When to fight McMansions: with a move from a 8 BR to a 25 BR home

The Hamptons is often home to fights over McMansions (earlier posts here and here). A new squabble involves a wealthy venture capitalist looking to significantly enlarge his home and encountering opposition:

Ken Fox — whose company, The Stripes Group, has financed Blue Apron and Seamless/Grubhub — hopes to grow his quaint, 1880s shingled home into a 25-bedroom, 14-bathroom “McMansion,” his opponents complain.

“Find another town to destroy,” seethed one petition signer, Olivia Salina.

Fox’s eight-bedroom home — which he purchased for $10.7 million in 2012, known locally as “Mocomanto” — is on both the state and national historic registries, and sits on protected wetlands on the banks of Lake Agawam…

Some three dozen neighbors have joined them in writing protest letters to the zoning board, and as of Friday, more than 300 had signed a change.org petition urging village officials to oppose the plans…

Fox, meanwhile, told The Post through his lawyer that, as planned, Fox’s new house would still be smaller than many of his neighbors’.

Without knowing all the details on the ground, it is more difficult to know the merits of the concerns expressed by the neighbors.

But, this case does point to a broader issue with McMansions: when do communities decide to draw the line? There are several stages at which neighbors and communities can band together and take effective action:

  1. Before any McMansions are constructed. This, however, requires a lot of foresight. Perhaps some of this foresight is gained by watching what happens to other communities.
  2. With a few McMansions present. Community members notice changes and don’t like the new direction.
  3. After plenty of new McMansions have been constructed and the horse is already out of the barn.

I would guess that most disputes with McMansions occur in cases #2 and #3 where McMansions are already present in some number. If so, it may be more difficult to change the rules as the game is being played. If Mr. Fox is correct that there are already larger houses present, are the neighbors simply trying to stop others from joining them in having bigger homes? Or, would this particular structure be such an abnormal monstrosity that it must be stopped?

Since there are already large homes as well as McMansions in the Hamptons, I would argue fights like this one will be difficult to argue for opposed landowners to win in the long run.

What it would take to approve Musk’s Northeast Corridor hyperloop

Elon Musk may have verbal approval for his underground hyperloop but there is much more work to be done to get the project underway:

“It means effectively nothing,” says Adie Tomer, who studies metropolitan infrastructure at the Brookings Institution. “The federal government owns some land, but they don’t own the Northeast corridor land, and they don’t own the right-of-way.” Sure, having presidential backing isn’t bad—but it is far, far from the ballgame…

First, you have to get the OK from all the states and cities and municipalities involved. This is essential because Musk promises this Northeast hyperloop will pass through city centers, so he’s counting on tunneling under places where lots of people live and work and play. Judging by the the official responses from local agencies and politicians along the proposed route, this process is not quite underway. “This is news to City Hall,” the press secretary for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted. Looks like the Boring Company has a lot of boring meetings with public officials ahead of it…

And then there’s the little problem of moolah. Just updating the current Northeast corridor railroad—you know, the one run by Amtrak—to high-speed rail standards would cost an estimated $123 billion. Tunneling will be even more expensive. Musk has promised his boring technology will speed up the construction and bring down costs. But boring will never be cheap, especially in populated areas. Carving less than two miles of tunnel under New York for the Second Avenue Subway took $4.5 billion. Even if this hyperloop were entirely privately financed, it would take lots of zeroes…

By law, projects need to be evaluated for the potential environmental consequences of their construction and operations, to create what’s called an Environmental Impact Statement. Federal agencies generally take a while to prepare these documents: One 2008 study found the average writeup took three and a half years, and some have taken as many as 18. They also cost a lot to prepare—millions and millions in government funds.

That is a lot to take on. I’ve seen suggestions in recent years that the United States is no longer able to tackle needed large infrastructure projects. In the past, large projects could be accomplished such as the intercontinental railroad or Hoover Dam. Today, American projects lean more toward interminable delays and huge cost overruns. In contrast, some other countries do not get bogged down in the same ways. Sure, some of that might require more authoritarian regimes – such as the new Silk Road railroad in China or the growth in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates – but things get done!

Moving forward, is there a way for a country like the United States to undertake large innovative projects without all the bureaucracy that slows it down? Can we still take risks? Musk’s hyperloop might be a perfect test case: the technology barely exists so it might be an incredible risk. But, the payoff could be tremendous (and not just necessarily for the intended purpose of a new transportation technology but the other helpful pieces that come along the way – including a way forward across multiple governments and requirements).

