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Is Alhambra in danger of disappearing?

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.

Three Craftsman bungalows demolition in  2001 and the current buildings

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.

Demolition of a 1910 craftsman

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

South Sierra Vista Street home

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

A home is demolished

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.”

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18 thoughts on “Is Alhambra in danger of disappearing?”

  1. Good work, it’s pleasure to read your interesting articles. Waiting for more
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  2. Right or wrong, there are indeed people in the Asian community who prefer newness over learning to appreciate old. But it hasn’t apparently stopped communities like South Pasadena or San Marino from generally keeping their original characters, and San Marino has a growing and almost majority Asian population. This shows that it can be done with the right combination of laws and incentives.

    As a new resident in north Alhambra, I’ve come to love and appreciate the different characters, styles, the mood each home present as I walk around my neighborhood. I also know how hard it is to maintain the same look and feel as I try to maintain my own Craftsman home. It can be done.

  3. There’s no denying the fact that homes in our community and around the country are getting significantly larger. According to the Census Bureau, the average size of a new home built in the U.S. is now 42% larger than it was thirty years ago. This kind of growth is not sustainable, it places an undue burden on the environment and it doesn’t even make smart economic sense. A super-sized home costs significantly more to heat and cool, and maintenance costs are also increased proportionately. The sooner we face facts, the better. We can’t build our way out of the global climate and energy crises – we’ve got to conserve our way out.

    My grandmother’s generation practiced a simple ethical principle: “waste not, want not.” If we apply that principle to city planning, it means we’ve got to make better, wiser use of what is already built. Historic preservation is one important element of a strategic response to the challenges of sustainability.

    1. RE: “A super-sized home costs significantly more to heat and cool, and maintenance costs are also increased proportionately.”

      Our “small” Cape Cod, poorly insulated with original gas floor heater & wooden framed single pane windows, costs more than a larger mansionized unit to heat during winter. That said, the more viable comparison would be an 80s car vs. a Prius. Sure Prius gets better gas mileage, but at what carbon cost to build that new vehicle?

      FWIW, your grandmother’s generation also didn’t have computers & cell phones. The “When-I-Young” argument never holds.

      1. @Sinosoul

        So do you throw away the entire carton of eggs because one is cracked?

      2. From your comment it’s apparent you know nothing about basic handyman skills. Many of the problems you cite and easily be fixed with less than $300 in materials. I have a pre-1920’s home that had the same issues as yours, but after installing brass weatherstripping around all of the windows along with curtains that retained the inside warmth and kept out the cold that permeates through the single-paned glass (of course, it’s possible to also replace those single-paned with double-paned) — and my heating and cooling costs plummeted.

        If this is out of your league or expertise, there are many contractors who can get your home energy efficient and avoid having to knock it down to build an entirely new house.

      3. Sinosoul:

        I appreciate your insight on this matter.

        Please don’t misunderstand me. It’s not necessary for us to live in the past in order to adopt some of its lessons. I think that the thrift of our predecessors is an excellent guiding principle for today’s challenges. It makes good sense to use current technology, combined with old-fashioned craftsmanship to make older homes more energy-efficient. It makes much less sense to justify the demolition of an existing building by saying that its replacement will be greener. No matter how much green technology is employed in its design and construction, any new building represents a new impact on the environment. The bottom line is that the greenest building is one that already exists.

        As for my grandmother and her friends, they were an adventurous bunch who embraced the new technology of their time and appreciated all the ways it promised to make their lives easier. I have no doubt that, if she were still alive, my grandmother would be following your food blog on her iPad.

  4. Enjoyed reading the article and thought the illustration by Mr. Wang was very good. Hope to see more of his work in the future.

