When a McMansion feels more like an estate

Defining a McMansion is doable. But, at what point does a McMansion become an estate?

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He liked how certain details — the neighborhood of manses behind gates and shrouded with trees; the house’s circular drive and imposing view — gave the ordinary McMansion an estate feel. He eventually dotted the lawn with gargoyles and Renaissance-style statues.

In this example, a McMansion feels more like an estate when it has added levels of privacy (gates, lots of trees blocking views of houses), a particular kind of driveway, and a particular view. Presumably, normal McMansions do not have these features or have imitations of these features. The suburban subdivision of McMansions offers limited privacy. The straight driveway leads to a big garage. The view is not imposing.

Is there a market for upselling McMansions? Take your typical newer McMansion, whether in a new development or in a teardown setting. What small features would differentiate it from similar homes and translate to a higher value? At the same time, adding special touches to McMansions goes against the mass-produced image of such homes.

Are the boundaries between McMansion and estate different than those between McMansions and mansions? In this second comparison, the size of the home itself seems to matter. The McMansion is roughly 3,000 to 10,000 square feet while the McMansion is larger.

“Driving in ‘American Dream mode'”

Driving during a stretch of pleasant fall weather, I thought of a phrase I heard a few months back in a radio conversation: “driving in ‘American Dream mode’.” The idea was this: putting the windows down, turning up the radio or music, and enjoying the drive is an ideal expression of the American Dream. Freedom. Cars. Moving quickly through the landscape.

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Many car commercials play off this idea. These commercials rarely feature traffic and stopping for traffic lights or stop signs. The driving is often through pleasant landscapes. The drivers and the passengers are enjoying the experience. The cars are new and loaded with features.

Numerous social forces converged to this point where a particular driving experience embodies the American Dream. The construction of roads and highways. Sprawling suburbs. The rise of fast food, big box stores, and road trips. Driving is an essential part of the American way of life.

Even if relatively few people get to regularly drive in “American Dream mode,” it is a powerful symbol.

All the construction at the same time + the other factors that increase traffic

A “perfect storm” of traffic has hit Chicagoland:

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The recent traffic backups aren’t a mirage, say transportation officials. It’s really a perfect storm of ongoing construction projects occurring at nearly all points of the expressway system. This includes the Jane Byrne Interchange project, the behind schedule and over budget construction job that offers one of the worst choke points for congestion in the heart of downtown Chicago…

The last week in September saw some of the worst traffic in recent memory, thanks not only to the ongoing construction — including the start of three-weekend lane reductions on Interstate 57 to accommodate ramp patching and resurfacing — but also an emergency closure of the outbound Dan Ryan Expressway ramp to the outbound Stevenson Expressway that isn’t expected to completed until Sunday, according to IDOT…

Transit experts say that Chicago, which has some of the worst congestion of any American city, is also grappling with its return to normalcy following closures brought on by the pandemic. The added congestion comes at a time when many workers such as Cavanagh are returning to the office after two years of work-from-home protocols. Rider usage of transit systems such as the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace also haven’t yet returned to normal…

“In other words, drivers are making more trips, but they’re shorter trips on average,” Dan Ginsburg, TTWN’s director of operations said in an email.

So the old joke in Chicago, “there are two seasons: construction and winter,” rings true again?

But, this is a bigger issue than just construction. The infrastructure needs help. More people are driving. People live and work in different locations. Mass transit is not being used much. Mass transit does not necessarily reach where it needs to reach. People want to drive faster. There is a lot of freight and cargo moving through the region and so on.

This “perfect storm” could be an opportunity to ask how to address traffic and congestion throughout the city and region for the next few decades? How will this get any better?

