What the housing density bill might do to historic neighborhoods

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California faces a housing crisis. So a bill in the state legislature aims to get lots of housing built -- by overriding local zoning control.

It is called SB50; its author is State Senator Scott Wiener from San Francisco and it would allow four to five story apartment buildings in neighborhoods up to a half mile from mass transit or jobs-rich areas.

“I think it's a really generational opportunity to make California a more affordable place to live,” said Brent Gaisford, a developer and board chair of the advocacy group Abundant Housing LA. He notes the state’s housing shortage has caused “net out migration. We're losing people, if not for the babies born here in California.”

The bill is a variant on last year’s SB 827, also authored by Wiener. That bill failed and already LA City Councilmembers have signalled their opposition to SB 50 by a 12-0 vote. But, the bill is moving through the legislature in Sacramento.

So opponents of SB 50 are gearing up for a fight.

Jill Stewart of the Coalition to Preserve Los Angeles speaks at the “Stop SB50!” town hall meeting on April 30. Photo by Frances Anderton/KCRW

One the groups most concerned with the bill’s possible impacts is homeowners in Historic Preservation Overlay Zones, or HPOZs. There are 35 of them in LA and they protect the planning and architectural character of neighborhoods with a high number of historic houses.

Think Hancock Park in mid-Wilshire, or the Carthays in the Pico-La Cienega area -- developments of gorgeous interwar, revival style architecture on leafy quiet streets, but built close to mass transit routes.

Residents of these protected neighborhoods fear that four or five-storey buildings could land next door to the graceful mansions of Hancock Park or the two-storey duplexes and fourplexes of the Carthays.

Michael Sims, owner of a duplex in Carthay Square, says he is not opposed to apartment buildings but he is opposed to oversized structures that would “destroy the entire conformity of the neighborhood. . . whether it be in Leimert Park or whether it be in Beverly Hills.”

DnA attended a packed town hall meeting billed “Stop SB50!”, and sought answers through interviews with Senator Scott Wiener, developer and housing advocate Brent Gaisford, and residents of three HPOZs.

The takeaway? This bill is complicated.

Wiener says “SB 50 rezones for density in certain areas” but does “not override local historic protections and... does not change the approval process for individual projects.”

Walter Dominguez is a resident of South Carthay, a historic preservation overlay zone, and organized the “Stop SB50!” meeting. Photo by Frances Anderton/KCRW

Yet planners and preservationists who have scrutinized the fine print of the bill say there are all sorts of unclear details and exemptions. For example, HPOZs enacted after 2010 are not protected, nor are less historically significant “non-contributing” residences in pre-2010 HPOZs.

After all, the point of SB50 is to force over-protective homeowner groups to make room for more housing.

Wiener tells DnA that homeowners have to stop trying “to freeze a neighborhood in amber,” adding, “I’ve lived in my neighborhood for 22 years and I love it. But we have to also understand that neighborhood character is not just about physical layout and design of the neighborhood. ... We want diverse and income-diverse neighborhoods and you can only get there if you have enough housing for people.”