Public housing may not just be about the housing

Public housing expert Susan Popkin argues that simply replacing the units from Chicago’s public housing high-rises may not be enough:

I think it was a partial victory. It was a whole lot more successful than anybody expected at the beginning. The odds of it being an absolute failure were pretty high. In the first phases of the plan, they were really struggling to get the buildings down and get people out of them, and they had 11 buildings they had targeted to relocate people from. So people ended up moving from one bad unit in a building that was slated to come down to one that was going to come down later…

So there was a lot of hope that it would do more than just improve people’s physical circumstances. It did reduce anxiety, which is important, but it really took extra wrap-around services before we saw real improvements in people’s mental health and their employment. They’re still very poor, but they’re working more. I think that there was recognition that the people in public housing really need a lot of the services they weren’t getting.

One of your arguments is that providing housing alone is not enough.

Especially not for the kids. The biggest disappointment for me was even when we got the wrap-around services, the parents were doing better, but they were still reporting that their kids were really struggling. And when we talked to the kids, the kids were talking about fighting, feeling really rejected in their new community, doing badly in school—not all, some of them were OK—but a higher proportion than we would have wanted to see.

The physical form of public housing may have changed from high-rises to mixed-income neighborhoods and more decentralized units but some of the basic issues are still the same: are there enough units? Are these units better than substandard and not always located in poor neighborhoods? Are there services available for public housing residents? This is not to downplay the importance of decent housing – it is an overlooked essential in the United States since where you live tends to determine many life outcomes – but it is really about housing plus the community and the opportunities that are or are not available.

A related question: what is the timeline for declaring the Plan for Transformation a success or failure? I wonder if the Chicago Housing Authority and city would rather just not recognize the results of the project at all.

What you could do with the land after purchasing a CT town

A recent email exchange about purchasing Johnsonville, Connecticut for $1.95 million prompted some thinking about what the new owner could do with their town. Here are some ideas:

-Create a wedding paradise complete with chapel/outside ceremony location, reception buildings, and accommodations for family and guests. The old-timey feel would appeal to many.

-Host a living history museum. This works better in some communities than others but Johnsonville seems suited for it with its older buildings and founding in 1802.

-This could be an ongoing set for films and TV shows. The buildings are already present, there are no residents to work around, and the property could be used for long periods of time.

-Be home to a haunted town. Haunted mansions and buildings are really popular around Halloween but imagine creating a year-round facility on 62 acres with older buildings.

-This could be an interesting paint ball course.

-Become a site for obstacle course type races. Imagine running a few miles while climbing through old buildings, swimming through the pond, hopping fences, and more.

-An artist’s colony or gallery or rotating exhibit space could be interesting. This could be a destination for those looking to create, visit, and/or purchase art.

-Have a retreat center with meeting places inside and outside and accommodations.

-Become a compound for a religious group.

I’m sure there are other possible uses for this property, including demolishing everything and building homes. When you are only a few hours away from both New York City and Boston, the possibilities could be endless (granted that local officials are willing to approve more unique options).

Equating problematic McMansions with problematic American suburbs

Amidst other problems with McMansions, one writer connects McMansions to failed suburban hopes for community:

No dream in America was ever been born innocent. Suburbia brought with it all the patriarchal problems one would expect in a glorification of the nuclear family—gestures broadly in the direction of Mad Men. It proved to be a kind of social hell for women. And like everything in American history, racism and class also played huge roles in its conception…

The nearly 200 year old suburban dream was uniquely American in its focus on the utopic vision of private homeownership. We didn’t want a great city, we didn’t want a close-knit township. We wanted tract housing and privacy. Unsurprisingly, communities built to honor these dreams ended up being awful, lonely places to grow up. Crushing ennui aside, kids fell prey to a brutal social Darwinism at home. Currie characterizes it as follows:

The rejection of the idea of mutual responsibility, a righteous distaste for offering help, the acceptance or encouragement of a view of life in which a competitive scramble for individual preeminence and comfort is central, the insistence that even the most vulnerable must learn to handle life’s difficulties by themselves and that if they cannot it is no one’s fault but their own—these were not the idiosyncratic views of a few parents but pervasive themes in American society and culture during the years in which the teens were growing up.

And to put it all together:

Of course, not every suburban community is a benighted hellscape full of cookie cutter McMansion monstrosities where kids OD in the living room beneath 60 ft. vaulted ceilings that take half an oil field to heat. But enough of it is. And it’s hard to imagine a more opulent, well-resourced version of suburbia than the run we had in the Bush Jr. era. When looking at all this, we need to ask ourselves, will the kids be alright? Is this the best choice for the next generation? Will we have to endure nu-metal again?

