Returning to LA in sticker shock

wilshire-labrea-bldg.jpgThe new residential corner at Wilshire and La Brea. LA Observed photo.

By Silicon Valley standards, even by Los Angeles standards, Bishoy William's plan to redevelop his lot is ridiculous. The Palo Alto resident wants to demolish his 1,878- square foot, single-story home in a low-rise neighborhood, and replace it with an 11-bedroom house on three floors with 14 bathrooms and "powder rooms."

No surprise, William's neighbors are not happy ("powder rooms"?) and have petitioned local officials to block his plans.

Until I moved here two years ago, I thought this sort of residential gluttony was largely confined to the LA celebrity class, as in the 123-room chateau that Aaron and Candy Spelling built in Holmby Hills. (That home, which sold in 2011, included an entire floor of closets, a bowling alley, Candy's dedicated gift wrap rooms, and much more.)

But as we pack up to return to our 1948 tract house on the Westside, I realize that something is shifting in the San Francisco area, Los Angeles and many other desirable cities.

Eleven bedrooms for a family of four (Bishoy William and his wife have two children, according to the town newspaper) is beyond excessive. But only by degree.

In the oak-studded hills near our Palo Alto apartment are several newish French Provincial-style mansion-ettes with vanity vineyards (the must-have amenity around here), as well as multi-story "farmhouses" which, their rustic touches notwithstanding, feature chef's kitchens and home theaters. Sometimes even chicken coops and beehives.

A 3-bedroom house on one story no longer seems enough, as it did to my parents' WWII generation, but instead minimal, cramped. Or, as some of our newer, 30-something LA neighbors have described our tract, "starter homes."

At the same time, try landing a decent, affordable apartment in Los Angeles or Silicon Valley that isn't basically a tricked-out pantry.

The averages have widened. Mirroring America's growing economic and social disparities, houses have grown larger as apartments seem to have shrunk--and all of it has become frighteningly pricey.

On the peninsula here, one-story homes with a few years on them have become as rare as teeth on the Araucana hens up the road from us in Atherton. Here and in the Westdale neighborhood to which we're returning, realtors now bill those houses as the "canvas for your dream home." Teardowns, in other words.

Drive south a few miles from Palo Alto and El Camino Blvd--the Ventura Blvd. of Silicon Valley--has become a canyon of new five- and six- story apartment complexes with Spanish or French names that whisper of luxury. These block long developments tout amenities like granite counter tops, gyms and game rooms--and rents nudging $4,000 per month for a one-bedroom. Many units look right into each other with "Juliet balconies" so tiny that a Capulet could barely squeeze in.

(The NoCal building boom also contains moment of schadenfreude for Angelinos like me: After decades of sneering at LA commuters gridlocked on the 405, folks up here seem stunned to find themselves creeping across the Dumbarton Bridge during the morning rush or north along the 101.)

None of this is new, of course, except that the pace of change has accelerated. The Spellings built "The Manor" in the 1980s but soaring property values and the growing concentration of wealth in the decades since have given rise to a boom in gargantuan homes in LA and on the Peninsula. At the same time, both areas, once largely one-story communities, have been densifying with larger apartment buildings replacing smaller ones.

Visiting LA during the time we've been away--while being a newcomer up north--the changes in both places appear as a series of time-lapse photographs. Wait, when did the Buerge Ford dealership on Santa Monica Blvd in West LA disappear and the 147-unit Westgate Santa Monica complex take its place? What did that solid wall of new apartments on La Brea just south of Wilshire sweep away?

Developers are now circling in our modest Westdale tract, offering top dollar. "Don't fix a thing," read the unsolicited letter forwarded to us; we'll buy your house "as is."

The future now sits across the street from our LA house. The blue-sided behemoth ("Cape Cod-meets-the-Hamptons" boasts the realtor ad) stuffs 5 bedrooms, 6 baths, and the usual bells and whistles into 3,750 square feet. A pool and spa take up nearly the entire backyard. The $2.9 million asking price for this spec house is double the tract average.

No one seems to have a good answer to the land rush now underway. "Affordable" housing set asides: sure. But there are clearly not enough. Meanwhile, frustration and resentment builds as homeowners watch the character of their neighborhoods change and renters feel forever trapped in ever more unaffordable apartments.

Molly Selvin was a Los Angeles Times staff writer for 18 years.

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