McMansions as objects of desire

One Miami columnist wonders why she yearns for a McMansion even though it is out of reach:

Excepting a Powerball win or an unexpected string of bestsellers, my chances of residing in some Mediterranean-style mansion grow dimmer every year. I don’t mean to imply that the odds were ever stellar, but for a couple of decades the possibility existed. Dreams are more fanciful when you’re young…

So why do magazines and cable TV programs about McMansions put me in a certain mindset? Why is it that, on occasion, I think that if I were only smarter, a better writer with a more distinguished wardrobe, I might be putting my feet up on a coffee table carved from a rare tree harvested from an exotic forest?

A friend, one of those people who seem perfectly content with life, claims that humans are programmed to want what we don’t have. We are forever comparing ourselves to others and as a result feel a little inadequate and a whole lot ugly. She’s right.

From here on out I vow to stop using material things as a measure of success. I vow to toss out those magazines and not think twice about what I don’t have and likely never will. Instead I will focus on what makes me happy. Good writing. My grandchildren. The purple orchid in my front yard. Sitting on my beat-up couch in my perfectly ordinary house. Feet propped on a table with no pedigree but pocked with wonderful memories.

This is both a common portrayal of McMansions and response: people buy them because they want to project a certain image and better people resist these impulses and focus on what is really important in life. However, two parts of this strike me as too easy:

  1. Do the majority of McMansion owners purchase out of envy or wanting to keep up with the Joneses or out of a desire to consume? Or, do they purchase McMansions because they want a lot of space, they like the neighborhood, and they get a lot for the money? We might even suggest that the second set of reasons is what the owners say even as the first set of reasons underlies everything.
  2. Even as some will insist they would rather have experiences or focus on the finer things in life, can Americans truly escape the system of consumerism? How morally superior is consuming experiences versus consuming a home? Choosing whether to buy a McMansion is only part of the consumerist mindset – though it may be a big and important one – but it could as easily apply to vehicles, smartphones, clothing, vacations and so on.

Someone should do more research on why Americans buy McMansions when they are so maligned…

Miami’s luxury housing market fueled by ill-gotten gains

The latest big Wikileaks event shows what has been fueling Miami’s luxury housing boom:

Mossack Fonseca’s leaked records offer a glimpse into the tightly guarded world of high-end South Florida real estate and the global economic forces reshaping Miami’s skyline.

And MF’s activities bolster an argument analysts and law-enforcement officials have long made: Money from people linked to wrongdoing abroad is helping to power the gleaming condo towers rising on South Florida’s waterfront and pushing home prices far beyond what most locals can afford…

A Miami Herald analysis of the never-before-seen records found 19 foreign nationals creating offshore companies and buying Miami real estate. Of them, eight have been linked to bribery, corruption, embezzlement, tax evasion or other misdeeds in their home countries.

That’s a drop in the ocean of Miami’s luxury market. But Mossack Fonseca is one of many firms that set up offshore companies. And experts say a lack of controls on cash real-estate deals has made Miami a magnet for questionable currency.

Later in the article, one analyst suggests no one really wants to know this information as luxury housing is a big deal. Who benefits? City leaders who get to trumpet the new growth. Local construction firms, people in real estate, and the finance industry who are involved with the new units. Municipalities like the new tax dollars. Possibly, nearby business owners who could see an uptick in activity with more people nearby who have money to burn. And the whole region benefits from the status of some of the world’s wealthiest people plus an attractive (and expensive) housing market.

If this is happening in Miami, it is also likely affecting other important cities. Take New York: as the leading global city, wouldn’t people who have ill-gotten gains want to be there? Or, how about other leading cities in different regions like London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo?

 

A tale of two teardown McMansions in Miami and the guidelines that might follow

The Guardian contrasts the teardown fate of two Miami homes and discusses how preservationists want to set new guidelines:

City of Miami Beach figures show that from 2005 to 2011, only 20 requests for the demolition and reconstruction of architecturally significant pre-1942 homes were submitted; another 20 more came in for the calendar year 2012; and from January to October 2013, the latest period for which figures are available, a further 40 applications were received.

