Commentary Regarding the Draft West Hollywood West Neighborhood Overlay District Design Standards Presented October 6, 2022
West Hollywood West comprises the residential area bounded by Melrose Avenue, La Cienega Boulevard, Beverly Boulevard, and Doheny Drive. There are approximately 575 single family residential lots within the WHW area, all of which are zoned RB-1. All RB-1 lots throughout the City of West Hollywood are permitted to build a residential unit that is one-half of the area of the lot, i.e.: .5 far (floor area ratio). While the West Hollywood Code states that the minimum residential lot size is 5000 square feet, many WHW lots are smaller. Nonetheless, approximately 256 of the residential lots in WHW are larger than 5000 square feet. Of these 256 lots, 68 are greater than 6000 square feet. Of this 68 lot subset, 30 lots are larger than 6100 square feet, and a handful are more than 7000 square feet.
West Hollywood West was originally built in the early 1900s, and the current housing stock includes homes built in the 1920s and 30s. These homes are smaller than many contemporary homes, generally less than 2000 square feet, and almost uniformly are single story. The area has experienced a popularity boom since 2000, which has caused some concern. Notably, people began adding second story additions to existing homes, or scraping lots and building as large as possible. The .5 far limitations were stretched as people built large decks that they would enclose after passing inspection. The new structures often were built without consideration of the effects on the neighbors or the overall community. It was decided that creation of an overlay district could help preserve the essential character of the neighborhood.
In 2014, with considerable input from WHWRA, the City Council adopted the West Hollywood West Neighborhood Overlay District (“NOD”) and Design Guidelines in response to community concerns regarding the design of new dwelling units in WHW. The goals of the NOD include (1) managing change in the neighborhood, (2) protecting the qualities and characteristics of the neighborhood that are valued by current residents and property owners, (3) ensuring that new construction and remodels enhance the existing character and quality of the neighborhood, and (4) allowing flexibility for creative design solutions. The NOD is meant to amend and supplement the developments standards set forth in the Title 19 Zoning Ordinance of the West Hollywood Municipal Code. In addition to the NOD and Title 19, all WHW development is subject to the applicable development standards of the primary RB-1 zoning district.
The NOD maintained the .5 far, clarifying that the calculation would exclude detached garages of less than 400 square feet (a common feature of older homes).
In response to the looming effect of many new two-story buildings or second story additions, the NOD required that, for all two-story structures, either (1) at least one fourth of
each building elevation would be set back at least three feet from the remaining elevational plane, or (2) the floor area of the second story would not exceed 75% of the floor area of the ground floor, and front and side elevations would not be solid planes, but would have at least three-foot variation in depth and width. The goal was to prevent the big block effect.
Additionally, in response to noise and privacy concerns of existing residents, the NOD limited the size of side balconies to 80 square feet, and rear balconies to 144 square feet. The NOD also prohibited all roof decks.
The NOD did not alter front, side or rear setbacks for structures. The NOD did add setbacks for basements, which allowed the basement to extend under both front and rear above-ground set backs. The NOD did not otherwise restrict basement size.
To prevent the paving over of front yards for parking, the NOD proscribed driveway widths greater than ten feet in the first 1/3 of the front of the property, and required driveways to be located no more than three feet (roughly) from the side of the lot. The NOD also addressed driveway visibility concerns, and restricted the use of subterranean parking. In addition, the NOD provided requirements for accessory units and deferred to the Municipal Code with respect to Acoustical and Light Trespass.
Under the NOD, a Development Permit was to issue only if the project complied with the NOD. In addition, it had to fit the neighborhood in terms of massing scale, proportion, landscaping, site and streetscape design, use quality materials and reflect unique design. The goal was an aesthetic that would be eclectic and not contain “cookie-cutter” houses, which had started to become an issue.
The NOD was updated somewhat in 2019, and the above summary reflects that update.
Over time, some additional concerns have arisen. Developers have come in and built speculative homes, almost always two-story, that are geared to generate profit. They have installed basements that are larger than the building footprint, causing concerns about the impact on the water table, water movement, existing neighboring homes and trees. The new construction includes balconies that impinge on privacy of adjacent homes and yards. Similarly, noise and light trespass have become significant issues.
The October 6 Proposal
WHW residents raised some of these concerns with the City. Ostensibly in response, the City Staff have proposed to update the NOD. While perhaps well-intentioned, the October 6 proposal (the “Staff NOD”) imposes restrictions and requirements that, in many respects, are incompatible with the goals of the NOD, and are inimical to the rights of existing property owners.
The NOD was meant to address WHW concerns about design of dwelling units and preservation of neighborhood character. In the latest iteration, staff has moved beyond the WHW objective to “better align new structure designs to enhance public safety, neighborhood livability, economic inclusion, environmentally responsible practices, and climate responsive design. Staff claims that the proposed amendment is exempt from CEQA review because it “involves minor updates to the existing West Hollywood West Neighborhood Overlay District design standards.” In actuality, it expropriates essential landowner rights and imposes requirements that are inconsistent the historical and current neighborhood character. It seems that Staff has determined to make WHW the guinea pig for untested strategies to achieve “the City’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan goals.” This is too much to load into the NOD. We just want to avoid being overwhelmed by McMansions and McBasements.
