Los Angeles has always been regarded as a city without much sense of history. This is simply a convenient way for old-fashioned east coasters and mid-westerners to feel better about their crummy weather. It is true, however, that Angelenos sense of history is quite different than in other places. Los Angeles was a sunny, dusty, distant place from “civilization” a mere 100 years ago. Frankly, until the past several decades arguably most of LA was indeed too new to have much to preserve.
The past 30 years has seen a steady change in this attitude. A collective sense that we do have an architectural history to preserve has taken root. All over Los Angeles there are Historic Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZs). Currently, the city has 29 designated such areas. The first HPOZ, Angeleno Heights, was established in 1983 and the City of Los Angeles Department of City Planning is currently working on the creation of two new HPOZs in the Southeast Los Angeles. You can find all of them, and more general info about them online via The Office of Historic Resources.
The reason neighbors band together to create an HPOZ is actually multifaceted. Most agree that the primary reason is to maintain what is perceived to be the “character” of the neighborhood. Of course the definition of character is actually a bit complex. So as a practical matter the process generally means establishing a time period for structures that can not be torn down, nor significantly altered visually as seen form the street. Another cause for the establishment of HPOZ is the concept of “mansionization”. The building and zoning codes allow for much greater density than was originally conceived for many of these older neighborhoods. The value of land was far less in those days, and the average American home was smaller. On a typical LA city lot measuring 50 feet by 130 feet, you would normally find a single story 3 bedroom 2 bathroom house ranging in size from 1,300 to 1,900 square feet. As of right now, building codes allow a 3,900 square foot house on that lot. Obviously, this two story structure then dwarfs what is around it. A very effective way to prevent this from happening is by establishing an HPOZ, completely preventing the razing of most homes located within it.
As a Los Angeles realtor-developer, with Libertarian tendencies, and a fanatical obsession with historic architecture, I have very mixed feelings about HPOZs. My biggest issues are that it protects large numbers of houses that do not actually have architectural significance. Just because a house is old, should it be protected from demolition? Maybe — if it is part of a larger fabric of houses on the street. Furthermore, why can’t a newer house be built in such a way that it actually improves the streetscape? What about private property rights? Oh my, this is complicated…but none of this really matters to you, an LA home shopper.
What you need to understand is that if you buy a house in an HPOZ, your ability to make modifications to that home will be restricted in various ways. That said, you can make all sorts of upgrades and enlargements — but they have to be interior, and any exterior modifications must be invisible from the street. Theoretically you can make changes that are visible, but they must be approved, and to accomplish that they must be in keeping with the character of the original house, and neighborhood. Good luck with that! At the end of the day, so many of LA’s great neighborhoods are now HPOZs, their designation should just be a part of your consciousness as you look for a perfect LA home — neither a deal breaker nor the be all and end all of your choice.
David Lubell is a Licensed California Real Estate Agent (BRE# 01928231) with Keller Williams. Learn more about David by reading his bio. Reach out to him via email or call him directly at 323-272-3222.