James Murphy, principal planner for the municipality, described the trend towards development as “off the chain” and said that the city’s Design Review Board, the ultimate authority in decisions of destruction versus preservation, was trying to keep up…

The preservationists, meanwhile, have been here before. The Miami Design Preservation League, which fought and won a battle in the late 1970s to save the curvy art deco facades of Miami Beach hotels and condominium blocks, is eyeing a way to convert what it claims to be a groundswell of support over the Hochstein villa into new legislation.

It is discussing with city commissioners a proposal that would require any application involving a property more than 50 years old to automatically go through a formal review process before demolition could be approved.

The two stories presented are interesting ones. The first involves a wealthy owner moving an older house on the property and restoring it. The second involves a wealthy owner finding an older house with lots of problems, leading to its demolition and the construction of a 20,000 square foot home. Should both cases be subject to the same rules? Presumably, preservationists would develop a whole set of guidelines that would dictate when owners could and could not make changes but I do wonder if they would prefer that no old homes are demolished for any reason.

Side note: here is the definition of a McMansion in the article.

Already going up in its place is a 20,000 sq ft waterfront palace, complete with an enormous games room, walk-in wine cellar and 17-seat cinema. Such oversized homes, frequently occupied only by successful professional couples or their small families, have become known as McMansions.

The luxuriousness of the home may lean toward a McMansion but (1) the size is simply too big (this is a mass-produced tract home) and (2) it is relatively rare to discuss what kind of family structure is present in a McMansion.

Miami fights climate change with fees derived from new waterfront condos

Miami can could lose big with the consequences of climate change but in order to fight the consequences, the city needs to approve more oceanfront development:

The more developers build here, the more taxes and fees the city collects to fund a $300-million storm water project to defend the shore against the rising sea. Approval of these luxury homes on what environmentalists warn is global warming quicksand amounts to a high-stakes bet that Miami Beach can, essentially, out-build climate change and protect its $27 billion worth of real estate.

The move makes budgetary sense in a state with no income tax: Much of South Florida’s public infrastructure is supported by property taxes…

By 2020, Miami Beach plans to complete 80 new storm pumps that will collect and banish up to 14,000 gallons of seawater per minute back into Biscayne Bay. Construction started in February. The goal is to reduce sunny day flooding — which frequently invades streets at high tide whether or not it is raining — and prepare the community for future ocean swell…

The $300 million project is ambitious for a city with a $502 million annual budget. A new stormwater utility fee on homeowners, hotels and stores helped Miami Beach save enough money to borrow the first $100 million.

The project started before planners worked out all the funding. It’s unclear how the city will raise the rest. “We don’t have time for analysis-paralysis,” said Levine. We are going to have to get creative.”

It is hard for cities to turn down development when the luxury market is hot. Not only does an overheated housing market attract new residents, a hip reputation, and the interest of developers, it can also generate money for the city through taxes, fees, and increased spending.

Yet, development isn’t simply a game where more equals better. Whether the consequences are flooding or gentrification or a lack of affordable housing, cities tend to approve such projects that bring in money and growth. But, this ignores the bigger picture and the broader consequences that could affect everyone. The money may be pouring in now but what happens if this leads to flooding and a hampered tourist and investor economy for decades to come? What if avoiding the question of affordable housing contributes to other social problems or causes needed workers and citizens to move to other communities? As urban sociologists have asked for decades, who wins when big development takes place? Usually not the normal citizens. Instead, the growth machines – the powerful businesspeople and politicians – tend to profit.

Of course, funding to combat future problems is not easy to obtain. No state income tax in Florida helps contribute to hot housing markets. Should the federal government help pay to alleviate climate change? Should there be state or federal policies that do not allow building such expensive developments right on properties near the ocean (similar questions are raised about floodplains around major rivers)? Cities and other governments have a long way to go in order to figure out this issue.

