The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

16 April 2006

House of the rising gorge

I was headed east on Wilshire from May yesterday afternoon when I spotted a vacant lot: a teardown. One of the more modest homes on the western edge of Nichols Hills was gone, presumably to be replaced with something, well, less modest. It seemed unlikely to me, though, that one of the faux châteaux you see in newer suburban communities would be appearing on top of this lot. While houses along this stretch varied substantially in size, their setbacks were more or less identical; I assume that Nichols Hills regulates this sort of thing rather tightly, and there simply isn't room to plop a McMansion on a lot this size and still have the prescribed amount of front yard. (In fact, where I live, there is a setback ordinance, part of the Urban Conservation District zoning rules, which does exactly that.)

James Joyner doesn't object to zoning rules of this sort, but he wonders about their motivation:

While I understand the desire to preserve the historic character of truly old neighborhoods, as well as the interest of homeowners in not having multi-family or much lower value properties built in their neighborhood, I canít see why anyone would be opposed to nicer homes.

My wife and I live in a subdivision that was once part of George Washington's Mount Vernon estate. The homes were built in the early and mid-1960s and have what for this area are considered large yards. Slowly, the older, smaller, less attractive homes are being bought by developers and replaced by much nicer, more expensive new homes. We're delighted, as it not only improves the aesthetic quality of the area but increases our own property value. It also encourages others, including those like us who plan to stay put, to invest money in renovating their own homes since the fear that they will not be able to recoup the investment on resale because of the value of other homes in the community is diminished. This strikes me as a win all the way around.

Not having seen Dr Joyner's neighborhood, I can't address this idea directly, but at least around my part of the world, suburban homes built in the early 1960s tend to be something less than distinctive unless they're seriously high-buck; this was an era of cookie-cutter architecture. (I owned one such circa 1980, and it was fairly indistinguishable from the rest of the block.) I don't think it's a property-value issue so much as an aesthetic one: your own car looks older when your neighbor shows up with a brand-new one. And in the estimation of some of our cultural arbiters, the McMansion is to a house what a sport-utility vehicle is to a car: the very idea is an affront to their sensibilities.

Molly is an art/architectural historian, and she has her own qualms:

[W]hile I would always support reasonable efforts to preserve historical structures, I am troubled by efforts like those in Arlington County, VA to dictate how people build anew ("... limits on home sizes ... in most cases ... [mean] a house alone can occupy just 30 percent of a lot"). And I think that the distinction between these two plans rests on a question of motives. We should preserve because we value evidence of our past, not because we find it beautiful. For if we saved (and built) only that which someone defined as beautiful, we would miss many works of great value; beauty and value are not the same thing.

[This CNN] article also raises bogus arguments against McMansions, like that they destroy community. Green spaces and quirky homes don't make friends; the people who live there do. While I am a huge believer in the power of architecture, there's a lot more to a loss of community over a much longer period of time than the growth of new suburban neighborhoods.

This quote from the CNN piece struck me:

"Most of these new houses are more internally organized. You see the driveway and garage doors from the street, not people," said Adrian Fine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "We're losing mixed-income neighborhoods because the prices are going up so much that it becomes one class."

Then again, in some places "the prices are going up so much" even without teardowns and rebuilds.

And this brings up another issue, says Dr Joyner:

Then again, I have never quite grasped the argument against "gentrification," whereby blighted slums are torn down and replaced by decent housing. I understand, and sympathize with, the desire to ensure that the working poor can afford a place to live. But the antipathy toward gentrification and mini-mansions has always struck me as visceral — a reaction against an upper middle class lifestyle — than about concern for the poor.

The dynamic of envy. Some of us used to suffer greatly from that.

While the individual blocks tend to be more homogenous, the ratio between the most-expensive and least-expensive houses in my neighborhood is about 2.0: you can buy in at the low-priced end, or you can pay up to twice as much. I don't know if this meets anyone's definition of "mixed income," but it certainly doesn't seem to have restricted the diversity of the neighborhood, in any sense of the word.

And ultimately, it boils down to this:

Owner Michael Hamilton said the choice belongs only to the homeowner. He argues that evolution has saved plenty of Austin neighborhoods — including the eclectic Hyde Park near the University of Texas — and that neighbors who are resistant to change are forgetting that "when they built all those old houses, they were new then, too."

"Somebody could paint their house purple across the street, and I really wouldn't like it," said Mr. Hamilton, who has lived in Austin for 33 years. "But I don't have the right to tell them they can't have a purple house."

My house, by the way, is sort of puce.

Posted at 11:30 AM to Almost Yogurt , Surlywood

Puce? Really, Charles? I mean, Happy Easter and all, but...PUCE??

Posted by: Francis W. Porretto at 11:48 AM on 16 April 2006

My personal objections to McMansions isn't aimed at the new ones in new developments, or even new ones in old neighborhoods that are replacements for slums. It's against the tendency of people, at least where I live, to buy a small house on a large lot, in a similar neighborhood of small bungalows and such on large lots, and then tearing that small house down and replacing it with a gigantic, swollen, two-story NuHome that fills nearly every available foot of lot space, leaving just enough space in the back for a swimming pool. It strikes me as a rather rude thing to do, because now the little old homes on either side are blocked by this giganto-beast of a thing. They look like aliens from another planet of much larger beings. And they all have three-car garages and the owners invariably have the largest SUVs (to which I don't generally object either). I always wonder how the people can stand living in such a large place -- how do they keep it all clean?

Posted by: Andrea Harris at 11:51 AM on 16 April 2006

We haven't had much of that here, though I've seen some particularly heinous examples on the west side of Austin.

And "puce" is a compromise: strictly, it's more of a "hot pink," with the heat scaled back a bit, and since the house is known to neighborhood historians as the Brown House, puce, which has brown undertones, seems to be a reasonable description. (No, it's never been owned by anyone named Brown, and its original color was green.)

Posted by: CGHill at 12:05 PM on 16 April 2006

"eat the rich" ...


Posted by: Ron at 8:09 AM on 17 April 2006

Ron! That was one of my favorite books by P.J. O'Rourke! I didn't know you were a fan of his too!


Posted by: McGehee at 8:53 AM on 17 April 2006

Aerosmith also has a song named "Eat The Rich".

Posted by: unimpressed at 4:53 PM on 17 April 2006