Keep McMansions out by adding cemeteries

I have not heard of this strategy before: zone for cemeteries in order to limit the spread of McMansions.

Looking toward a time when cemetery space is likely to be in short supply, the Diocese of Trenton is seeking approval to eventually turn acres of farmland in the Crosswicks section of the township into a final resting place for local Catholics…

In Hamilton, the situation is not as dire as in North Jersey, where, Dressel said, high-rise mausoleums have been suggested as a solution for overcrowding…

Councilman Dave Kenny said a cemetery is preferable to other types of development. And since the land is already owned by the tax-exempt diocese, it’s not as if the township can wring more tax money out of it.

“It protects the hamlet to have cemeteries there to prevent it from more intense development, like McMansions, that would certainly be out of character there,” Kenny said.

Historic districts in order to keep McMansions away? A common strategy. Cemeteries? Interesting. I wonder if there are every NIMBY concerns about cemeteries. And if the diocese could have sold the land to developers who might then build McMansions, why can’t the land be sold and developed in such a way that local governments could get new tax revenues?

The suggestion in this article is that some municipalities don’t plan ahead enough so that there is adequate cemetery space when growth occurs. How often do local zoning boards consider proposals for cemeteries? Is it primarily the responsibility of dioceses or religious organizations to bring proposals forward?

This reminds me that Simcity made little provision for cemeteries (it may only have been a reward in Simcity 4). There has to be some place for people to be buried…

Fighting over McMansions in Mission Hills

In the wealth Kansas City suburb of Mission Hills (named earlier this year one of “America’s Most Affluent Neighborhoods“), residents have been fighting over whether McMansions should be allowed:

“There’s a group that wants to build whatever the hell they want,” says lawyer Ann Alexander, a Mission Hills resident who in 2009 sued a neighbor over lot setbacks, “and there’s a group that wants renovation and vibrancy, but who want to do that in the context of the community.”

Think of it as the property-rights set versus the Mission Hills traditionalists…

But what is Mission Hills? After failing to define that with regulations and zoning laws, the city last spring hired a Los Angeles planning consultant named David Sargent to define it.

The hope is that Sargent could help end the squabbling by coming up with a set of design guidelines that would allow for housing upgrades — both teardowns and add-ons — but preserve, as he puts it, “the pastoral, garden character of the community.”

Sargent’s first draft came out this month, and now some are waiting to see whether the recommendations, when they’re in final form next year, will bring peace and understanding in the extraordinary city.

Sounds like a typical standoff: residents who want to protect the historical character of the community versus those who want to live in a well-known location but in a new big house with all the modern amenities.

This planning consultant has his work cut out for him. However, many other communities have adopted guidelines or planbooks that at least offer some guidance to what new houses might look like. Without declaring neighborhoods historic districts (which are often the strictest option – see an example here), guidelines can help opponents and proponents of teardowns work with a common set of expectations as they try to decide what their neighborhood should look like in the future.

Thinking further about this, I wonder if anyone has done research on what suburban residents expect their neighborhood to be like in the future. I don’t think I’d be alone in expecting that many residents would want the neighborhood to stay about the same as when they moved in. I recently heard someone cite Mark Twain saying, “Everyone likes progress, but no one likes change.” Are things that could be changed in a neighborhood that a majority of residents would see as positive?

An argument for historic districts: repel McMansions!

A common argument for historic districts is that they limit the destruction of older homes and the construction of McMansions. Here is an example of this argument in Fort Lauderdale:

However, if communities wait around for that history to age, new development might wipe it out before it has a chance to be saved.

That fear has residents of Fort Lauderdale’s Colee Hammock neighborhood thinking about seeking historic district designation for their community.

“We’re constantly inundated with development issues, people wanting to come in and build too much, too high, too big,” said Jackie Scott, president of Colee Hammock’s neighborhood association. “It gets to a point where you’re sick and tired of always having to come out and fight for your neighborhood. It’s not an enjoyable way to live.”…

“We have some beautiful homes that have been built and are new construction. They fit perfectly with the neighborhood,” Scott said. [A historic district] prevents people that want to come into an area like this to start ripping things down and creating McMansions.”

While McMansions are often tied to sprawl and new subdivisions, teardowns are also a common scene for debates over the merits of McMansions. In this particular example, a McMansion is contrasted with new homes that “fit perfectly with the neighborhood.” Many American communities have created some guidelines so that teardowns can’t be anything a homeowner might desire but there is a spectrum between more permissive and less permissive communities. The advantage of declaring a historic district is that the community has more control over what can be demolished and built within the district. At the same time, some consider historic districts to be quite restrictive.

I would be interested to hear what resources those pushing for the historic district have utilized from outside groups. For example, the National Trust for Historic Preservation even has a page titled “Teardowns and McMansions.” Here is the lead paragraph:

Across the nation a teardown epidemic is wiping out historic neighborhoods one house at a time. As older homes are demolished and replaced with dramatically larger, out-of-scale new structures, the historic character of the existing neighborhood is changed forever. Neighborhood livability is diminished as trees are removed, backyards are eliminated, and sunlight is blocked by towering new structures built up to the property lines. Community economic and social diversity is reduced as new mansions replace affordable homes. House by house, neighborhoods are losing a part of their historic fabric and much of their character.

With such resources available, I wonder if local groups are now more effective in adopting historic districts.

Fitting a new home into an older neighborhood

Teardowns are an issue in communities across the United States. In older neighborhoods, particularly in wealthier suburbs, new homes are contentious: their style and size may change the character of a neighborhood as well as impact property values. In this report from the Chicago Tribune, Chicago area architects talk about how they try to alter the design and appearance of these new homes in order to fit in with the existing neighborhood:

Anyone who’s driven around the city or its surrounding suburbs likely has seen plenty of examples of homes that just don’t fit. The modern masterpiece in a subdivision full of stately Colonials. The 7,000-square-foot behemoth casting its shadow over a block of tiny post-war ranches.

Size is often one of the most challenging elements of a new-construction project in an established neighborhood, Lindsay said. Those who build typically want to max out on square footage, requiring a variety of design tricks to make structures appear smaller their more modestly sized, older neighbors, such as placing much of the square footage to the home’s exterior…

Some municipalities aren’t willing to gamble that new construction will be in good taste. In Park Ridge, for example, a five-member appearance commission considers architectural style, size, site plans, as well as renderings of roofs, windows and doorways to judge whether a proposed residence will enhance an existing neighborhood. Though most construction projects get the thumbs-up, the commission helps preserve the community’s character by setting some basic guidelines, said City Planner Jon Branham.

But fitting in needn’t mean choosing cookie-cutter designs or doggedly preserving every existing structure on a block. “Some neighborhoods are outdated,” Lindsay said. “You’re not going to build a shabby house next to an existing shabby house just so it will fit it. You want to capture the best features of a neighborhood and not the worst.”

This is often a tricky situation – one architect suggests in the story that a new home is a sort of “public project.”The idea that private homeowners should inform all their neighbors about an upcoming teardown or major renovation seems to be a popular way to attempt to change perceptions.

Although homeowners have some choice over their own property, communities often have some regulations and nearby neighbors can also make their opinions heard. The community’s thoughts on this issue can make a big difference. Some communities are more conservative politically and economically  and this leads to more leeway for property owners. Others are more open to the thoughts of the neighborhood as opposed to the individual homeowners and have more restrictive regulations. All of this can come through a number of methods, including historic districts or preservation areas, but any of these measures often prompt public debate.