1. New Size Limit
a. The 2500 sf proposal is not acceptable
Every lot in West Hollywood that is zoned RB-1 is entitled to build a residence that is one-half the area of the lot. This .5 floor area ratio is an intrinsic element of an owner’s property rights. The Staff NOD would alter this by allowing construction of 2000 square feet on lots up to 4000 square feet (so more than .5 far for lots under 4000 square feet). This results in crowding small lots. At the other end of the spectrum, the Staff NOD would NOT permit owners of lots larger than 5000 square feet to build to the permitted .5 far. They would be restricted to 2500 square feet, regardless of lot size. This proposal was not presented to WHWRA prior to October 6. It is not acceptable. 256 lots, more than half of the residential lots in WHW, would be materially harmed by this proposal (although 79 already have been developed to greater than 2500 square feet to sizes conforming to the .5 far).
Staff asserted at the October 6 hearing that any change would be more than offset by the right to build a basement and an ADU. This is not valid. An existing homeowner who wants to build an addition to their home is unlikely to excavate a basement, and may not want an ADU. For example, an owner of an old 1500 square foot home on a 6000 square foot lot may wish to build a second story. The size of this construction would be limited by setback requirements, the .5 far, and the requirement that the second story be at least 25% smaller than the first story (although Staff inexplicably proposes to increase the second story to just 20% smaller than the ground floor). Quite possibly the resulting 2-story home would be less than 3000 square feet, and something that could be built anywhere else in the city. NO residential lot is West Hollywood has a far below .5.
The existing constraints preserve property value and owner rights, and also protect neighborhood interests. Reducing building rights to less than .5 far for
this segment of lots in WHW would create 256 inferior properties out of the entire number of RB-1 properties in the entire City of West Hollywood. There is no possible recompense to these owners nor justification for causing this harm.
b. Address Concerns about Lot Consolidation Directly
Staff has expressed concern that developers are buying (or may in the future buy) multiple adjacent lots with the intention of building very large mansions that would be out of character for WHW. This concern can be addressed by restricting development in other ways. For example, construction on adjacent lots that are combined into a single lot could be sized based on the pre-consolidated lot sizes. If a 5000 square foot lot were combined with a 6000 square foot lot, the residence could be no larger than 3000 square feet – the size permitted on the 6000 square foot lot. Similarly, the proposal to limit the frontage of a building to 40 feet unless there is a major articulation will avoid some excessive size.
Local real estate agents have indicated that there has not been much consolidation activity to date. Thus, this land restriction could be enacted prior to such activity. Unlike existing owners of lots larger than 5000 square feet, a future purchaser of lots with the intent to combine them would be on notice of the limitations that would apply.
2. Other Proposed Elements of the Staff NOD Bear Consideration
Staff proposes to enhance existing setback requirements in several ways that will address WHW concerns:
The existing NOD requires an additional front setback on the second story of six feet. The Staff NOD appears to require that same additional setback on the sides (and rear?) of the second story as well. Given the canyon effect that results when side-by-side second stories are just 10 feet apart, this is an excellent proposal.
Additionally, the Staff NOD would continue to allow 80 square foot side balconies but would reduce the maximum size of back balconies to 120 square feet. This should help to reduce noise and enhance privacy on adjacent property. To further abate noise, it would be advisable to require acoustic materials to be installed at the ceiling of all covered patios.
Similarly, the Staff NOD will require basements to be built only in the area under the above-ground structure.
This requirement, which I understand to be the common practice nationwide, will increase the protection for/stability of adjacent lots. It also will reduce the likelihood of leaks into subterranean spaces.
However, the Staff NOD also proposes to limit basements to 400 square feet. There is no clear scientific support for this size limit, or even whether the construction and presence of basements presents an environmental hazard such that they should not be allowed at all. It would be useful to have engineering and hydrology/geotechnical studies performed, and need to be reviewed by knowledgeable city personnel or professionals engaged by the city. Key personnel have acknowledged that they are not sufficiently trained or knowledgable to be competent in conducting the requisite reviews.
b. Height Limits
Staff proposes new two-story height limits. This appears to address WHW concerns about perceived big box masses. Flat roofs would be limited to 22 feet, and sloped roofs would be limited to a maximum of 28 feet and an average of 25 feet. This is a modification that is consistent with the goal of lightening the effect of two-story buildings.
c. Second Floor Limits
The Staff NOD providing that a roof area taller than 25 feet has to be more than 10 feet from the property line is helpful. Additional consideration should be given to increasing second story set-back requirements as well.
d. Requirements Regarding Port Cocheres
Many traditional homes in WHW have porte cocheres. The Spanish homes often have a porte cochere integrated into the facade of the home, so that the tile roofline continues across the front of the house and over the (often arched) porte cochere. This is a classic and graceful way of providing space of a vehicle, and a covered entrance to the home. A fine example of 5 such traditional homes with portes cochere, all originally built circa 1930, is found on the west side of the 500 block of Huntley Drive. Portes cochere also offer a handy space to transition from vehicle to home without exposure to the elements.
