Monday, March 27, 2006

The Invasion of the McMansions

Over the last few years, one of the more interesting trends in real estate has been the increasing number of affluent professionals moving back into the city. Some choose ritzy downtown condos but many end up in the old neighborhoods situated just outside of downtown areas—the ones with classic homes built before the era of cookie-cutter housing developments.

But now it seems that some of these new urbanites want to bring the cookie-cutter homes of the suburbs to these old neighborhoods. Old homes are torn down and in their place the owners build so-called McMansions, those bloated single-family homes that cram small lots with as much square-footage of home as possible.

While every city and municipality is obviously free to handle this situation however they see fit, I have to admit that, as a resident of one of these old neighborhoods, I’m no fan of the teardown. I love all the old houses with their unique styles and classic feel. Such homes bring a gravity to a neighborhood, a depth of character born through time and through the many embellishments generations of homeowners have added to each home.

When one of these old houses is destroyed, a bit of that character is lost. And while some of these new homes are truly beautiful in their own right, too many are built as behemoths, their frames out of proportion to the surrounding homes and their exteriors bland and unwelcoming. Why not fix up the house that was there? Why not find a way to survive with a few hundred less feet of space?

Of course, it is better that a dilapidated, vacant home be torn down in favor of a new home than it remain a blight on the neighborhood. And, at least in my neighborhood, we have some stunningly ugly homes (built in the slap-dash era of homebuilding known as the 70s) that would upset no one if destroyed. So there are no absolutes here. Competing interests do exist and must be weighed.

But there is a principle. And it is this: these older neighborhoods have kept their vitality not just because they are so close to the city’s center but also because they are so close to the city’s true character. Cities have personality and that personality is revealed in its architecture as much or more than it is revealed in anything else. No home that can rightfully be said to represent that deeper character should be casually destroyed just so someone can have their suburban palace closer to downtown.

As I said, each city clearly has the right to do as they please, but should the issue come up for a vote in my city, I’d vote in favor of a board tasked with preserving all but the most unsalvageable and most insignificant homes.


Blogger Paul Silver said...

This is a big deal in Austin right now.
But people are talking and compromises are being reached. There are many ways to allow people to tap the increased value of their properties without destroying the character of a neighborhood.
This is one of those unavoidable and ongoing challenges of balancing public and private interests.

9:36 AM  
Blogger Joshua said...

Urban McMansions aren't the only counter-traditional housing trend I've noticed lately. In certain exurbs of Minneapolis/St. Paul, much of the new housing construction is of row houses, a type of housing usually associated with inner cities.

2:27 PM  
Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...


Great point. Out in the 'burbs they're building urban-like centers while in the urban centers they're building suburban-style homes.

The free market at work, eh?

3:16 PM  
Blogger griftdrift said...

This one tears at me. I live in a city where this has become so rampant the mayor recently imposed a moratorium. Developers routinely pay large amounts for old houses, bulldoze them and then sprout up a sparkly new house.

I lean towards property rights being the rule but I have to agree that seeing a McMansion sitting in the middle of 40 to 50 year old houses looks like a very sore thumb.

11:02 PM  

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