Arcadia residents debate mansionization as election nears

An older, traditional Arcadia home sits next to a recently-built mansion. Some of the San Gabriel Valley city's residents are frustrated by the number of bigger homes replacing older, smaller ones.
An older, traditional Arcadia home sits next to a recently-built mansion. Some of the San Gabriel Valley city's residents are frustrated by the number of bigger homes replacing older, smaller ones.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

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As the city of Arcadia prepares for a city council election in April, residents and candidates are debating the size of the city's homes and questioning how big is too big.

Known as mansionization, the issue has become a common topic of debate throughout Southern California, as residents struggle to make due with the smaller, older homes that are commonplace in L.A county.

In the San Gabriel Valley, some residents say they're tired of how older, one-story ranch-style homes are being torn down and replaced with larger homes that can take up an entire lot. Others in the community say it's simply part of the demographic shifts occurring in the San Gabriel Valley, and that these larger homes serve a purpose for the newer Asian families that have moved in.

Carolyn Papp is with a local anti-mansionization group called Save the Arcadia Highlands, which refers to an area north of the 210 freeway, where several older homes have been replaced. Farther south, the practice of tearing down and replacing homes with bigger ones has been happening for years, she said.

Papp has sold real estate in Arcadia for decades. One recent morning, she pointed to a large, newly constructed home down the street from hers.

“It is 8,000 square feet. It was just completed. It's a very lovely home, very large – and right next to a house that's probably about 2,000 (square feet)," Papp said, pointing to the smaller house that's now dwarfed by its new neighbor. “It just looks really odd. It looks a little strange."

Those opposed to mansionization also complain that developers cut down too many trees to make room for the jumbo homes, that some of the new homes are left vacant because their owners are overseas.

"I personally don't think it's a very pretty picture," she said. "A lot of the neighbors are kind of upset when one goes up next to them. And yet, there are some people who have smaller homes who think these larger homes are very beautiful...And so it's caused a little friction."

Another longtime resident, 102-year-old Andy Young, complained about now having to look out the window at tall wall now that a new, two-story luxury home went up next to his.

"I had a beautiful view of the mountains," Young said. "I like a good looking house, but I'd rather look at the mountains."

His daughter Janet Klich, who visits often, said the security cameras mounted next door make her uneasy. She pointed to several cameras that face toward her father's windows.

"There are three of them," Klich said. "You feel like you are on film."

Residents who are opposed to mansionization hope to get an initiative on Arcadia's November ballot, which would tighten Arcadia's rules on the size of homes. In the meantime, residents are raising the issue with council candidates who they will vote for next month.

While the battle is partly about aesthetics, some also see it as part of a culture clash. Arcadia's population is more than half Asian, and the large homes are typically being bought or remodeled by Asian owners, many of them wealthier immigrants from China.

City Council member Sho Tay said some people opposed to bigger homes might feel differently if they understood their purpose for these residents. Tay said many Asian families want bigger homes because they live with extended family, like parents and in-laws, under one roof.

"It's a lack of understanding," Tay said. "I try to explain to people -  you don’t want to kick them out your house and send them to an old folks' home.”

Former mayor and attorney Jim Helms, who has lived in Arcadia since the 1950s, recently defended the changes in the city in a blog post: "It troubles me that some Old Arcadians believe that their lifestyles should be imposed on the New Arcadians," Helms wrote.

"It's just the natural change that is occurring throughout the valley, throughout the whole San Gabriel Valley," Helms said in an interview with KPCC. "We have so many new residents now that have different ideas about how they like to live, and about what kinds of houses they want. And I think that people who resist that are just blind to the fact that change is here, it has already occurred."