McMansions on Hold

Some Towns Fight Back with a Moratorium on Teardowns.

This house was demolished to make way for a new one.

Credit: Jim Lindberg

Jane Lonnquist cautiously eyed the house next door to her home in Edina, Minn., after developers bought the property. She and other neighbors had expressed remorse when two houses in their historic neighborhood were torn down.

This time, Lonnquist and her neighbors took action. They conducted a survey to find out what neighbors thought about teardowns replaced by modern, larger homes. The majority preferred preservation, and in this case, the developer listened. He scratched original plans and renovated the home in a Cotswold Cottage style, which Lonnquist says blends into the historic community.

City officials also took note of the findings. Edina conducted its own survey, and in April issued a one-year moratorium on teardowns while the issue is considered.

"Our town is lucky," Lonnquist says. "The neighborhood is on the National Register, and the city had named it a heritage landmark. So we had some local protection. Our city at least is trying to strike a better balance between absolute property rights and that the scale and size of the home impacts the neighbor's property rights. Ultimately, that leads to the desirability of the neighborhood."

Super-sized homes, or "McMansions," are coming under fire across the country as many cities consider stemming the trend of tearing down houses to replace with larger, new construction. In the past two years, cities like Austin, Atlanta, and Delray Beach, Fla., have declared moratoriums on demolitions, buying time to devise a solution.

"Dislike of this [teardown trend] seems to be most acute in older, upscale suburbs," says Robert Bruegmann, professor of Art History, Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Illinois-Chicago, and the author of Sprawl: A Compact History. "That's where the real anger is. One of the things we're looking at here is the sense of entitlement that people have, that they can control not only their own house but the area around them. There's a sense that individuals are entitled to a bigger say in what goes on around them."

According to the National Association of Home Builders, in 1987 only 21 percent of new single-family homes were more than 2,400 square feet. By 2004, that figure had increased to 39 percent, and at the same time, the average lot size had decreased.

"It's part of a larger trend that we've been seeing since the late 1970s," says Larry Davis, associate professor of architecture and chair of the undergraduate program in Syracuse University's School of Architecture. "Both spouses are working and have the income to pay for it. I think there's going to be a point where the housing market bursts or energy costs become too much. It's going to be interesting to see how long people can sustain the larger square footage."

In Austin, Tex., city council approved an interim set of development regulations that limits the size of new structures and remodels and establishes minimum front-yard setbacks. (It prohibits houses more than 2,300 square feet or over 40 percent of their lot size in most central Austin neighborhoods.) The city council has appointed a task force to study the issue and make recommendations on a permanent solution. Click here for the Austin Chronicle's "Am I a McMansion or Not?" contest >>

In January 2006, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin set off a fiery debate when she issued an executive order banning big houses in some neighborhoods. It didn't last long: The following month, council members shot down the temporary ban by a vote of 11 to 3, and a task force is now studying the issue.

Last year, city commissioners in Delray Beach, Fla., approved a measure to stop all demolition and large-scale construction in the city's five historic districts for six months. In the meantime, they are working to create clearer guidelines.

What's the best way to deal with the trend toward tearing down existing sites to build overstuffed homes?

One way that many neighborhoods are enforcing what can be built or not is through homeowner associations.

Cities can impose height limits, demolition delays or create historic districts. Joel Goldsteen, an architect and professor of Urban and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington, says, "Designation as a historic district is probably the best way to go."

But the pressure to build bigger houses will continue as families demand houses with a large square footage.

"There are two forces I see pushing in different directions," Bruegmann says. "The affluent will be quite successful in maintaining their community and stopping teardowns. The middle-class suburbs won't have the money or the willingness to buck the market trends. Teardowns probably won't offend those people as much."  

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