Another suburban Chicago mall goes in on denser housing to revive its fortunes

Yorktown Mall in Lombard is planning to replace a vacant anchor store with hundreds of apartments:

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The department store closings have turned other enclosed malls into retail ghost towns. But Yorktown has sought to reinvent itself by thinking outside the big box…

Pacific is now teaming up with Chicago-based Synergy Construction on a major overhaul of the west side of the 54-year-old mall. Plans call for replacing the cavernous, three-level Carson’s store and its vast parking lot with an apartment complex and a public park. The residential portion of the development will cost an estimated $201 million over two phases, Lombard officials say…

Pacific and Synergy have not finalized a unit count, but village memos indicate the latest project could bring approximately 700 apartments to Yorktown.

“You start having a critical mass of maybe 1,500 or 2,000 new residents,” Niehaus said. “And when you look at the rent rates that the apartments are generating, it typically lends itself to people that have disposable income that will want to shop or eat or participate in activities.”

Not all malls will survive the coming years. The idea behind replacing stores with apartments or housing is that it is a better use of the space rather than trying to chase a dwindling number of successful retail options and adding residents next to stores, restaurants, and entertainment options means they will spend some of their money in the remaining mall spaces.

Will this ultimately be the successful tactic that either saves some portion of the mall or revitalizes/transitions the space from retail to other uses? Housing is needed in many communities with shopping malls. Will communities recoup the revenue that used to come in through sales taxes? Will the footprint of the mall eventually disappear into the sprawling suburban landscape? As noted in the article, this is not the only Chicago mall pursuing this. See the example of the Fox Valley Mall in Aurora. Wait another thirty years or so and the legacy of the suburban shopping mall – roughly a century old at that point – might be very different.

Too many taxing bodies in Illinois to easily count them

How many taxing bodies are in Illinois?

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Anyone who gazes at a property tax bill realizes Illinois is awash in local government: townships, school and park districts, road and bridge agencies, community colleges, police and fire departments, and a collection of water, housing, cultural, cemetery, and even mosquito abatement districts. The Cook County treasurer’s website lists eight taxing districts for Chicago, 11 for Winnetka, and 10 each for Norridge and Hodgkins.

There are so many entities that even the experts differ on their number. The Civic Federation, which charts government spending and claims to have done the most exhaustive search, says Illinois has 8,923. That’s higher than the 6,032 tally from the Illinois Policy Institute and the 6,918 listed in a 2017 U.S. Census Bureau report — 2,000 more than second-place Pennsylvania.

Americans like local government. Do they like local government this much? Perhaps the presence of this many taxing bodies in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and other states is the answer: “yes they do.”

However, it seems like it should be easier to count the number in Illinois. The state government itself does not keep track? How could the Civic Federation and the Census Bureau differ by roughly 2,000 taxing bodies? While the rest of the article goes on to detail how difficult it is to consolidate these governmental bodies or to eliminate them, having an accurate count might be an important start.

The ongoing social construction of what food is labeled healthy

New proposed guidelines from the FDA would change what constitutes health food and what can be marked healthy:

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Under the proposal, manufacturers can label their products “healthy” if they contain a meaningful amount of food from at least one of the food groups or subgroups (such as fruit, vegetable or dairy) recommended by the dietary guidelines. They must also adhere to specific limits for certain nutrients, such as saturated fat, sodium and added sugars. For example, a cereal would need to contain three-quarters of an ounce of whole grains and no more than 1 gram of saturated fat, 230 milligrams of sodium and 2.5 grams of added sugars per serving for a food manufacturer to use the word “healthy” on the label.

The labels are aimed at helping consumers more easily navigate nutrition labels and make better choices at the grocery store. The proposed rule would align the definition of the “healthy” claim with current nutrition science, the updated Nutrition Facts label and the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the FDA said…

New labeling language is sure to be controversial among food manufacturers that have sought to capitalize on Americans’ interest in more-healthful food…

But what constitutes “healthy” food is a thorny topic among nutrition experts. Would foods high in what many nutrition scientists call “good fats,” such as those that contain almonds or avocados, be deemed “unhealthy,” whereas artificially sweetened fruit snacks or reduced-fat sugary yogurts might be considered “healthy”?