Two requirements of the Staff NOD are contrary to this classic design:
(1) requiring the porte cochere to be set back at least four feet from the façade, which would break the classic flow of the roofline as well as the facade. This sort of setback may make sense for some more modern buildings, but not for traditional designs.
(2) Requiring every porte cochere to have a green roof would prevent traditional construction. Replacing a peaked tile roof with a flat green roof would not be typical of the existing neighborhood and would not fit many different designs. This requirement is an example of Staff taking a trendy concept and imposing it indiscriminately. In addition to appearing anachronous, it poses serious maintenance problems. How does a resident access the roof to maintain it? How is it watered? Not everyone hires a gardener or wants to. Not every resident is able-bodied, nor is every able-bodied resident up to climbing a ladder to tend a roof garden. It would be fine to permit green roofs. They absolutely should not be mandated, and portes cochere that are attractive but not-green-roofed should not be banned.
e. Driveway Requirements Are Unwieldy
The Staff NOD contains a number of new requirements around driveways. The requirement that 40% of the entire driveway surface be fully permeable may be problematic as an engineering matter. Much of the WHW land is solid clay. Water can sit for weeks without being absorbed. How will this work with a “fully permeable” driveway? Similarly, driveways usually are built on a solid concrete base so that it will remain flat for a period of years. Permeable surfaces are prone to expand, contract, and fill with tree roots. The Staff NOD separately addresses permeable area by requiring that at least half of all setback and yard area be permeable. That should suffice.
The NOD already has visibility requirements for driveways. The Staff NOD adds complications that are meant to enhance safety but are not consistent with the existing built environment. Neighbors have expressed strong concerns about the viability of the Staff NOD proposals, and further consideration should be given to enforcement of the existing requirements.
f. Light Trespass
The Staff NOD addresses a specific downlight issue. However, ambient lighting is an issue for neighbors as well as for the environment. Instead of just addressing spacing, there should be consideration of limiting uplights and requiring that lights be shielded so that they are not lighting upward or adjacent spaces. This is an issue that should be addressed city-wide.
g. Noise Trespass
This also is an issue that affects both personal and environmental well-being and should be addressed city-wide. The Staff NOD addresses pool equipment noise, which the current code exempts from all control as long as the equipment is “properly maintained.” Experience shows that this standard is not enforced, and residents effectively are being deprived of their back yards. The Staff NOD proposal requiring enclosures is welcome, and should be retroactive. It is not expensive to do, but current owners have not been required to and neighbors suffer. What were quiet (approx. 40-42 db) yards, are now filled with a 50 db drone for eight to ten hours every day. The proposed 60db range is ambiguous. Does it mean the volume range directly at the equipment, that the equipment operates at before mitigation? It should not mean the post-mitigation volume that is heard on an adjacent property. It is essential to honor the rights of neighbors to quiet enjoyment of their property. The relative quiet of WHW is one of the most valued qualities of the neighborhood.
This is an area that needs to be addressed with great care and needs to be coordinated with code enforcement, as that department currently does not consider decibel ranges for any purpose.
Getting professional advice about writing the code to require much higher standards would be invaluable.
The current Code requires that hedges within five feet of the side and rear setbacks be maintained at a height of no more than six feet. The City in recent years has opted not to enforce front hedge height limits. The Staff NOD creates limits relative to driveway visibility but proposes for there to be no limits other than that. Municipalities have established an enforced hedge limits to assure that there is adequate light and air to adjoining properties. In recent years, as people have built taller homes, they have grown hedges to hide their windows. Unfortunately, this also blocks light and air flow. As between neighbors that agree, it is reasonable to allow for taller hedges, but the height restrictions should be maintained AND ENFORCED as between adjacent properties where there is no other agreement. With a lack of enforcement, hedges often grow to a height that is not controlled, and the result is a solid line of trees. Adjacent plantings are denied light and air flow and unhealthy conditions result. As an example, see the mealy bug infestation in the hedges south of Melrose along Huntley Drive. Moreover, the adjacent neighbor is subjected to a maintenance chore on their side of the hedge, and may find it impracticable to neatly maintain a hedge that has
been allowed to grow more than six or eight feet tall. The city should require Code Enforcement to resume enforcement of the existing height limits, and future construction should conform to those limits.
i. Accessory Buildings
The NOD and the Staff NOD both contain language regarding the structure and use of accessory buildings, and how they count toward far or not. The Staff NOD is supposed to work with the new California rules regarding ADUs. The Staff NOD does not address ADUs, or how to distinguish an ADU from an accessory building. Garages similarly are not clearly delineated. A proposed construction in the neighborhood indicates that there will be a maximum sized two-story house plus a garage/ADU. More consideration should be given to clarifying the elements of and the requirements attendant to each of these types of buildings.