Monday, October 22, 2007

On a Tear

These folks mean business.

'Monster house' is neighborhood's nightmare

Photo by Jeff Wheeler
Residents of the 5300 block of Oaklawn Avenue in Edina, many of whom have posted signs in their yards protesting a large new house going up on the block, have watched as nearby neighborhoods have been altered by developers who buy old houses, raze them and replace them with homes much bigger than the neighbors’.

Some Edina residents fear that a big new house will hurt a quaint neighborhood on Oaklawn Avenue, just as large new homes have taken over other nearby streets. They're not taking it lying down.

By Mary Jane Smetanka, Star Tribune
Last update: October 20, 2007 – 6:57 PM

For years, residents of the 5300 block of Edina's Oaklawn Avenue watched nervously as the big-home developments known as "monster houses" rumbled ever closer to their quiet street.
This fall, Godzilla stomped onto their block with a roar.

A developer razed a 1930s Cape Cod-style house and began excavation for a $1.3 million, 5,400-square-foot replacement. It will be almost three times as big as the house that was on the lot before it, and nearly twice as big as any other house on the block. But it's perfectly legal, meeting all of Edina's zoning requirements.

That doesn't matter to people on Oaklawn Avenue. They've been fighting back, crowding a City Council meeting and posting a protest video on YouTube. Most of the houses on the block have signs in their yards. "Monster homes make bad neighbors!" proclaims one. "Supersized houses -- stay out of our neighborhood!" says another.

In a letter to the developer, one resident warned that whoever buys the house will be "ostracized and shunned ... no neighborly waves, no invitation to neighborhood parties."

Oaklawn's rebellion presents a dilemma for the city, pitting the wants of residents who helped make their neighborhood a desirable place to live against the rights of property owners to do what they like with their land within the law.

For the city, big new houses renew housing stock, add to the tax base and help attract new, affluent families.

But policies that alienate longtime residents can have a political cost.

Mayor Jim Hovland said the city is still trying to shape its zoning policies, parts of which were changed last spring.

"We've been working on this, but maybe we haven't gone far enough to find that balance point," he said last week. "We're very concerned about maintaining the character of these neighborhoods."

Pam Starkey is one of the Oaklawn residents who oppose the new house.

"The developers don't care, they're going to build it, get the biggest bang for their bucks and get out of town. They have no emotional investment," she said. "We all love this neighborhood. ... It makes you sick that you're going to look out of your window and see this right there when everyone has done so much to preserve and maintain the homes."

"Street of dreams"

Monster houses have been an issue in southwest Minneapolis, St. Louis Park and some other inner-ring suburbs, but ground zero just may lie a few blocks from Oaklawn on Edina's Halifax Avenue. A decade ago, Halifax was lined with modest homes on big lots that were just a stone's throw from the shops at 50th and France. Developers bought those lots, razing the houses and putting in big new homes. Some Edina residents began calling Halifax "the street of dreams" or "millionaire's row."

There are not many older homes left on Halifax near 50th and France, but among those that remain, it's common for lots to be worth twice as much as the houses on them.

Oaklawn residents watched with trepidation as Halifax was rebuilt. Then houses were razed and replaced on surrounding streets. Yet Oaklawn -- which one resident described as a "Leave It to Beaver" street of mostly 1930s and 1940s New England-style houses with dormers and big oak trees in the yards -- remained untouched.

Until now.

Residents agree with Paul Peloquin, the project manager for Dailey Homes, that the 1937 Cape Cod at 5308 Oaklawn had fallen into disrepair and had been mostly vacant in recent years. Still, the house sold for nearly $630,000 last spring.

In an e-mail, Peloquin said it's no mystery why his company was interested in building on Oaklawn. "Edina is a high-demand area that supports sales values and costs for tear-downs and in-fill development," he wrote. He said Dailey has built similar homes in Edina and in Linden Hills in Minneapolis. To his knowledge, none has drawn objections.

On the Oaklawn site, much of the new five-bedroom, five-bath house that Peloquin described as "traditional" in appearance will be below ground. Only about 3,700 square feet will be above grade, he said, and the building will stand about 27 feet high, below the city limit of 30 feet. The main roof will have sloping sides and ends, which Peloquin said should reduce the visual impact of the structure.

Peloquin didn't have to ask for any zoning variances for the house. But Edina has been studying and tinkering with its zoning requirements for some time. Last spring, setback requirements on side yards were adjusted for smaller lots. New height requirements are being discussed. North of 50th Street and east of Hwy. 100, there is a moratorium on teardowns in the historic Country Club district while a detailed survey of properties is done.

Neighborhood integrity

One of the reasons Oaklawn residents are alarmed by the new house is that most lots on their street are relatively small, measuring 60 by 135 feet. A giant house can block light and views and ruin the integrity of the neighborhood, they said.

Many of the homes on the block, which have market values between $550,000 and $750,000, have been remodeled. But the work was done in a way that was invisible from the street and had little effect on neighbors.

"Everybody is interested in upgrading their homes and having the amenities," said homeowner Peter Robb. "But it is possible to do it without destroying the neighborhood."

The Oaklawn block is tightknit, with kids running between houses, people caring for each other's kids and dogs, and regular get-togethers. A few residents have declined to put protest signs in their yards. But many were involved in a video made for a presentation at a City Council meeting.

Residents were incensed earlier this month when the council declined to watch the video, saying that viewing it at that meeting would have violated policy. Residents were invited to show it at a later meeting. Someone then put the video on YouTube, where as of Friday, it had been viewed more than 1,200 times.

The Oaklawn group has begun to hear from other people who oppose some of the new homes. While it looks like they will not be able to stop construction of the new house, residents said they will press city officials on zoning and monitor the efforts to rewrite those rules.

"They won't do anything at City Hall unless you change the ordinances," Starkey said. "I feel like we're butting our heads up against the wall, and it's getting later and later and later."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380

Mary Jane Smetanka •

© 2007 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.

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