The idea that this jumbo basement solution could be a workable resolution to CETT's troubling home development problems at One Carter was first suggested a few months back by then Planning Commission Chair Thomas Pendlebury. CETT's architect Adele Chang apparently has now run with that lead, and at this Thursday's Planning Commission meeting the first true McBunker house ever in Sierra Madre will be considered. Something that could open the door to an entirely new, and in my opinion unfortunate, race to development in town.
This led to a number of comments here on The Tattler, but none more revealing than the following:
Actually, this has been happening for awhile in San Marino as an approach to "hiding" the mass of a house that exceeds the allowed building envelope, and Adele Chang does a lot of work in that community, having been on the DRC for a few years. What triggered the issue in that community was the abuse of the basement area (as well as attics) that were undefined empty spaces that didn't conform to code because they were theoretically just storage areas or underground car parking. These spaces got illegally built out later, of course. When a basement is designed as habitable space, it requires two stair exits, just like the plan shows, as well as artificial lighting and HVAC systems to replace the normal light and ventilation provided by windows. More importantly, it's legal habitable space and is therefore counted as such and is counted towards the property tax on that parcel, unlike the "unfinished" attics and basements, and is subject to inspection for code violations. San Marino has just adopted a code ordinance to deal with this situation.
As you know, basements are dungeon-like even when built out as habitable space, and inevitably develop leaks over time when it rains; it's not the panacea for living areas that this would appear to offer. Smart improvements would include shelving to keep everything 6 inches off the floor and easily replaced floor finishes. Any bedroom that has no windows is unavoidably a "bunker", although a large-screen TV can help distract from that.
This inspired me to do a little research on everyone's favorite search engine Google, and I did turn up three relevant newspaper articles dealing with what really was a big controversy in San Marino. Apparently there were no ordinances in place at the time to deal with all of this, and people were quite up in arms over what had been happening.
Which does raise some questions about the kinds of building codes and regulations Sierra Madre has in place regarding McBunkers. Since the One Carter project being considered Thursday evening is the first of its kind here, my guess is there is very little, if anything, on the books. At least so far.
The first article I'm citing today about the big basement brouhaha in San Marino comes to us from The San Marino Tribune. Titled "Residents Oppose Livable Area Expansion," and first published in November of 2013, it can be linked to on their site by clicking here.
A capacity crowd filled the entire Barth Community Room at the city’s most recent city council event Wednesday, voicing their opposition to thoughts of potential livable area expansion beneath the surface of new homes.
Residents reiterated the theme of “If San Marino ain’t broke, why fix it?,” saying that the reasons for San Marino’s stringent limitations are set up to protect the character of the neighborhood. One resident argued that increasing livable area, even if it were to proceed under ground, would give new homeowners license to tear down homes that have been here since the 1920s.
The argument for expanding livable area in the form of a basement, say council members, is to give new homeowners subterranean space and reduce the visual bulkiness and massiveness of the outward appearance of the home and surrounding homes.
As the below ground space is allowed to expand, the above ground livable space becomes more restricted. Nearly all who spoke to the council Wednesday evening, however, were opposed to the idea.
Jim Barger said that if homes are allowed to expand, it would give new homeowners an excuse to tear down the whole house. Brad Ball said San Marino shouldn’t feel pressure to follow what other cities do, because San Marino is not like other cities. Realtor Linda Chang said realtors might use expansion as an enticement for securing a property deal, casting her vote against basement development.
It is part of the council’s obligation to review, maintain or update codes which have not been revisited for a dozen years or so. The discussion on livable area fit that description.
Zen Vuong, who until recently was the Sierra Madre beat reporter for the Pasadena Star News (she has since escaped), wrote two articles about the controversy. The first is titled "City council debates changes in basement regulation," and was published in May of 2013. It can be linked to in its entirety here.
Instead of going underground, Chris Hubble, 45, decided to build his home within the view of city officials when he nearly doubled the size of the residence three years ago.
Other San Marino homeowners have chosen not to expose their development plans. In the last two years, 43 percent of San Marino residents who requested permits for new houses had basement plans ranging in size from 997 to 5,606 square feet because the city doesn't consider basement area when it calculates a property's maximum allowable livable space, a city report said.
As long as these underground dwellings don't include heating or cooling systems or appliances, then the city has no say in how the space is being used. So homeowners have found a loophole for building bigger homes.
As we noted on this blog yesterday, the City of Sierra Madre does not "consider basement area when it calculates a property's maximum allowable livable space" either. Which is why CETT's architect, Adele Chang, can claim that the home she has designed for construction at One Carter is a relatively modest (for her) 3,264 square feet, when it is actually 4,613 square feet when you add in the McBunker.
A "loophole for building bigger homes" indeed.
The second of Zen's two articles on this turbulent topic appeared in the Pasadena Star News in May of this year. Titled "San Marino proposes basement regulation to address underground dwelling trend in homes," it shows how the City Council there grappled with these challenges, and eventually came up with a some solutions. You can link to this article here.
On the surface, all is right with the city code, but underneath, in overgrown basements, people are getting away with dangerous living quarters, officials said Wednesday.
David Saldana, San Marino’s planning and building director, said the affluent suburb has a burgeoning trend where people come in, buy property, raze the house and build “their so-called dream home.”
“They just want additional livable area, and perhaps they realize that they’ve reached their maximum limit already, so the only place where they could potentially do that would be in an area that is already essentially there, and that would be the basement,” Saldana said. “So they just end up converting them illegally and, in most cases, it’s a very unsafe situation because basements that were built as storage areas don’t provide the level of safety and protection that a normal living area would.”
The City Council struggled with the details of a proposed ordinance and delayed the issue until May 30. Under the proposal, any future home with a basement greater than 5 percent of the statutory parcel area would be required to be permitted as livable area, regardless of how the owner intends to use the space.
Although the entire basement would be considered livable area, only 50 percent would count toward the maximum allowable livable area. And basements won’t be able to exceed 60 percent of the footprint of the main house.
All of which raises some real questions for Sierra Madre. What ordinances do we have in place that deal with McBunker subterranean home expansion being one of them. And should Adele Chang's plans for One Carter pass muster with the Planning Commission Thursday evening, what is to prevent lots of other cash happy people from suddenly digging new "living space" under their homes?
Jeff Hildreth, take note.
Of course, my biggest question today is what was Tom Pendlebury thinking when he suggested to Adele Chang that she design a home with what turned out to be a 1,349 square foot McBunker beneath it? Judging by what went down in San Marino, our man Tom just might have opened quite a Pandora's Box.
Arnold's Hardware had better stock up on shovels. A lot of homeowner bunker digging could soon be going down in this town.