The audience of approximately 30 neighbors, which included residents from Lorain Rd., Sherwood Rd., and other locations, could barely hold their applause when San Marino Design Review Committee Vice Chairperson William Dietrick stated his motion to deny the application for a new two-story home with basement and two-car garage at 2159 Lorain Rd.
The DRC unanimously denied the proposed 3,030 square foot Colonial-Revival house after two hours of debate on Wednesday, Feb. 1, which started with a discussion followed by a decision to continue a plan to build a new house at 2151 Lorain Rd.
“We do have a responsibility to the community to make sure the house is compatible, consistent with itself and with its neighbors and privacy protection of the neighbors. And this project does not address that,” Design Review Committee Chairperson Frank Hsu said of 2159 Lorain Rd.
Committee Member Kevin Cheng was a vocal opponent of both proposals.
“It would have to be completely overhauled and fine tuned even from there before I would even be able to consider approving it,” Cheng said of 2159 Lorain.
Cheng also wanted to deny the proposal for a new house at 2151 Lorain based on a procedural issue that prohibited consideration of the home’s design by the committee at that meeting.
“I think there’s a lot of community concern of this project in particular. My review of the design is it’s not an acceptable design because it’s an exact copy of what’s being proposed. And San Marino is made up of unique homes and unique architecture,” he said.
The architect, James Coane – who is the designer of both properties – had requested that the application be continued to the committee’s Mar. 15 meeting and that the committee’s required action date for 2151 Lorain be extended to May 18 to allow Coane to meet the city’s posting and story pole requirements before the March hearing.
“The city mandated story poles and notice of public hearing have not been installed at 2151 Lorain Rd. This is due to an unforeseen owner-tenant dispute that can only be resolved through eviction,” Coane wrote in a letter to the committee.
“Unless the architect is willing to do a complete redesign, I would not support a continuance or an extension. And I would deny the project tonight,” Cheng continued, receiving the first of many rounds of applause of the evening.
Alternate Committee Member Judy Johnson-Brody was also supportive of a denial for 2151 Lorain Rd.
“He’s asking us for a special favor for not doing his part, if I understand correctly,” she said, framing the owner-tenant dispute as an “ill performance of the actual owner of the property.”
Committee Member Corinna Wong offered an alternative approach that would allow Coane to present his proposal to the committee at the Mar. 15 meeting.
“If we do decide to deny today it would be based on procedural inadequacies, which is certainly within the purview of this committee to do. But I think on the substantive [design] would be premature,” Wong explained.
Committee Member John Dustin agreed with Wong’s position, which was unanimously adopted by the committee.
“If we’re going to deny it, it would have to be on procedural inadequacy. I just don’t feel right about denying it on substantive issues without hearing the applicant do a presentation,” he said.
Hsu then invited Coane to the podium in the council chambers at City Hall to ask him if he would consider a different design—one that incorporated the community’s concerns—for the proposed house at 2151 Lorain.
Coane said he would.
“They’ve had an open invitation to meet and talk for a couple of months. I always answer calls. I always return emails,” he added, noting that neighbors have not contacted him since a second neighborhood meeting in December 2016.
The audience responded with a collective roar of disagreement to Coane’s statement, with one member of the audience yelling, “not true.”
Coane later said in a phone interview with The Tribune that the audience’s claims of his office’s unresponsiveness were “blatantly wrong.”
“From what I’ve seen of the plans for both of these houses, the massive balconies are going to be looking right into this backyard that I worked so hard to preserve by not over building my property,” Sherwood Rd. resident Jordan Sollitto said of the proposed balcony for the rear of each of the two proposed homes.
“Had we had any idea of the balcony that was going in next door to us we would have been here protesting it,” said Bernadette Hotaling, who resides next door to 2070 Lorain Rd., which was designed by Coane and the committee and neighbors claimed is the model for the proposed home at 2151 and 2159 Lorain Rd.
“We live in San Marino. We pay a lot of money to live here. My parents were raised here. And San Marino is not a tract community,” she added, noting that all three homes would have a similar floor plan.
When the committee began its deliberation of 2159 Lorain Rd., Coane explained that there are homes near each other in neighborhoods across San Marino that are “not drastically similar,” but “have similarities to them.”
“We’re maxing out on square footage, but on the massing and the volume we aren’t maxing out at all,” he continued, noting that he designed the house to be within all city-required setbacks and maximums.
Next, he addressed the community’s attitude toward to project.
“By that time it had been clear that there had been a neighborhood feeling of kind of an antagonism against the idea of a project,” he said of his experience at the neighborhood meeting in December as the crowd stared at him with an unimpressed look.
As the discussion continued, Cheng noted that the committee had received a letter from the new owner of the house, which was included in the escrow papers at the time of purchase.
“There was a letter that we received and it states how much she loves the home and how unique it was and how appealing it is in size and the coziness and the quaintness of it all. So has something changed since she purchased the home to today that she wants to tear it down and build something new?” he said.
Coane explained that he was not familiar with the letter and that the letter did not sound like anything he had discussed with the owner.
“Sometimes when people are intending to buy a home, they write a letter to persuade the seller regardless of their true intentions,” Johnson-Brody contributed.
