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In San Marino election, mansionization is top worry

Mounting backlash in San Marino against teardowns and the construction of bigger, taller houses will come to the fore in Tuesday's municipal election.

Four out of the five candidates are campaigning against so-called mansionization, a building trend that’s set off alarms this year in this well-to-do L.A. suburb. Facing public pressure, officials approved - then extended - a moratorium on permits for home demolitions and second-story additions. This year also saw several departures from a volunteer panel accused of failing to meet its charge of keeping building projects up to city design standards.  

Scuffles over mansionization happen regularly across metropolitan Los Angeles, as homeowners and developers strive to maximize square footage on their lots to the chagrin of neighbors worried about aesthetics and privacy. But it's taken on a cultural dimension in the San Gabriel Valley, where an influx of Chinese immigrants has turned the local real estate market into one of the area's hottest. And nowhere in the valley is more prestigious than San Marino with its top-performing schools and well-kept neighborhoods.

“If you go to China, and say ‘I’m from San Marino, they know that. They know San Marino,” said real estate broker Brent Chang.  

Chang said Chinese newcomers are not the only people behind the razing of dozens of homes in the last several years. But Chinese immigrants are most closely associated with mansionization because they dominate the real estate market. About 90 percent of the prospective buyers he deals with are from China, and many arrive with ideas about what their American home should look like.

"It’s big, it’s grand, and it’s got marble, pillars," Chang said. "It shows you 'Hey, person that’s visiting me from China, look at what I’ve done here.'"

Brent Chang

When deep-pocketed immigrants can’t find the house they want, they’ll try to build it, said Yong Chen, a professor of Asian-American history at the University of California Irvine. He said they believe that newer is better.

"When they build a new home, they have some say in how it is designed and feng shui is very important," Chen said, referring to the Chinese design philosophy that emphasizes spatial harmony.

Some developers who understand the Chinese buyers are trying to do the work for them.  Jimmy Chen, who was born in China and lives in San Marino, has been working as an accountant but has started to dabble in home construction. With a partner, he bought an unassuming one-story house as an investment property for $1.4 million.

"This property looks very, very old," Chen said. "That’s why we want to renovate and make it more valuable."

He plans to replace the house with a two-story Spanish colonial with twice as much square-footage, and hopes it’ll sell for twice as much. But Chen said it’s increasingly hard to get projects like his approved. He's already been before the design review panel three times and told his design does not pass muster.

Howard Brody, a planning commissioner and a neighbor of Chen’s, said that he has nothing against home additions. But he said the people behind the big houses going up are more fixated on square footage and often give short shrift to design.

“You’re not giving the neighborhood and the architecture the kind of consideration that is necessary to maintain the kind of community that we have,” Brody said.

Residents following mansionization closely say that the issue has little to do with race or background, and more to do with ties residents have in the community.  

"Residents who have been here a long time hate to see the intimacy and see the houses go," said San Marino resident Michelle Lumley, who moved with her family from Australia nearly 20 years ago.

Immigration, largely from East Asia, to San Marino has been taking place for decades so there are now examples of families who’ve been living in the city for several generations. They’ve helped to transform a largely white city that served as the West Coast headquarters of the far-right John Birch Society into an Asian-majority community. Today, people of Asian descent make up 54 percent of the population.

Steven Huang, who moved from Taiwan to San Marino as a child, is among the candidates speaking out against mansionization.  

"If the newcomers would respect what the old residents want, I think everything would be better," Huang said.

He pointed out that when his family settled in San Marino 35 years ago, mansionization was not an issue.

“When we moved here, we just wanted to blend in," Huang said. "We didn’t want to cause a big stir.”

A new two-story home on South Los Robles Avenue in San Marino.

He said these days, new immigrants don't have to worry about fitting in. Any number of Chinese shops and restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley are just a short drive away. English is optional. Some immigrants maintain residence overseas, spending only part of the year in the States.

Wei Li, a professor at Arizona State University who studies immigration, said mansionization as a flashpoint underscores the gap between Asian immigrants who've been in the country for years and those who are newly-arrived.

"The longer you live in the neighborhood, you're more attuned to your neighbors versus newcomers who don't have roots in the neighborhood," Li said. She said it is not unlike the cultural and ideological rifts between new Latino immigrants and second-generation Latino Americans.

Lumley said newcomers to San Marino might not be connected enough to the community to know why people don’t like mansionization.

"So it’s an understandable situation that they don’t understand why people would be upset," Lumley said. “That’s just an education thing."

But Chang, the real estate broker, said he already sees immigrants learning the ways of their adopted country.

"If you talk to someone who’ve lived for four, five years from China, their tastes have changed," Chang said. "They no longer want the brand-new.”