Snippets from Metropolitan Home
Bigger Isn't Always Better
Communities across the U.S. are taking action against the supersize houses invading their front and backyards
Written by Peter Hellman
The good news is that grassroots anti- McMansionists are fighting back. Often, they’re out ahead of local government when it comes to preserving the character of their communities. In the architecturally rich, fully built-out Chicago suburb of Kenilworth, for example, village officials did nothing as more than a dozen Victorian and Prairie-style homes were demolished to make way for McMansions. “A bunch of us residents decided we wanted our officials to get more involved in the loss of these significant older homes,” says longtime village resident Jackie Bossu. “But their response was that they couldn’t do anything so long as our 1969 zoning law wasn’t being violated. They were just running on autopilot.”
Responding to rising citizen dismay, the village’s building review committee called a meeting on teardowns in late 2003. “It was a weekday evening, but more than 200 residents showed up, even though we have only 830 homes,” Bossu says. Belatedly, regulations were adapted to the new speculative realities, including a required “cooling-off period” for teardown permits. FAR computations were also changed to benefit existing homes rather than new construction, so owners have less temptation to sell out. And so-called snout garages, which protrude from facades of new homes (sometimes called Garage Mahals), were banned. This year, Kenilworth expects to have a revised code that is tilted toward preservation of the village’s traditional fabric rather than teardowns.
In booming Dallas, a city with a surprisingly large reservoir of pre-war houses, the last few years have seen more than 1,000 teardowns (exceeding the size of Kenilworth’s entire housing stock). “It’s not just a problem of new houses being out of scale and proportion with others on the block, but of materials and style,” says Katherine Seale, director of the civic group Preservation Dallas. In a neighborhood of low, wood-framed bungalows you’ll get a limestone-faced, two-and-a-half-story house with a large faux Frenchstyle turret. It’s so discordant.” Seale hastens to say that “building new houses in existing neighborhoods can be compatible, and lots of architects have figured out how to do it.” But too often, they don’t.
The most potent factor in the invasion of McMansions on urban infill is the rising cost of land. A modest old home on a highly valuable lot is teardown bait to a speculative builder. The new house he’ll build will be proportionately more expensive in keeping with the cost of the land. “When you buy a teardown in New York, or Washington or San Francisco, places with very high property values, you’ll build a house worth three or four times the price of the land, so you’ve got to build an awfully big house,” says architect Sarah Susanka. “Some of the most beautiful inner-ring suburbs are being lost before our eyes to these humongous houses dumped into their midst. And yet, it’s often unintentional. People see a plan in an architectural grocery store and say, gee, that’s lovely. But just because something looks good in its own isolated setting doesn’t mean it’s going to work where houses are densely packed.”
And it’s not only new houses but the expansion of existing ones whose new bulk can dominate their neighbors. “People will keep one stud from the original house to call it remodeling and then build a massive house,” says Susanka. “They’re determined to get every square inch out of their valuable lot,” says Susanka, whose 1998 broadside against houses with too much unused space, The Not So Big House, will be published in an updated tenth-anniversary edition this year.
Invoking the mantra of sustainability, Anthony Flint of the Lincoln Institute, a Boston-based land-use think tank, argues that big new homes on urban infill can actually be a good thing: “You have folks who will say that its better to build close to town where land can be reused and the infrastructure exists rather than building it out in the cornfields.” Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Places, disagrees. “It’s good that people want to move closer to town, but not when they bring their suburban sensibilities to historic districts,” he says. The large houses that they left behind “aren’t designed to fit in these differently scaled neighborhoods.”
The graceful neighborhoods now under siege from McMansions, it’s worth remembering, were created not so much by regulation as by an earlier generation’s sense of style, proportion and landscaping. “What we’re trying to do is not about judging someone for having too large a home, but what’s appropriate for a community that’s been here for more than 100 years,” says Lauren Norton, an Atlanta preservationist.
And what are cities trying:
A task force in [Atlanta] did create a new set of regulations on square footage that should bring down the size of many homes. In Dallas, new Neighborhood Stabilization Overlay Zones allow residents to decide what they’ll permit, and what they won’t, when new buildings are to be erected. In Minneapolis, home footprints are now limited to 50 percent of lot size. In Boulder County, Colorado, where home size averages a gigantic 6,500 square feet, a bold plan is afoot to create a system of transferring square footage rights from small houses to large houses.
In Raleigh, the first step is still admitting we have a problem.