In a town just north of Boston recently, the planning office was abuzz. Developers had the audacity to buy a property on a quiet street near a desirable elementary school, and were giving the house a major overhaul – tripling its size, and hoping to sell it for $1 million. They needed only a building permit; the rest of the project required no approvals for zoning or anything else.
This wasn’t the dirtiest word in established metro-area communities – the teardown – but it was essentially the same thing. The term in vogue now is "mansionization." The planners were worried about the historical value of existing housing stock, new homes being "out of character" and out of scale with the surrounding neighborhoods, and the lack of entry-level or affordable housing.
Can we step in with some regulations, they wondered? They had heard about other upscale towns that had taken steps to limit teardowns and big-home construction. In Rockport, for example, a special permit review process kicks in if any teardown replacement home is larger than 6,000 square feet. Wellesley has a similar detailed review process – covering everything from required setbacks to the number of trees that may or may not be cut down. It was immediately challenged, but upheld by the Massachusetts Attorney General in 2008.
Beyond such zoning controls, there were surely other language that could limit out-of-scale house-flipping development. And as ever, communities can also try to wield the club of historic preservation, in pursuit of maintaining "character."
But for the town fearing the onslaught of mansionization, I had some different advice. Don’t stand in the way. Be flattered that the market is recognizing your neighborhoods and prime locations. And most important of all, be proud that what’s happening is a form of smart growth.
Yes, some embodied energy is wasted in a teardown. But the new homes are universally more energy-efficient, and can be made with recycled materials and other green construction methods. What families want is a little bit more room. A recent survey by the National Association of Homebuilders found that most homeowners want something in the area of 2,500 square feet – close to the average size for single-family homes, which has been creeping up steadily over the decades.
Sometimes the extra space is for multigenerational housing, a certain trend in the years ahead. The homebuilder Lennar recently touted homes with granny flats and in-law apartments – the kind of flexible housing New urbanism has been advocating for 20 years or so.
There is surely another trend of "right-sizing" and smaller homes and even micro apartments, for empty nesters and singles. But that’s the thing about the housing markets – one size doesn’t fit all. If some homeowners want more size, they’ll find a way to get it. They key factor in the teardown phenomenon is location.
The same NAHB survey found that while a bigger house was desirable, families didn’t want that house to be isolated out in the far-flung exurbs, miles from anywhere. They want to be able to walk to school or to a park, maybe even to a store to get a half-gallon of milk, or at least not spend quite so much time driving all around to disparate destinations.
And so we come back to teardowns and mansionization. Another way to describe the phenomenon is "infill redevelopment." Builders are essentially re-using an established parcel in an already developed neighborhood. That’s a far greener step than building a true McMansion out in the cornfields. It’s the essence of smart growth – build in the places already built up, and leave the greenfields of the periphery alone.
I should confess that this is not an entirely original thought. USA Today’s Haya El-Nasser applied the very same lens on this article on teardowns way back in 2002.
Judging by the reaction among the town planners with whom I shared this contrarian view, however, the heresy was self-evident. How could I possibly advocate for monster homes out of scale with our lovely neighborhoods? Disrupting the local historic fabric is not “responsibly sustainable infill,” said one. "I hope you don’t work for the public," sniffed another.
Always open to different ways of looking at things, our planners. What it boils down to is another catchphrase so common in the American suburban landscape: not in my backyard.
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