  5. Len,
    Thanks for your honest comments. It will take some real forward thinking on the part of our city government to set up a better policy for dealing with the issues outlined above. I believe enacting a Historical Ordinance would be the first step in helping resolve some of the conflict. A Historical Ordinance can work by having a historical commission work with the home owners to come up with a compatible design when an older home is involved in demolition or a major remodel. This would save a lot of headache for the architects, home owner and all of the city boards involved with the approval process. Other cities when faced with similar problems did this and have had good success with developers and home owners. Monrovia is a good example where the system seems to be working. There are many other cities that have addressed this,so coming up with a working plan would not be that difficult. Unless more is done, the future of Alhambra’s historical neighborhoods looks grim.
    Michael Lawrence

  6. I believe this kind of story happens to almost 80% cities when there is new population moving in. For Alhambra, this new population represents those not super wealthy/non-English speaking Chinese new immigrants who are infamously and traditionally tagged as stingy/greedy/selfish/impolite by other communities around. Hispanic and Asian population both look down each other’s culture to be exact on the streets. This city is unfortunately divided in most residents’ hearts though they try their best to put up a smily face to each other. It is not a new story, but perhaps that most of us choose not to expose it.

    While the preservation of old Alhambra city faces the toughest challenge by the latest Chinese wave, it is the job of Alhambra City Council to find balance between income and an old look of Alhambra. When the developers flipping a stack of cash in front of them, will they say no in favor of the preservation group? The tread will most likely to be the New replacing old. People moving out of this city because of that and people moving in to the city because of the same reason. It becomes a personal choice like everything else.

    1. The City of Alhambra has always resisted ANY preservation efforts by its citizens and community due to pressure from its politicians. This stems from many of its council members being from the commercial real estate/developer field. If a home or structure is “protected” due to its historical significance, it can’t be razed and profited from.

      In 1984, an effort to preserve Alhambra’s homes was presented to City Hall using a study called, “Historic Resources Survey” which cataloged and documented hundreds of historic homes throughout our city. The council lineup at that time (which included a 50-year political kingpin involved in trust estate/legal issues as well as owning numerous tracts of property along Main Street) met behind closed doors to squash these efforts. There was a city council meeting where dozens from the community pushing for preservation were literally thrown out by this cabal — no questions allowed, and no reasons given on why they white-washed the survey. One former pro-preservation city staffer (who is now City Manager for a South Bay area municipality) recently remarked that his tenure with the City of Alhambra was “one of the worst experiences” of his career.

      Many current and former council members own significant amounts of property throughout Alhambra as witnessed by constantly having to recuse themselves from city business decisions due to “owning property nearby.” This can be corraborated by public records (which I have done).

  7. Great story, I appreciate the older homes that have a character which many new homes don’t possess. Your article is thoughtful and will hopefully give readers another perspective they ordinarily would not have considered.

  8. My old house stood where the cookie cutter mansions are now. If i had known the guy who bought the property from us was going to tear it down i wouldve convinced my family to stay. it was such a nice house. So sad to see it gone 🙁

    1. Where was your home and when was it knocked down?

  9. Alhambra will only remain a beautiful place if residents remain politically active and demand accountability of local government.

  10. The row of three houses in the first photo is on Sixth St. and Norwood Place.

    Pretty much the same house copied three times.
    The type of cookie cutter house you typically see ubiquitously in a more suburban town… let’s keep it that way.

  11. Nicely researched, Michael. Temple City has a large amount of homes like this and it feels like one’s perception is off when looking down the street – one tiny house and then a large mansion that eclipses their neighbor from the sun.

    I hope this is not the last article on the McMansions as it deserves a lot more attention, and maybe a conversation between the two sides.

  12. Twelve years ago I had seen three beautiful 1920’s homes when I looked out my front window. To the objection of the residents on the street, the City Council voted to demolish the old homes. Sadly they were torn down, now I look out the front window and see nothing but a parking lot and Chinese businesses. Two years from now we will move out of this overcrowded city and never regret it. Then they could build a huge home where my 1922 craftsman home now sits.

    Like the Joni Mitchell song. From “Big Yellow Taxi”. They paved paradise And put up a parking lot.