Sunday, October 9, 2011

Bonus Zoning and Mansionization in Los Angeles

The indispensable Planetizen links to this interesting blog post on Los Angeles's efforts to deal with "Mansionization," in which homeowners tear down existing homes and build huge mansions on small lots (see the photo here.)  One wonders how much of a problem Mansionization is in the current economy, but apparently it still is, at least in some of LA's more affluent residential neighborhoods. 

In any event, Los Angeles apparently set down some basic Mansionization regulations, but allowed individual neighborhoods to adopt their own, more restrictive rules (which are subject to city council approval because, as I explain here, municipalities cannot constitutionally delegate their zoning power to neighborhoods).  Studio City, one of the aforementioned affluent residential neighborhoods, did in fact adopt a more restrictive set of Mansionization regulations, which the city council is expected to approve.  It is certainly intriguing to see wealthy homeowners signing on to a proposal that will reduce maximum home sizes, perhaps recognizing that property values are driven by aesthetic factors other than just size.

With that in mind, the text of the proposed Studio City ordinance, here, is very interesting.  It appears to be modeled on New York City's landmark 1961 zoning regulation, which introduced the concept of "bonus" or "incentive" zoning.  (Jerold Kayden has written a great book, Privately Owned Public Space, about the NYC regulation).  The Studio City ordinance provides for a maximum FAR (Floor Area Ratio -- percentage of the lot which can be covered with buildings), but permits greater lot coverage if homeowners incorporate certain design elements that mitigate the impact of the larger home.  In addition, homeowners can also qualify for an FAR bonus if they incorporate certain green building standards, such as qualifying for the LEED "Gold" standard. 

On a related note, and the hopeful subject of a future post, recent California legislation allows the governor to "fast-track" environmental review under the state's CEQA law if it meets the same LEED standard.  It appears, then, that these LEED standards are more and more being used as a talisman that assures some minimum level of environmental protection and therefore justifies the circumvention of otherwise applicable regulations.  But my admittedly amateurish understanding of LEED suggests that these standards leave a lot to be desired -- they can, for example, easily be manipulated to rack up lots of "points" for trivial environmental benefits. 

Should we be placing so much faith in LEED standards?  I welcome comments from those with greater knowledge of LEED.

Ken Stahl

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Ken -

Sarah Schindler (Maine and a UGA LUC alum) has done some scholarship on the use of LEED by government entities:

Posted by: Jamie Baker Roskie | Oct 10, 2011 12:31:23 PM