Dietrick then stated that the average square footage in the legal neighborhood is 2,268.
“If you feel that the square footage contributes to the visual massing of the building, we can continue with the discussion,” City Planner Eva Choi cautioned.
“Most clients that buy property in San Marino ask us to get as close as we can to what we’re allowed,” Coane commented.
Wong asked if Coane had incorporated the neighbors’ comments into his design.
Coane stated that his meetings with neighbors were “not fruitful” and involved the neighbors “casting doubt on the accuracy of the plans.”
Then came a flood of neighbor comments in opposition to the project.
“They are creating their own surrounding structures to be able to change the character of the neighborhood. These are narrow lots with smaller homes and after all three of the projects are completed, the tract home visual will be the new surrounding neighborhood. And those tract homes will be what new projects are judged against,” said Emily Burke of Lorain Rd.
“Rather than scaling back this project here, meeting after meeting after meeting, making minor modifications, I hope the DRC will encourage the architect to just go back to the drawing board and create a radically different house of greatly reduced massing with no privacy impact to those of us who live here,” suggested Joyce Batnij, also of Lorain Rd.
James Fisk, another Lorain Rd. resident said, “When you tear down in house in this neighborhood, you’re tearing down history.”
“There’s not just naysaying going on here. I just want to make sure the city staff and the committee is getting full and accurate information about who the owner is and what the actual plans are in this case,” stated Susan Aledort of Lorain.
“San Marino is not a community of homes made of a kit of parts. Each home, though it may be two-story in nature, is unique to each family within its walls. That is what makes our city special,” said Lorain Rd. resident Jennifer Giles.
Giles added, “Just to say that the overall height is within the maximum allowable limit does not address embracing the neighborhood context.”
“I think one of the charms of our city is our big trees,” said nearby neighbor Eldon Swanson, after a remark that five trees were to be removed for the construction of the proposed house.
George Hotaling, who lives next door to the Coane-designed home at 2070 Lorain Rd., described him and his wife as “the victims of 2070 Lorain Rd.”
“Sixty years worth of trees were removed. I don’t know if there was a permit associated with that but I feel like I live in Pacoima now because this house and these two homes that we’re talking about tonight literally will be on top of the neighbor’s homes,” he said.
Hotaling continued, “We don’t want to see McMansions. We certainly don’t want to live next to them.”
Another resident of Lorain Rd., Kelly Ryan, commented, “I respect a homeowner’s right to build the home they believe, but I also respect the right of the citizens to have the neighborhood they bought into.”
“We didn’t expect that that home would now define the standard for our road,” he said of 2070 Lorain.
A letter written by the residents of 2070 Lorain Rd. stated, “It has just come to our attention that two houses in San Marino, 2151 and 2159 Lorain Rd., designed by James Coane are “copies of a home we recently remodeled at 2070 Loraine Rd. James Coane was our architect. However, the home was as much designed by as [James].”
The letter goes on to suggest that Coane’s proposed designs are a “theft of not only human labor, but of intellectual property and individual creativity.”
Coane rejected the notion that the owners of 2070 Lorain owned the design of the house.
The committee ultimately sided with the neighbors.
“I think there’s three very large major flaws with this project that I don’t think are things that can be corrected with fine tuning,” said Dustin. “Visual massing is just simply overpowering for the neighborhood,” he listed first.
Next, he said, “I also agree with staff findings that the chosen architectural style and material are not compatible with this neighborhood.”
Thirdly, he noted, “The proposed second story rear balcony, in combination with the substantial removal of existing trees, is just a completely unrealistic intrusion into the privacy of the adjacent properties.”
“As far as who the owner is and what their intentions are, that’s not within our purview. We are to review the design of the home and its compatibility with the neighborhood and the community as a whole,” Cheng said in his statement.
Rebutting Coane’s claim about similar houses in San Marino, Cheng added, “In the 10 homes that my family owned and I lived in [in San Marino], everyone was different and unique. And so for the applicant to try to convince us that what they’re proposing is different, I would say absolutely not.”
“The visual massing and scale is completely outrageous,” Dietrick said, adding concerns about privacy.
Wong said, “I believe the project is not compatible with itself. The lots in that neighborhood are very long and narrow; and the massing, I believe, is not compatible with this neighborhood as well.”
“As I’ve said before for other projects, the job of the DRC is to uphold the design standards,” said Johnson-Brody. “Our job is to ensure that projects built in this city are built with quality and integrity, good design and will stand the test of time”
“These projects do none of those,” she concluded.
“No one can speak better than the people who live next to it,” said Hsu, expressing his appreciation to the neighbors for their input.
“What I see in this neighborhood is that most are very understated and elegant. And this one is shouting out for attention,” Hsu stated before the committee’s voted to deny the project.
The committee will discuss 2151 Lorain Rd again on Mar. 15 at 7 p.m. at San Marino City Hall. The property owner and Coane have until Feb. 16 to appeal the DRC’s decision on 2159 Lorain Rd. to the San Marino Planning Commission.
The DRC’s next meeting is on Mar. 1 at 7 p.m. at city hall.