One new Miami building will “Be Home to Nearly 2 Percent of the World’s Billionaires”

There are wealthy buildings and then there are ultra-wealthy buildings like this new condo tower in Miami:

Twenty-two billionaires—just shy of two percent of the world’s total—have purchased units in a condominium tower being built in Sunny Isles Beach, a small city in Miami-Dade County. The 60-story Porsche Design Tower features the normal super-rich perks, including units as large as 17,000 square feet, and swimming pool- and kitchen-equipped balconies as large as 1,600 square feet.

But the real draw is hinted at in the name: The Porsche Design Tower features three car elevators that will take residents and their rides directly to their units, where they can park their car in a glass garage adjoined to their residences (two-car garages for the “cheaper” units, four-car garages for the pricier ones). This feature allows car-obsessives to stare at their super expensive cars from their high-rise living rooms.

The tower, which broke ground in April 2013 and secured a massive construction loan in October, is the brainchild of car enthusiast and condo magnate Gil Dezer and Germany’s Porsche Design Group. As of mid-October, Dezer had sold almost 100 of the tower’s 132 units, the prices for which range from $4.2 million to $32 million. He reportedly spent part of November selling the remaining units at a gathering for Bugatti owners. There will be 284 robotic parking spaces in all. This is automated parking taken to the next level.

I know most of the buyers would rather not reveal that they live in this building but doesn’t this lift the profile of a new building?

The car elevator is pretty cool but I would also be interested in seeing how exactly this building interacts with the surrounding area. If you have this many wealthy residents, you don’t want normal people walking up or being anywhere near. Indeed, how could you construct entry and exit points so that people can’t simply wait for the wealthy to drive in and out? Leaving the transportation to cars leads to possible problems – and flying helicopters off the top of the building would help.

I can only imagine what the security will be here…

To the Miami Herald: a 23,576 square foot home is not a McMansion

The Miami Herald features a 23,576 square foot home for auction. However, they err by calling it a McMansion:

If you need a house that stretches across east and west wings, a massive McMansion — said to be the largest home for sale in Broward — will be auctioned off on Dec. 8.

The 23,576-square-foot, custom-built home on 10 acres features seven bedrooms, eight full baths and two half baths. It boasts inlaid Italian marble and cathedral-style ceilings, and comes with a guest house, four-car garage, and statues and objects of art from all over the world.

“The finish work on the inside is the most amazing, with 30-foot high ceilings, chandeliers. It’s just magnificent,” said Jim Gall, president of Auction Company of America, hired to auction off the home, which was listed a year ago for $10 million…

Gall said he plans to start the bidding on the house at $5 million.

Homeowner Ray Moses said he and his wife, Pam, spent five years building the mansion after buying the property, which was formerly used as a horse boarding facility. Broward County property records show they paid $2,225,000 for the acreage in 2003.

Here are four reasons it is not a McMansion (with the most important reason at the top):

1. This home is far beyond the size of a McMansion. This kind of square footage is way beyond a McMansion.

2. Because of its size, luxury, and land, it is also out of the price range of a typical, particularly in Florida. The price might make sense if it was a big house in New York City.

3. This is not a big house on a postage-stamp lot; there are ten acres of land.

4. The home is custom-built, not part of a suburban neighborhood where the houses all look at the same.

By size alone, this home is not a McMansion but the other factors matter as well.

Interestingly, the report on the auction starts with the term McMansion and later uses mansion. Does this suggest the terms are interchangeable? Again, I would argue they are distinct categories.

Is Miami more of a global city because of a booming real estate market?

The Financial Times looks at the increasing prices in the Miami housing market and suggests this is related to the city’s rising status as a global city. This leads to an interesting question: does an in-demand housing market mean that a city is necessarily a global city or does it simply make it more popular than before? I would tend to lean toward the second – being a global city is related more to a city’s role in global finance and status as a cultural center. Miami may be a regional financial center but is it really on the scale of the major cities in the United States? Check out the 2012 Global Cities Index from AT Kearney where Miami is #36. Miami may be popular these days but it has a long ways to go…

 

Fighting McMansions in Miami

The group “Save Miami Beach Neighborhoods” is looking for help in fighting McMansions:

Miami Beach homes comprise a variety of architectural styles that reflect the history of our City, which is not yet 100 years old. Unfortunately, recent zoning changes have allowed for out-of-scale McMansions which threaten the historic character, authenticity and desirability of our single-family neighborhoods.

