Green Building Ordinance.
The first problem with the green bonus is that Building and Safety does not verify any energy savings through LEED or the Green Building Ordinance. This McMansion bonus is entirely based on untested and unconfirmed claims. This is because of a second problem. There is no evidence that a large, LEED or Tier One house is energy efficient. In fact, the actual data reveals the opposite; all McMansions are energy hogs. They minimally use twice the energy as the smaller houses they replaced, which means they produce twice the pollution. All those flat roofs, 24/7 heating and air conditioning units, pools, spas, restaurant-sized appliances, and SUV’s idling in the driveway assure enormous electricity, natural gas, and gasoline bills.
The third problem is the secrecy of these green reviews.Because nearly all McMansions are boxes, they do not appear to have utilized either design option to bulk up. By a process of elimination, this only leaves the green .2 FAR bonus option. But, City Planning, which was in charge of reviewing and granting these LEED bonuses between 2008-2011, reports that Building and Safety only referred a “handful” of such cases to them. In other words, Building and Safety must have issued hundreds of .2 LEED-based FAR bonuses between June 2008 through January 2011 — without sending more than a few of these applications to the Department of City Planning for their legally required review and approval.
Furthermore, since January 2011 a special Green Code group at the Department of Building and Safety has internally reviewed BMO green bonus requests. Judging by the number of McMansions Building and Safety permitted over the past three years, this Green Code unit should have approved hundreds of such applications. But, this unit reports they only receive about 10 green bonus applications per year. When approved, each of these McMansions would require contractors to comply with Tier 1 of the Green Building ordinance and, therefore, carefully separate demolition building materials when old houses are hand-dismantled. The contractor would also be required to cover dirt and protect trees and plants. While this may have happened somewhere in Los Angeles, McMansion neighbors have never observed it. Never, ever.
Step 2: Creating a transparent permit review process. There is no way for the public to know how Building and Safety permits a specific McMansion. Furthermore, there is no way to know how Building and Safety interprets and applies the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance’s exemptions and bonuses. Are there guidelines, formal or informal, that are used to determine if an application meets the requirements for the three FAR bonuses? Are there Building and Safety employees who have devised their own lenient interpretations of the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance? Do McMansion contractors go permit shopping – as we assume — at different Building and Safety offices to get their projects quickly approved by specific plan checkers? No one outside LADBS can answer these questions, and this is why the full permitting process must become open and transparent to the public.
Step 3: Establishing careful oversight over demolitions to assure tha contractors adhere to all public health requirements. The mansionization story only gets worse when it comes to demolitions, which is why we say, “The more you stir it, the more it stinks.” In addition to contractors never complying with Tier 1 of the Green Building Ordinance, nearly all contractors fail to post their legally required demolition permits. In addition they typically fail to disconnect gas lines, fail to remediate asbestos and lead paint before and during demolitions (required by the South Coast Air Quality
Management District/SCAQMD and LA County’s Department of Public Health’s Environmental Affairs Division), and fail to properly remove demolition rubble according to the official regulations of the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation.
These slipshod practices apply to nearly every demolition, and it takes multiple public complaints to try to ensure that a house is legally and safely demolished to protect the health of workers and neighbors.
As for Building and Safety, their on-line demolition permits do not indicate if a contractor has been in contact with the SCAQMD regarding asbestos remediation, LA County Public Health regarding lead paint, or the Bureau of Sanitation regarding the proper sorting and removing of rubble. It also appears that the only action that LADBS takes for these public health concerns is to note that contractors signed a written declaration stating they would follow the regulations of other agencies. Since there is no LADBS follow-up, this seldom happens.
This is why diligent residents are forced to file code violation complaints directly with these other agencies. In response, these outside agencies report they do not make routine field inspections of demolition sites in Los Angeles. Instead, they only make a site visit when they receive a public complaint. As a result, several unsafe demolitions have been temporarily halted, but only after multiple public complaints. Meanwhile, nearly all demolitions continue unhindered by these public health requirements, exposing construction workers and neighbors to toxic pollutants. For example, in the Beverly
Grove neighborhood one of the worse demolitions was close to the Hancock Park Elementary School, a few feet from a sidewalk where many kids walked to school.
Like the demolition permits that contractors are legally required to post (but seldom do), compliance with these public health requirements should be plainly visible on all on-line and posted permits. LADBS inspectors should immediately shut down any demolition site that does not post permits, disconnect gas lines, remediate asbestos and lead paint, or properly sort and remove demolition rubble. After all, the Department of Building and Safety still has the word Safety in its official name. It should keep workers, neighbors, and students safe, not force neighbors to make endless phone calls in the hope that federal, state and local laws and regulations are properly followed at projects that Building and Safety permits and presumably inspects.
Like those nested Ukrainian dolls, we expect to discover still more skullduggery in the mansionization process. After all, each time we think we have finally figured out how LA’s neighborhoods are being mansionized, we uncover more slipshod and dangerous practices that are tucked away outside public view and scrutiny.
If you want further details, including support of a citywide coalition campaigning for amendments to the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance, you can “like” the following Facebook page:
(Note: CityWatchLA recently published an earlier version of this article.)
Dick Platkin teaches a course of sustainable city planning at USC and is on the board of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association. He welcomes questions and comments on this article at firstname.lastname@example.org.