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Zoning Amendment That Could Curb Mansionization Goes Before Council

Residents have been calling for action for at least 5 years

Published on Monday, October 19, 2020 | 1:00 am

The City Council on Monday will deliberate on a proposed zoning code amendment designed to address mansionization, something local residents have long been calling on city officials to bring under control. 

Mansionization occurs when homeowners remodeling their homes create a structure that is out of scale, or ill-proportioned, or out of character with its surrounding neighborhood. 

Under the proposed zoning amendment, applicants would be required to provide a square-footage analysis of all single-family houses (not including garages or accessory structures) within a 500-foot radius of the proposed project. 

“This radius will serve as the project’s immediate ‘neighborhood,’” according to a city staff report. “The required analysis will include the individual floor areas of all houses within the neighborhood as well as a calculation of the average floor area. The proposed project would not be permitted to exceed 35 percent above the median home size in the neighborhood.”

Should the council direct staff to work with the city attorney to prepare the appropriate revisions to the city zoning code, staff would develop findings that would allow a project to exceed 35 percent above the median home size in the neighborhood if the project was found to be compatible with the neighborhood. 

Several residents signed a petition opposing the amendment and sent copies to the Pasadena City Council.

“We strongly oppose the zoning code amendment to Single-Family Standards — in particular we strongly oppose the proposed restriction to limit ‘new houses to less than 35 percent above, the median floor area of houses within 500 feet.’ In short,” the petition states, “the proposed limit is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach that fails to account for the unique circumstances of many neighborhoods within Pasadena and will unfairly impose extreme and unreasonable burdens on many homeowners [in particular those that own a large lot of land.]” 

The issue came before the Planning Commission twice this summer. The commission supported the amendment. 

The preservation group Pasadena Heritage has been vocal about these concerns over the years. The nonprofit has been saying that new developments were continuing in Pasadena “at an aggressive pace” and have presented a constant challenge to maintaining the historic character of the city’s residential neighborhoods.

Angry residents

When the issue came before the Planning Commission this summer, concerned residents criticized the Planning Department for not notifying neighbors about the scope of a project. Other neighbors called for signs accurately describing projects and an effort to make sure that projects are compatible with the neighborhood.

Andrew Oksner said a notice posted on a home across the street from his house said there would be an “addition of 583 square feet to extend the living, dining, and family rooms.” 

“My reaction was ‘great,’ as such would be a clear investment and improvement to the neighborhood,” Oksner said.

But that welcoming reaction was short-lived. 

“Improvements of far more than 583 [square feet] seem to be being built — there is a new facade, roof, second-floor deck, chimney, and additional and/or significantly enlarged rooms.”

In another incident, Michael Gottlieb said his neighbor built a large home that was grossly incompatible with other homes and the character of his Linda Vista neighborhood. However, the posted sign for the project only said the project was a “second story/remodel.”

“Nothing was shared with us before construction,” Gottlieb said. “In fact, my neighbor tore down the existing structure and built a house that towers over my own [admittedly in part due to a rise in the elevation of the street]. Its porch extends nearly to the sidewalk and the house occupies the whole street side of the lot. 

“Neighbors stop and stare and shake their heads. Yes, it is their property. But even if within code shouldn’t the Planning Department take into account compatibility with neighboring structures and preservation of the character of neighborhoods?”

The Linda Vista-Annandale Association questioned the city’s review process, and its compatibility and design standards.

“Although we are perceived as a hillside area, in fact, a significant percentage of our neighborhood is considered ‘flat’ [about 15-20 percent] and is being altered in accordance with underlying zoning in a manner that is out of scale, out of character, and with unacceptable impacts on adjacent neighbors and potential historic resources and streets,” wrote association President Nina Chomsky. “And, the time is now  — we have several streets at a tipping point where character, scale, and valuable architecture and design are about to be lost forever.”

Long discussion time

Serious discussions about mansionization at the city level began in 2015. It was then that the Planning and Community Development Department held citywide community meetings focused on single-family home neighborhood issues.

Other meetings were also held focusing on Lower Hastings Ranch and on Hillside Overlay District areas, which helped the department learn of neighborhood concerns about mansionization from a wider cross-section of the community.

The meetings ultimately led to the formulation of design guidelines that could eventually cover all other single-family home residential zones in the city.

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