On the Westside, "Mansionization" Is Gentrification on Steroids

Isadora Chesler, left, and Michele Abbott protested the big-box mansion next door with tongue-in-cheek flair.
Isadora Chesler, left, and Michele Abbott protested the big-box mansion next door with tongue-in-cheek flair.
Photo by Nanette Gonzales Castro

Clark Carlton is walking in his Beverly Grove neighborhood. A few streets down from the Spanish Colonial revival home he shares with his partner, he stops by a white, glistening, angular house — a modernist's dream — that takes up most of a corner lot.

"There are rumors about who lives here," Carlton says. "A retired football player, a former porn star..."

In fact, the resident of the house is neither. Reached by L.A. Weekly, he explains that he works downtown, commuting there most days. He bought the home in February for about $4 million, choosing the tree-lined neighborhood, with its Old World charm, in part for its central location.

He also requested that his name, and any identifying photos, be left out of this article. "I don't want," he says, "to get caught in the middle of anything."

It might be too late for that. Like others who have purchased new homes in the area, he's unwittingly at the center of a fiery battle between neighborhood activists and developers. Replacing long-beloved, Spanish Colonials with sleek new designs, developers have kicked up a storm of resistance from those who love the area for its prevailing aesthetic.

Now, what began as a dispute fought with City Hall legislation and paperwork has escalated to name-calling, drive-by fruit-hurling and even intimidation.

While the disagreement seems to be based on architectural predilections, it touches on something much deeper: a sense of community, a desire to freeze-frame a prized way of life and strongly held visions of Los Angeles itself.

The trouble in Beverly Grove began in the early aughts. Neighbors such as Shelley Wagers, now an anti-mansionization activist, noticed large, out-of-scale homes going up in nearby Beverly Hills.

"It seemed to me and to a couple other folks like something that was going to spill into our neighborhood," Wagers says. "And then the first of the oversized, out-of-character homes was built in 2004. It was fairly clear that this was the tip of the iceberg."

Wagers and fellow activists petitioned City Hall to make protective changes to the zoning and building regulations. Eventually they convinced the usually pro-development L.A. City Council, to adopt a citywide ordinance restricting home sizes — by specifying how much of a lot the homes could cover.

"Initially," Wagers says, "it looked very promising."

But then, city planners created numerous incentives to allow far bigger homes. Developers could add 20 percent if a home was "LEED-certified," meaning it has great insulation, specially designed lighting and energy-efficient appliances; or if the top floor was at least 25 percent smaller than the first; or if the home's front included a setback, or an indentation.

In 2008, by the time the council passed the final draft — the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance — activists saw it as a joke.

Says Wagers, "We ended up with what is essentially a toothless ordinance."

Dick Platkin, a retired city planner who has been working with Wagers for years, agrees. On a recent Sunday, Platkin ambles through his peaceful neighborhood, about a half-mile south of Carlton's home.

Gesturing to both sides of Fourth Street, Platkin points out the new homes. "They're ghastly," he says, calling them "Hummer houses, McMansions — in Beverly Hills, they call them Persian palaces, but we don't use that because it's kind of an ethnic slur."

Activists say the buildings put homes into shade and overlook once-private yards and bedrooms, stealing away privacy. "No more skinny-dipping," Carlton says.

Whether these homes decrease or increase the value of houses next door is another point of contention. Those in favor of development insist that these new homes, designed for a richer crowd and selling for nearly four times that of the elegant ranch and Spanish houses, raise property values.

What's clear, says City Council member Paul Koretz, is that "people are almost universally not happy with [new development], unless they're the ones coming up and doing it next."

Beverly Grove residents Michele Abbott and Isadora Chesler live in a classic Spanish Colonial, and recently posted big signs in their yard to coincide with a real estate agent's open house, right next door, held to show off a towering new home. The signs read, "Privacy: Sun: Gone" and "We Have Loud Parties With Gay People."

"We want to be friendly," Chesler says, "but we do have loud parties and gay people back here — so if you're not OK with that, you better move somewhere else."

While their approach was tongue-in-cheek, some haven't been so civil. A 35-year-old professional who recently moved into a modern home with his partner says they knew nothing about the clash into which they'd stepped. He says they were immediately targeted.

"In one day, we had three neighbors tell us they didn't like our house," he says. "Someone threw a lemon at our house. We think they don't like us because of the house."

But this upscale couple is happy with their home and plans to stay for at least a few years. "It's not the most practical thing for expanding our family, but it has cool perks, neat lighting, neat appliances." And, he adds, "We don't want to cower away and leave."

So just who is pulling down these fine old homes? Are they the "Israeli investors" Chesler hears about? Or young men blaring "Middle Eastern electronic music" who irritate Carlton? Or are they indeed, as both Carlton and Chesler insinuate, some type of threatening, bulldoze-and-rebuild mafia?

Tomer Fedida was raised in the Hollywood Hills, and at 24 he's president of multimillion-dollar Fedida Properties, founded by his father.

The Fedidas build pricey homes primarily in Beverly Grove and the Hollywood Hills. Tomer says he calls the two areas "great pocket" neighborhoods sought by young professionals because "not everyone can afford to live in Beverly Hills."

He "can understand that [residents] have a legitimate gripe with what's been going on," but calls his business "healthy and natural. ... To hinder it doesn't make sense. ... Market forces, they do what they will."

But city planners are working on a new Baseline Mansionization Ordinance to restrict such homes, following a new directive from the L.A. City Council. The planners are writing up an Interim Control Ordinance until a final ordinance is ready, the idea being to prevent demolition of single-family homes in neighborhoods where residents, from very rich to working-class, have mobilized against mansionization. The ordinance might be applied to such areas as Carthay Square, El Sereno, Holmby Hills, North Beverly Grove, Oxford Square, Sunset Square and Studio City, a few of which are also under consideration for official preservation status.

The legislation won't end the complex divides over mansionization. Several months ago, a two-story home arose adjacent to the home of Vera and Gregory Lerman, who had lived next door to Chesler and Abbott for 35 years. Vera, from the Ukraine, doesn't mind. "You want a fancy house, it's fine," the 75-year-old resident says.

But the tall house cuts off sunlight to their bedroom. "My husband is almost 80," she says. "He's getting cold, he's not feeling well. He spends a lot of time in the bedroom. [But] they make a closet out of the bedroom."

On the other side of the Chesler/Abbott home, the real estate agent is holding the open house. The interior is "staged" with edgy art, white shag rugs and crisp linen furniture. A copy of "Los Angeles: Then and Now" lies open on a console.

The home's balcony, a glinting, pebbled affair hemmed in with waist-high black glass, overlooks the Lermans' backyard. The Lermans' pool, the center of neighborhood parties when they were younger, is gathering a layer of leaves.

Meanwhile, a polished 30-something couple, the male half of which cradles a black and tan Chihuahua like a football, strolls through the open house.

"This is gorgeous," the woman says, before making her way down the stairs.

Reach the writer at jessicapauline@gmail.com.


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