Put together science, business interests, politics, other interested social actors, and the everyday food practices of people in the United States and you have a public conversation slash negotiation over what it means for food to be healthy. This is not a new process – it has been going on for decades – but it has significant ongoing implications.

When talking about graphs and charts, I use the example my Statistics class of the evolution of the image of a healthy diet. Today, this is My Plate which was developed a little more than a decade ago. Prior to that was the food pyramid and there were several other government sponsored graphics before that. Each of them theoretically represent a healthy diet or approach to eating but they emphasize different foods and quantities. They reflect this ongoing social construction of healthy food.

This suggests that what is considered healthy might change within a decade or two after this current round of conversation and guidelines comes to a conclusion. These changes will embody new understandings and social/power dynamics.

The limited safety of pedestrians and bicyclists even in quiet residential neighborhoods

Street and intersections in quiet suburban subdivisions are not necessarily designed with the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists in mind:

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The station reached out to county officials and the local police precinct; everyone sure scratched their heads about that one. There was supposed to be a stop sign there, said the county, and they didn’t know why there wasn’t one installed. The police made sure to point out that it wasn’t their fault, either, because, they said, residents hadn’t complained. “Some residents have now reached out to us requesting additional signage,” said the precinct’s commissioner, James Mett. “In the coming days, we plan to examine and research the issue to determine the best course of action moving forward.” A few phone calls later, it was announced that a new stop sign would be installed Thursday.

So, that’s one thing that made this street unsafe. But there are plenty of other problems, not unique to this intersection but common to many, many American streets, that also made it unsafe. There’s no signage of any kind to alert drivers to the possibility that walkers or cyclists might want to cross. There are no traffic-calming design elements, like speed bumps, raised crosswalks (or any kind of crosswalk), or extended curbs. There’s no protected bike lane.

The speed limit on this road is 30 miles per hour, as it is on roads in all Texas cities. Last year a Texas lawmaker introduced a bill to lower the speed limit on such roads to 25 miles per hour. Cars traveling 30 miles per hour are 43 percent more likely to kill pedestrians they hit than cars traveling 25 miles per hour, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. This is the lawmaker’s third attempt to pass this bill, and it seems to have been just as successful as the first two times, as nothing has happened to the bill in more than a year. (We don’t know how fast the driver of the Hyundai was traveling. Maybe she was going less than 30 miles per hour. Or maybe she was going faster; after all, Google Street View suggests you can drive the entire length of Kings Mill Road, a circuit of nearly a mile, and never see a single speed limit sign.)

And notably, the driver who struck and killed Chase Delarios was driving a midsize SUV. The heavier the car, the more likely it is to kill a person if it strikes them. At between 3,500 and 5,000 pounds (depending on specific model), a 2017 Hyundai Santa Fe is more than a match for an 8-year-old and his bike. (The post-crash local news coverage shows the bike, horribly, jammed under the Hyundai’s rear wheel.)

And the conclusion:

Like most American streets, Kings Mill Road is not a safe area for pedestrians or people riding bikes. It’s designed for drivers, and drivers use it that way. That’s the system we’re trapped in…

In the United States, cars and vehicles with engines rule the roads. We have built whole systems and ways of life to accommodate them and ease their travel. It is supported by public and private money, public sentiment, and an ongoing series of decisions.

If you are traveling via other means, you have to be aware and careful. Know where vehicles are at all times. Be cautious in crossing, even at clearly marked walkways. Be ready to move quickly if needed. Make yourself visible to vehicles.

To change this or seriously address this would require a long-term effort to redesign basic aspects of everyday American life. It can be done, but a sustained series of actions is difficult to organize and execute.

Changes in methodology behind Naperville’s move to #16 best place to live in 2022 from #45 in 2021?

