Mansionization Returns: The Too Big House and the Image of L.A.

The inflated homes of the currently well to do are back -- a new wave of the hulking McMansions that led Beverly Hills in 2004 to regulate teardowns and their replacement by oversize confections named "Persian Palaces."

Other cities followed with similar anti-mansionization ordinances (including even my tract house suburb of Lakewood) to limit how many square feet of house can be built on the typical 5,000-square-foot lot. But generous "lot coverage" rules and other loopholes -- particularly within Los Angeles city limits -- have been waiting for the lifting of the recession. Big houses in neighborhoods of not so big have begun to hit the market in Hollywood, the Valley, and West L.A.

According to Curbed LA:

It's the same story - cash-rich developers buying up every available property and replacing them with the largest boxes they can possibly build under current codes. Most residents aren't complaining too loudly about the style of these houses, at least not with the same undertones of prejudice there were in Beverly Hills a few years ago. These larger houses often don't even stray from popular standards of contemporary design. It's the scale and mass that has everyone so upset. Some are unhappy because they feel the new houses are ruining the character of their neighborhoods, others because they're losing their privacy. But they all have one thing in common--they are very angry.

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Builders of "spec" houses and the architects who design them are pushing back against the anti-mansionizers. "If the city code allows it, and you want a bigger house, you have the right to a bigger house," one builder told the Los Angeles Times. "This is America. It's a free country."

Architect Daniel Bibawi told the Times that new houses typically have at least five bedrooms in Los Angeles neighborhoods where teardowns are still possible. Size restrictions in the Beverly Glen neighborhood of Los Angeles, he says, have "become a real bear to deal with, from the design point of view. People hire you to build what they want. But then you have to tell them -- they can't have what they want."

What new Angeleños want in a house has changed since the turn of the 20th century. Until very recently, there was a consensus about what a middle-class house in Los Angeles should look like.

It would be rambling, often a single story, and open to the light and air. It would have something of the Mexican hacienda about it, even if wood siding and a shingle roof evoked a ranch rather than a rancho. It would be set in its garden, even if it was just a patch of lawn, a lemon tree, and a patio out back. It would defer to its neighbors, adopting the camouflage of uniform scale and mass but without the repetitiveness of East Coast row houses. It would, at its best, project ease and informality above other values.

Codified in zoning ordinances and building regulations, that house filled the parts of Los Angeles County that weren't built-up urban centers or foothill estates.

The consensus about a home in Los Angeles hasn't become entirely undone, but it will continue to unravel. Development restrictions are pushing mansionization into lesser parts of the desirable west of Los Angeles for cash buyers who will accept an expensive piece of stucco happiness, but only on their own terms.

A house in some parts of Los Angeles has become an unstable dynamic of big aspirations, small lot sizes, and the economics of speculative construction. The West Hollywood City Council recently imposed a 45-day moratorium on all two-story, single-family home construction while new building regulations are developed. The moratorium has since been extended until the end of the year.

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