Burbank, California, Is Worried It Might Have a 'Mansionization' Problem

In older suburbs, should there be a limit on how big single-family homes can be?

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Courtesy Carol Barrett

There are plenty of reasons to disdain the McMansion, ranging from environmental to economic to social. But underneath it all, the central critique of these oversized suburban-style homes is that so many of them are just plain ugly.

For a few years after the housing market crash, it seemed America's "mansionization" trend might be over. But in 2012, the new houses being built in the United States were bigger than ever, prompting fresh rounds of hand-wringing from preservationists and anti-McMansion aesthetes. For the first time since the bubble burst, cities and older suburbs in many parts of the country are renewing the process of grappling with a tough question: how big is too big?

A new survey of residents in Burbank, California, is trying to quantify some of this local frustration. Using images of seemingly out-of-place new houses within the city's older neighborhoods, the online poll tries to get at both the "gut reactions" that city residents have to these "mansionized" houses and their overall willingness to create new laws to control the growth of house size.

Burbank last limited the size of new home construction in 2005, when it reduced the ratio of house square footage to total lot size, from 0.6 to 0.4. But even these new regulations allow for homes far larger than the average size across the city, according to Carol Barrett, the city's assistant director for planning and transportation. She says the poll is designed to gauge the community's interest in creating further size restrictions, as well as new guidelines for architectural style and building materials.

"It’s not just an issue that the houses are bigger," Barrett says. Another important question, she explains, would be: "Is it just a giant box with some precast concrete stuck on for a little decorative design, or does it have a specific architectural character?"

All of this could be seen as largely a matter of taste. But the awkward images in the survey, of giant, Spanish-style mini-mansions dwarfing the decades-old bungalows and ranch houses next door are awfully convincing. Below are some of the most telling images from the survey, which Barrett culled from suggestions from local citizen groups like Preserve Burbank and coworkers in city hall.

This large house, with its tall entryway and two-car garage, overwhelms the single-story bungalow next door. The survey asks residents whether residents should be able to build up to the size of current ordinances, or whether the city should limit house size and style in order to "preserve neighborhood character."
This Mediterranean-style mansion, with its tiled roof, stucco details, and bright-white banisters, stands out among its smaller and less-decorated neighbors.
The large house, shown in full on the right, dwarfs the house next door.
The two-story house on this small lot prompted concerns that the high windows and balconies could have too many sight lines into the next door neighbor's house and yard. The survey asks if residents would feel comfortable living next to such a house.

All images are from Burbank's Visual Preference Survey, courtesy of Carol Barrett and the City of Burbank.

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