It’s one guide book in which no city wants to be listed: Alhambra is number 364 on Frommers’s list of "500 Places to See Before They Disappear." The author, Holly Hughes, laments the loss of green space and a rich architectural heritage to new development. “With larger buildings occupying the same small lots, Alhambra has also lost a significant amount of green space in the past 20 years,” she writes in the 2009 edition of the book. “Despite pressure from some preservation activists, the town government has been slow to enact zoning, which might, for example, promote single-family housing, control add-ons, mandate landscaping, or limit population density.”
I bought a home in Alhambra 25 years ago, because I fell in love with the older neighborhoods and the character homes from the 1920s and 1930s. But over the years I noticed that many of these beautiful homes were being destroyed and replaced or modified with oversized, tract house style structures. It made me sad to see the qualities that make Alhambra unique disappear.
As a result, I joined the Alhambra Preservation Group, where I have fought for the preservation of our historic homes and neighborhoods. For years we have watched as our city has dealt with mansionization, the construction of oversized houses in older neighborhoods that generally have small lots with single story homes. “Spec" builders often buy these homes, bulldoze the older home and build a much larger home to replace them.
The mansionization of Alhambra, like other cities in the San Gabriel Valley, coincided with its transformation into a so-called “ethnoburb.” The term was coined by Wei Li, a professor of Pacific Asian Studies at Arizona State University, who has researched the Chinese community in the San Gabriel Valley. She defines it as a “suburban ethnic clusters of residential areas and business districts in large metropolitan areas.” In a 1999 article written for Journal of Asian American Studies she makes the connection between the changing populations and housing. “In Monterey Park and Alhambra, people did not want a high population density, which had become a concern due to the construction of condominiums and apartment buildings. In upscale cities like Arcadia and San Marino, many new homes were built for wealthy Chinese that involved mansionization, i.e. the building of grand, mansion-like houses,” she writes. “Local residents had mixed feelings about those changes. They were delighted to see their communities maintain a high economic status even as new households entered their neighborhoods, but many disliked the appearance of those new houses.”
What happened in the 1990s in Arcadia and San Marino, is happening today in Alhambra. I’ve
observed first-hand as the razing of older homes to build larger houses often causes conflict between longer-term residents and newer immigrant populations. At the January 3 Alhambra Planning Commission meeting, architect Kai Chan represented his Chinese clients in response to a coalition of neighbors and preservationists who objected to his proposal to tear down a 1936 Spanish style home on South Sierra Vista Street, replacing it with a two-story Mediterranean style “mansion” with a square footage of twice the existing home. I felt sympathy for the clients and also frustration that the current anti-mansionization policy was not more clearly defined, allowing the project to pass through the planning department and Design and Review process without more questions about compatibility to the neighborhood.
In defense of his design, Mr. Chan argued, “There is always an argument between something new and preservation. For example in Paris you can see the art center, an ultra modern building right in the middle of the old neighborhood and there was a lot of controversy —- people were shocked, but in the end that building became the most popular building in France. Allowing variety makes a building stand out and become more rich. I believe in that. In Santa Barbara everything must be the same. It is like a stage set and that is not real life. I think in regards to history and Alhambra in the 21st century we do not live in the past. I want to represent the time now and that is what I believe in.”
There are thousands of homes similiar to the design proposed by Mr. Chan in most of the new
developments. Adding a home that does not integrate into a historical neighborhood sets it apart from the existing homes in a way that detracts from the history that these neighborhoods represents. People want to live in and visit Santa Barbara exactly because it gives them a link with the past. Although Alhambra adopted an anti-mansionization policy in the mid-1990s, the regulation was a weak one and its failures are much more visible than its successes. The current policy, unchanged since it was first written, allows new homes or additions to be up to 75% bigger than the median size of surrounding homes. This policy is flawed because the median size will always increase as each new home is added to the neighborhood.
I was grateful for the Planning Commission’s clear and direct disapproval of the project; requesting a complete redesign that will be both smaller in scale and a better blend with the existing neighborhood. President Maria Murray, in summarizing the commissioners’ disapproval of the design said, “ A lot of people have purchased homes in Alhambra because of the styles that Alhambra offers. They come to Alhambra because they like the neighborhoods. Living in the past is something many people like.”
The gap between the desires of preservationists and newer immigrants is a complex issue that brings to focus the different cultural backgrounds and what brings value to a property. Should the older homes be torn down and replaced with something new or enhanced and preserved? The first option is much more appealing to some members of the Chinese community. This was made clear to me when I asked a Chinese contributor to The Alhambra Source to take a look at the mansions on 6th and Norwood and give me her opinion. She could not understand what was wrong with the houses and said: “ The homes were beautiful and much better than the small older closet homes.”