On Monday, November 21, residents of the Citrus Square neighborhood were surprised to see the single-family home at 176 N. Citrus Ave. being torn down. But when knowledgeable residents checked city permit websites, they found no demolition permits on file for the property. Instead, they found three construction permits, granted on November 1, 2016.
One of those permits was for an “Addition to…one story [single family dwelling] with basement. Converting the 1837 [square foot] one story with basement into a 2 story 3222 [single family] w/basement. Basement floor area to be increased.”
Another permit was for “Shoring for basement addition to an existing single family dwelling.”
And the third permit was for “grading for addition to existing single family dwelling with basement.”
Neighbors, however, did not agree that the work – shown in the header photo above, and in the photos below – looked like construction. They thought it looked like a non-permitted demolition. This is significant because, legally, in Los Angeles, a “demolition” requires a demolition permit, with 45 days notice between the application and issuance of the permit…while a “remodel” requires neither the demo permit nor any public notice.
Neighbor Jeffry Carpenter and two other Citrus Square residents, Bennett Wolk and Jonathan Tucker, immediately contacted City Council Member Paul Koretz’ office, the Department of Building and Safety, and City Attorney Neighborhood Prosecutor Mernoosh Naderi, with their concerns that the home had been demolished illegally. The city authorities, however, replied that city rules are vague on what exactly constitutes a “demolition” or a “remodel,” and the consensus seemed to be that if part of the original structure is left standing (no matter how small), the project qualifies as a “remodel” and does not necessarily need a demolition permit.
And there were, indeed, a couple of original studs standing at the property, as can be seen at the left in this photo, taken by Carpenter:
But Carpenter says the studs were not standing when he first arrived at the scene. Instead, a worker at the site, wearing yellow at the left of the photo above, and seen again in the closer-cropped detail below, quickly propped up the wood pieces, which had originally been laying on the ground with other debris, when he saw Carpenter taking pictures. And although the studs remained propped up by other pieces of wood for at least a few days after the encounter, Carpenter said he was also told by workers that the wood was riddled with rot and termite damage, and would not actually be used in the coming construction.
This is not the first time the “remodel” vs. “demolition” situation has arisen in the area. In February, 2015, then-president of the Sycamore Square Neighborhood Association, Ann Eggleston, wrote to Jonathan Brand, City Council District 4’s then-Chief of Land Use Planning, about the “demolition” of a home at 801 S. Citrus Ave., where there had also been no demolition permit granted.
Brand replied that, “The inspector visited the project…to verify the work in progress…[and] the contractor has sistered new 2 X 6 studs to the old 2 X 4 framing as per the approved plans. It might look like everything is new, but the project is being constructed as per approved plans….. So per the inspector they are doing what they are suppose to be doing.”
Neither Eggleston nor other neighbors were satisfied, however. As Eggleston wrote in a later note as construction proceeded at the site: “…while they [originally] had the foundation and a few walls still up, including a fire place with tiling, those have been completely removed and are not part of the current structure…There is not any part of the existing structure, [and] it is definitely not on the original footprint” as one would expect for a “remodel” of an existing structure.
In fact, when all was said and done a few months later, the new building – which completely replaced the original, as shown in this sequence of photos – bore no relation or connection to the original structure.
During construction, showing new framing and other elements throughout:
And after completion:
The same will almost certainly be true at 176 N. Citrus, which originally looked like this:
Was reduced to this:
And, according to drawings obtained by another neighbor, will eventually look like this:
So how does the demolition permit process work…and how do sudden, non-“demolition” teardowns like these continue in our neighborhoods?
At least part of the problem may stem from a 2014 ordinance passed by the Los Angeles City Council, which established a 45-day notice period whenever an application for a demolition permit is requested for any structure more than 45 years old. The ordinance, which was prompted by the sudden demolition of the old Mole-Richardson building on N. La Brea, and applauded by neighbors at the time of its passage, was intended to make it harder for property owners and developers to tear down potentially historic homes and other buildings without any sort of public notice or review.
But the law, despite its good intentions and like many before it (see the last eight years of discussion on the city’s Baseline Mansionization Ordinance), apparently contains a significant loophole: it does not define the term “demolition.” As a result, while sudden tear-downs like the one on N. Citrus continue, owners and developers continue to argue that leaving an old stud or two qualifies a project as a “remodel” and not a “demolition,” so no demo permits or notice are needed…and neighbors find they have no recourse when complaining to the city about the sudden loss of potentially historic homes in their neighborhoods.
One possible solution, though, may be in the early stages of development. After Citrus Square resident Bennett Wolk complained to City Council District 5 about the problem, he received a response from Senior Planning Director Faisal Alserri, indicating some clearer definitions may be coming. Alserri said in his response to Wolk that:
“Councilmember Koretz would like to help with the following:
1. CM Koretz would like to introduce a motion at the City Council requesting a re-definition of “remodel”, that would most likely involve saving a percentage of the previous structure.
2. We are requesting the City Attorney and Building & Safety review implementing tighter rules on demolitions and a “best practices” approach that prevent impacts on neighbors. We are open to hearing suggestions of what should be considered.”
Alserri also said his office would push for some changes in this particular construction project, to request that it be made more consistent with a new “Rear Garage” zone currently in the works for the Citrus Square neighborhood.
“Councilmember Koretz would like to request both of the recent demolished property owners in Citrus Square design their properties to include a rear garage so they are consistent with new regulations,” wrote Alserri. “While the City cannot require this prior to the new zones, we hope the owners will voluntarily agree to a design that is more compatible with the wishes of their neighbors.”
It’s definitely a start to what could be yet another long conversation about zoning and development in our local neighborhoods.