Paradise Lost

McMansions multiply in an Arizona town.

For more than 50 years Helen Harold has lived in Paradise Valley, Ariz., in a concrete-block house designed by Blaine Drake, an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright. So it's no surprise that she has strong opinions about how development is threatening the character and modernist architecture of her town. "The feel of openness and open vistas is vanishing," Harold says. "People's views from their homes are being destroyed."

Paradise Valley, about 15 miles from downtown Phoenix, is known for its low-density one-acre lots and views of Camelback and Mummy mountains—assets threatened by the proliferation of McMansions, according to Harold and other residents. Houses used to be built so the desert dominated, Harold is fond of saying, and now the houses are dominating the desert.

Harold, 83, is a member of the ­Citizens Forum, a nonprofit group in Paradise Valley that recently sent out a survey to residents, asking their opinions about construction. Responses included, "Who needs 49,000-square-foot homes" and "STOP all this ridiculous building!! You've destroyed enough of this town."  The way to rein in the construction, says Harold, "is to elect a town council that will be responsible for preserving the desert feel of the community."

Scott LeMarr, vice mayor of Paradise Valley, says he's sympathetic to the concern about overbuilding. But Proposition 207, which recently revised eminent domain laws in Arizona, makes it difficult to pass an ordinance that would impose building restrictions, he says. One solution would be for a group of homeowners to agree on certain deed restrictions to their residences. But because of the strong support for property rights in the region, LeMarr says, that seems unlikely to happen. ("Don't turn PV into a nanny state," was one response to the citizens' group survey.) Moreover, in a town where the median house price hovers around $2 million, many people hesitate to adopt restrictions that could hurt resale values.

Paradise Valley is at a crossroads, says Sian Winship, vice president of the Southern California chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians. Last fall she led a tour of the town to help draw attention to the modernist architecture that sprouted in the greater Phoenix area after the death of Frank Lloyd Wright in 1959. "Turns out that Paradise Valley has a real cluster of it," she says, citing a house that was designed by the architect Benny Gonzalez and featured in a 1966 issue of Life magazine. If Paradise Valley isn't careful, says Winship, its rich architectural heritage may soon vanish.

For her part, Helen Harold has little faith that the threat posed by McMansions will ever disappear. "What's being built today will probably be torn down 15 years from now," she says. "It's a continuing problem."


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