Go big and go home: Inside LA’s mansion expansion quest

Less trucks are hauling dirt, but Bel Air’s McMansion legacy lives on

An illustration of trucks hauling dirt (Credit: iStock)
An illustration of trucks hauling dirt (Credit: iStock)

Fred Rosen still remembers the chaos that enveloped Bel Air when the mansion-expansion trend went into overdrive.

About five years ago, dozens of trucks began snaking through the neighborhood’s narrow roads ferrying dirt and cement, as residents and spec developers carved out hillsides for massive new homes, many exceeding 35,000 square feet.

Developer Nile Niami

“You would wake up in the morning and see a convoy of maybe 50 hauling trucks down Stone Canyon Road,” said Rosen, the former chief executive of Ticketmaster and a resident of the area. Many of those trucks, he said, were coming from Airole Way, where spec developer Nile Niami was building a 100,000 square-foot property dubbed The One.

Unbeknownst to neighbors at the time, the construction effort involved digging over 47,000 cubic yards of dirt out of the hillside, city records show, requiring at least 4,500 trips in 10-ton trucks. Niami plans to list the home for $500 million.

Rosen rallied his neighbors in a mini-revolt against City Hall. The result was 2017’s Bel Air mansion ordinance, a more rigid version of the ordinance imposed on the rest of Los Angeles. While many of the hauling trucks are now gone, the wealthy enclave is still grappling with the legacy of its McMansion years. Between 2014 and early 2017, the city issued 28 permits for mansions in Bel Air of 17,500 square feet or larger, most of which are still under construction, according to an analysis by The Real Deal. The projects are exacerbating a spec-home building spree that rattled longtime Bel Air residents and is dramatically altering the landscape of the area, not to mention its real-estate market.

As of Wednesday there were 12 homes in Bel Air of 15,000 square feet or larger currently sitting empty and unsold in, according to MLS data cited by Steve Lewis, President of CORE Real Estate Group in Beverly Hills.

“These are white elephants,” Rosen said. “Half these houses are going to wind up in foreclosure.”

Sizing up the market

After more than two years of back-and-forth, the city passed an ordinance for Bel Air restricting the amount of dirt that could be removed from a property to 6,000 cubic yards. That addressed the problem of massive dirt movement, the residents’ biggest gripe.

Paul Koretz, the city councilmember whose district includes Bel Air, also pushed through a rule requiring any home over 17,500 square feet to have a public hearing. “That virtually capped all homes” at that figure, Koretz said, “because homeowners didn’t want to deal with uncertainty.”

In the run-up to the ordinance, though, owners rushed to file permits for dozens of projects that would avoid the de-facto cap and the dirt-movement restrictions, grandfathering in plans for yet more large, boxy properties.

“There were people that were pushing permits through so they had entitlements, which would circumvent the new law coming in,” said Stephen Shapiro, the co-founder of Westside Estate Agency, a residential brokerage focused on luxury homes in Beverly Hills, Malibu & Bel Air.

For some properties, pre-ordinance status has become a major selling point.

Take the Park Bel Air on Tortuoso Way, which hit the market in January asking $150 million. The 10.6-acre site directly across from Hotel Bel Air and features three contiguous lots with permits to build homes of about 60,000 square feet each.

The Hollywood producer Steve Bing acquired all nine homes on the street, then tore them down and built a small home for himself, before selling the site to a hedge fund, said Shapiro, who formerly had the listing. The current owners, the London firm DOMVS, and Junius Real Estate Partners, a division of JPMorgan, spent some five years creating three finished lots, and secured permits for massive home designs.

“You could literally start construction the day after you close,” said Douglas Elliman’s Connie Blankenship, the current listing agent. “You can’t do what we can do here any longer, with the current building codes and restrictions.”

Meanwhile, on Chalon Road, Thomas Barrack Jr., the Colony Capital CEO and pal of President Donald Trump, is nearly done building out an eight-acre compound with a 77,000-square-foot mansion being designed by Peter Marino. Barrack is building it on behalf of the royal family of Qatar. Other competing giant offerings, including the Mountain, a 157-acre plot in Beverly Hills Post Office now listed for $650 million, and a 120-acre site owned by an entity linked to the late Paul Allen asking $150 million, don’t have plans or permits in place for mega-mansions, Blankenship said.

Massive spec mansions on the market right now include Bruce Makowsky’s 38,000-square-foot estate at 924 Bel Air Road, asking a much-reduced $150 million, and the Mohamed Hadid-developed mansion at 901 Strada Vecchia, which is the subject of an FBI probe and a lawsuit from neighbors who want to see it torn down.

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Tom and Jerry

When Rosen decided to act, he learned that unlike in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, there were no limits in Bel Air on the amount of dirt that could be excavated. That led builders to opt for massive, amenity-filled subterranean spaces.

LA City Councilmember Paul Koretz

“If you had 10 of those homes going in at once it was like a war zone,” Koretz said.

Residents also chafed at city rules that allow workers to do construction from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays, and from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays

In the race to build, drivers of giant earth-moving vehicles were going twice the posted speed limit, Koretz said. He said someone on his staff once followed dozens of dirt-hauling vehicles that were backed up on Stone Canyon Road all the way to Niami’s The One, with its 20 bedrooms, bowling alley, four pools, and a 40-seat theater.

“We required that owners only send one vehicle into Bel Air at a time,” Koretz said. “And that they have identification numbers for each of the major projects, so we could trace who they were working for.”

The “cat and mouse game” between homeowners and the city continues. With new limits on dirt hauling, some homeowners have turned to proposing 30,000-square-foot patios to expand de-facto square footage, and continue to build elaborate underground caverns, he said.

Bel Air isn’t alone

While Koretz points to Bel Air as the most extreme example of mansion expansion gone rogue, other parts of L.A. have also weathered convoys of dirt-hauling trucks.

In 2014, an off-duty cop was killed in Trousdale Estates when a cement truck ran over a pickup truck and overturned. That led Beverly Hills to impose a 30-day suspension on heavy-haul deliveries from construction sites around the area.

Other areas of L.A., notably the Bird Streets in Hollywood Hills, are only now getting dirt-movement restrictions in place. The exclusive neighborhood’s narrow streets were choked last summer with construction trucks and dumpsters working on spec homes and major renovations. An ordinance passed last year cut back construction hours.

While L.A. was working to limit out-of-control mansion-building, the gated city of Hidden Hills in the San Fernando Valley — a favorite among celebs like Kanye West and the Kardashians — actually loosened rules in the past three years to allow for even larger homes.

Two years ago, spec developer Kasey Walker sold a 13,000-square-foot home to Canadian singer The Weeknd for $18.2 million. Walker now plans to build an 18,000 square-foot mansion just up the street, on a five-acre parcel on Long Valley Road she purchased from Miley Cyrus last year.

The new estate, which she plans to list for at least $28 million, will feature a basement with a bowling alley, parking for up to 10 cars and a lounge-type theater.

“If you build something special, nothing is an issue,” Walker said of the restrictions.

Back in Bel Air, an expansion like the one contemplated by actress Salma Hayek and her billionaire French husband François-Henri Pinault hardly moves the needle these days.

In December, the couple filed plans to tear down their nearly 8,000 square-foot home and build a new home over twice that size.

“In Bel Air, that wouldn’t be shocking,” Koretz said. “To get into the shocking range would be if they went from 7,500 to 50,000 square feet. That is where you get the controversy.”