Several quick thoughts:

  1. I find this last paragraph confusing: what does it mean that “enough of [suburbia] is” McMansions mean? Is there a critical line to cross where there are too many McMansions to separate suburbs as a whole from McMansions? Or, is just having any McMansions at all a problem?
  2. I see McMansions more as a major symptom of the problems of American suburban life rather than large problems in their own right. In other words, if all McMansions could be eliminated, this doesn’t mean that the difficulties of a suburban society go away. Indeed, the critiques leveled here against suburbia existed for decades before McMansions entered the scene in the 1980s and 1990s.
  3. There are hints here of the idea that certain kinds of housing and urban planning leads to certain kinds of community: suburbia filled with large, single-family homes limits community and makes life difficult for teenagers. This may be an easier argument to make when comparing the United States to other countries but is trickier across the gradations of density and population size. Do teenagers in rural areas or cities necessarily do better? Did postwar suburbs full of smaller cookie-cutter homes placed closely together (a formation also roundly criticized) have more community because of the homes or different societal conventions (and the housing and societal norms could definitely influence each other in a feedback loop)?

On the whole, I find a good number of concerns about McMansions are really about suburbia as a whole with McMansions serving as an easy target.

Suburbs to respond to companies returning to cities

Another new issue facing suburbs – in addition to homelessness – is how to respond when companies move their headquarters back to cities:

In Chicago, McDonald’s will join a slew of other companies — among them food giant Kraft Heinz, farming supplier ADM and telecommunications firm Motorola Solutions — all looking to appeal to and be near young professionals versed in the world of e-commerce, software analytics, digital engineering, marketing and finance…

Aetna recently announced that it will relocate from Hartford, Conn., to Manhattan; General Electric is leaving Connecticut to build a global headquarters in Boston; and Marriott International is moving from an emptying Maryland office park into the center of Bethesda, Md…

The migration to urban centers threatens the prosperity outlying suburbs have long enjoyed, bringing a dose of pain felt by rural communities and exacerbating stark gaps in earnings and wealth that Donald Trump capitalized on in winning the presidency…

Long term, the corporate moves threaten an orbit of smaller enterprises that fed on their proximity to the big companies, from restaurants and janitorial operations to subcontractors who located nearby.

It is difficult for any community – whether big city or suburb – to adjust to the move of a large firm out of the community. A number of things are lost: prestige, jobs, philanthropic contributions, and tax revenue. Arguably, suburbs lose more compared to big cities that have broader and more diverse economies: the headquarters in the suburb might be a sizable community anchor.

This may be similar to when suburbs with once-thriving shopping malls try to figure out what to do with that space. It can be difficult to fill the property all at once so suburbs might have to take their time and move one small step at a time.

I’ve argued before that this whole city-suburb competition for headquarters could harm both in the long run as it takes the focus away from a metropolitan effort to encourage business growth. On the whole, it matters less if a company moves from the Chicago suburbs to downtown than if the company decides to leave the entire region for another location. If more businesses move back to major cities, could suburbs find some way to work together to prevent moves? Or, or is the sometimes cutthroat competition between suburbs impossible to stop?

The most frequent homeowner regret about their home is not purchasing a bigger one

A good number of Americans regret features of the homes they purchase:

More than half of all buyers have regrets about their purchase of a home, Trulia reports, and the No. 1 mistake buyers feel like they made is choosing the wrong size. Forty-two percent of those polled by the real estate site say that they picked a place to live that was either too large (9 percent) or too small (33 percent).

Almost the exact same number of renters, 41 percent, “wish they had bought instead.”

Twenty-six percent of buyers also wish they had done either less or more remodeling.

What might explain these regrets?

Buying a house is often the biggest purchase a person will ever make, so it’s natural that many experience some buyer’s remorse…

Home size has been a common gripe over the years, especially as housing gets more expensive and people have to settle for smaller spaces, said David Weidner, managing editor for Trulia’s housing economics research team.

Or are Americans so embedded within consumerism that they are always wishing for more? At the same time, expressing regrets about a major purchase doesn’t necessarily mean that people would have done it differently. If I like my home but wish the yard had more space, am I dissatisfied with owning my home? Not necessarily.

It is too bad we don’t get more information about how much bigger homeowners wish their home would be. Perhaps the average homeowner just wants another room to two to handle all their stuff as opposed to all Americans wishing to live in giant McMansions.