Not loving it

Not loving it

Plans to raze a 1913 Craftsman home prompt Michillinda Park residents to rise up against ‘McMansionization’

By Jake Armstrong 02/03/2011

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Peacocks prance through yards and preen along the idyllic tree-shaded parkways that line streets in Michillinda Park.
 
But it’s something else that’s taking roost in this enclave of mostly well-maintained, architecturally prized homes at Pasadena’s southeast end that’s ruffling residents’ feathers: McMansions.
 
One by one over the past decade, the outsized homes have sprung up, consuming views of the San Gabriel Mountains while slowly jeopardizing the neighborhood’s charm, residents say.
 
But not until a new pair of owners set their sights on razing a 2,000 square-foot, four-bedroom Craftsman home and replacing it with a 5,000 square-foot home did a band of concerned residents spring to action — only to learn they may already be too late. 
Heads would roll in any other part of Pasadena, which has in place strict rules guiding what can and can’t be done to buildings of historical an architectural significance. But Michillinda Park sits in what the group likens to the hinterlands of historical protections, an unincorporated area just outside Pasadena proper that has made efforts to save the home almost futile.
 
“We’re literally in unincorporated limbo. There’s no place to go,” said Fred Raimondi, a film director who lives with his wife on Woodward Boulevard, six doors away from the 1913 home, in one of the few remaining Craftsman-style homes in the neighborhood.
 
Barring entry of a buyer to take the home, which last sold for $880,000, off the current owner’s hands, those trying to spare the Craftsman from almost certain destruction this spring may have hit a wall, as Los Angeles County has few — much less swift — remedies for protecting historic resources. 
 
“The immediate concern is to protect the Craftsman house,” said Mary Aschenbrener, a retired teacher who is helping lead the campaign while caring for her 99-year-old mother, who has lived in the neighborhood for 60 years. “Then we have to figure out what is the next step of protecting this entire community from that sort of thing.” 

The way it is 
Raimondi doesn’t recall any of the oversized houses existing when he moved to Michillinda Park in 1995. But about a decade ago, builders started erecting the multi-story houses amid the Spanish revival and English Tudor homes among the 225 in 
the neighborhood.
Raimondi said years ago his neighbors put up an 8,000 square-foot home with a guest house that now blocks what once was a window view of the mountains. Now, about a dozen “McMansions” have popped up, with two or three more under construction.
But Raimondi said the effect the massive homes have had on Michillinda Park hasn’t been all that bad.
 
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword for us,” he said. “If we were greedy, we’d say ‘build, build, build,’ because it just makes our property values go up. But the real value in Michillinda Park is historical. I’m going to die in this house. I’m not going to do any better than this. I want to try to keep it the way it is.”
 
Michillinda Park neighbors and the LA Conservancy are working with county planning officials to devise some type of historical protection for Michillinda Park and other unincorporated areas. However, the existing methods of doing so — community standards districts guiding zoning and development in specific unincorporated areas — typically address only the technical issues of development, such as building heights and density, said LA County Planning Director Richard Bruckner, who previously headed Pasadena’s Planning Department. “It’s unclear where that dialogue would go, but the districts typically include setbacks, building height and densities,” he said, not wanting to comment on the ironic undertones of the situation in which he now finds himself.

‘High bar’ to get over
The lack of any formal historic preservation laws in unincorporated areas leaves historically significant properties vulnerable, and that’s been one lament of preservationists.
 
“We recognize that it is desperately needed within the unincorporated areas,” said Adrian Scott Fine, director of advocacy for the LA Conservancy, a nonprofit preservation group. “That is kind of a fundamental planning tool that other areas offer.”
But in some unincorporated areas, similar groups of residents have banded together to help their neighborhood maintain a sense of place, like in Altadena, where the post-World War II boom had a big impact on development and eventually gave rise to Altadena Heritage, a community-based preservation group. 
 
“We lost so many houses in the ’50s and ’60s. That’s why people finally got together and said this has got to stop,” said Michele Zack, a board member with the roughly 25-year-old organization.
 
To advance the cause, the group convinces residents to declare their neighborhood an “Altadena Heritage Area.” It’s an informal designation that carries no legal weight, but it has a positive effect, Zack said. “It seems to help raise consciousness,” she said.
Altadena has no specific historic preservation laws in its community standards district, but the county does notify the group if changes are proposed to any historically or architecturally significant buildings on North Lake Avenue, Zack said. That notice helped the group keep a cell phone tower off of St. Elizabeth Catholic Church, designed by notable architect Wallace Neff, about a year ago.
 
Zack said preservation without the typical tools of historical preservation ordinances is a difficult but not unworkable task. “If it’s a local concern, you really need to get a lot of political power behind you to mount a campaign for anything. It’s a high bar to be able to get over,” she said.

‘A moving timeline’
For all the concern with McMansionization, there could come a day when preservationists argue that the oversized homes lend architectural value to the neighborhood, according to Fine. 
“Preservation is all about a moving timeline,” he said, adding that 50 year is usually how much time must pass before buildings can be judged on their historic merits. “My guess, just like predecessors before me might have been cringing from the thought of preserving styles of the 1950s or ’60s, that we will be preserving some of what are deemed McMansions as preference of the housing styles of the decade.” 

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