Money recently released their 2022 Best Places to Live in the United States. The Chicago suburb of Naperville is #16 in the country. Last year, it was #45. How did it move so much in one year? Is Naperville that much better in one year, other places that much work, or is something else at work? I wonder if the methodology led to this. Here is what went into the 2022 rankings:

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Chief among those changes included introducing new data related to national heritage, languages spoken at home and religious diversity — in addition to the metrics we already gather on racial diversity. We also weighted these factors highly. While seeking places that are diverse in this more traditional sense of the word, we also prioritized places that gave us more regional diversity and strove to include cities of all sizes by lifting the population limit that we often relied on in previous years. This opened up a new tier of larger (and often more diverse) candidates.

With these goals in mind, we first gathered data on places that:

  • Had a population of at least 20,000 people — and no population maximum
  • Had a population that was at least 85% as racially diverse as the state
  • Had a median household income of at least 85% of the state median

Here is what went into the 2021 rankings:

To create Money’s Best Places to Live ranking for 2021-2022, we considered cities and towns with populations ranging from 25,000 up to 500,000. This range allowed us to surface places large enough to have amenities like grocery stores and a nearby hospital, but kept the focus on somewhat lesser known spots around the United States. The largest place on our list this year has over 457,476 residents and the smallest has 25,260.

We also removed places where:

  • the crime risk is more than 1.5x the national average
  • the median income level is lower than its state’s median
  • the population is declining
  • there is effectively no ethnic diversity

In 2021, the top-ranked communities tend to be suburbs. In 2022, there is a mix of big cities and suburbs with Atlanta at the top of the list and one neighborhood of Chicago, Rogers Park, at #5.

So how will this get reported? Did Naperville make a significant leap? Is it only worth highlighting the #16 ranking in 2022 and ignore the previous year’s lower ranking? Even while Naperville has regularly featured in Money‘s list (and in additional rankings as well), #16 can be viewed as an impressive feat.

The long-term consequences for those benefiting from buying a home during a recession

Thinking more about yesterday’s post on cooling home values in certain housing markets, how many people benefit from the lower prices? The typical emphasis in such economic times is to note the difficulty of buying a home when interest rates are higher and there is economic uncertainty.

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But, lower prices means some might be able to buy when they could not otherwise. The hottest markets in good economic times have high prices and lots of competition. Even as borrowing money is harder in a recession, prices can be lower and the competition might not be as stiff.

Some people are still buying and selling homes during economic downturns. This leads to a long-term question: are those who buy during a recession more or less likely to hold tightly to the idea of a home as an investment? Is buying at the height of the market – famously, such as right before the housing bubble burst in the late 2000s – tied to a deeper focus on property values and a strong return on investment? Or, because a home purchased during a recession might emphasize scarcity and economic uncertainty, might this lead to more concerns about property values?

The housing market giveth, the housing market taketh away

Where are housing prices dropping the fastest in the United States? They tend to be places where prices were zooming up not long ago:

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Top 10 cities where housing markets are cooling the fastest in 2022

  1. Seattle, WA
  2. Las Vegas, NV
  3. San Jose, CA
  4. San Diego, CA
  5. Sacramento, CA and Denver, CO (tie)
  6. Phoenix, AZ
  7. Oakland, CA
  8. North Port, FL
  9. Tacoma, WA

This raises multiple questions:

  1. While housing values are going down, how long before they stabilize and head back up? After all, these are places with higher demand and rising prices over time. At least, that is what a lot of homeowners are planning on.
  2. How are residents of these places feeling? American property owners like it when property values are going up, even if they are not ready to sell. When prices go down, I assume they are not feeling as good. (This could be true even if housing values today are higher than they were not long ago; the immediate feeling of loss is strong.)
  3. Is a local market with higher highs and lower lows in housing prices one where more growth is happening? Looking at the list above, it would appear these are fairly popular places with a steady demand for housing. The alternative to the yo-yoing in the housing market is a market where prices do not rise much or lose much. Such markets also exist in the United States, but they are less desirable.