Our goal with Save Miami Beach Neighborhoods is to ensure that new construction is in line with existing neighborhood context. We want to stop oversized McMansions that are popping up seemingly all around us…

As homeowners and concerned residents, we must act to limit new construction size and scale before our neighborhood character is lost forever.

I would say the one photo of an 18,000 square foot McMansion in the neighborhood is pretty emblematic of what critics do not like about McMansions: large, taking up much of the lot, unusual design compared to the house next to it, and much larger than the next house (which is probably only 5,000 square feet).

At the same time, I wonder if outsiders would look at this and say it is simply an argument between wealthy people about something nebulous like “community character.”

The mayor of a Miami suburb tries to get Spanish approved as the official second language – and is rebuffed by Spanish-speaking immigrants

Stories of suburbs trying to pass English as an official language ordinances have been fairly common in recent decades. But, what happens when the story is flipped around? Here is what happened when the mayor of Doral, a Miami suburb, tried to get Spanish approved as the official second language:

But when Doral’s mayor tried to make Spanish the official second language on Wednesday, he was rebuffed by every council member and numerous constituents. And it wasn’t from the small group of non-Hispanic residents who live here. It was largely from immigrants themselves…

But few cities have responded by declaring themselves officially bilingual. Far more states, and politicians, have adopted English-only policies. That has been reaffirmed in the recent immigration reform debate, with both Democrats and Republicans supporting English as a requirement for citizenship…

Florida itself is an interesting case study: Miami-Dade County declared itself bilingual 40 years ago after a wave of Cuban exiles fled island and settled in South Florida. That ordinance was later overturned, but the rejection was thrown out in 1993. The state voted to make English the official language in 1988.

In Doral, nearly 80 percent of the population is Hispanic and almost 90 percent speak a language other than English at home. The city is affectionately known as “Doralzuela” because of its large number of Venezuelan residents.

I wonder how particular this is to Florida which has its own unique history of immigration and whether there are similar cases elsewhere in the United States.

It is also interesting that this is a debate about the official second language. Many of the suburban debates over language have been about making sure English is number one.

The return of the floating McMansion critique in Miami

I missed this the first time around in 2005 but it has returned to Miami: the “Inflatable Villa” continues to critique McMansions though it will no longer floating:

Seven years ago, Miami-based architect Luis Pons unveiled the “Fabulous Floating Inflatable Villa” at Art Basel 2005. Floating proudly offshore in Miami, the over-the-top, gargantuan inflated pavilion aimed to critique the McMansion culture of the day, arguing that the real estate bubble had caused Miamians to lose sight of detail and quality in the wake of blind excess and uninspired grandeur.

How things have changed in the real estate world in seven short years. Using the recession as inspiration, Pons will re-introduce The Inflatable Villa to Basel for the first time this year in a entirely new context.

“It’s the same piece, but the meaning has completely changed,” explained Pons. “It’s an analogy to represent the disparity between where we were in 2005 and where we are today.”

The structure will be placed in a vacant lot in the Design District, a site which was intended to be developed until the bursting real estate bubble of 2008 halted the project. The villa, only partially inflated, will be placed within rigid metal bar columns that were part of the original construction site, its fragility a tangible analogy to the rigid metal structure encasing it.

Perhaps it is less of a critique today and more of a triumphal return or a triumphal critique. To many, Pons was right in 2005; the McMansion simply couldn’t last, either financially or architecturally. Housing data in Miami would seem to support this changed perspective of the “Fabulous Floating Inflatable Villa.” Data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis shows “privately owned housing starts” were up quite a bit in 2005 and reached a reached a low in 2009. Miami was also hit hard by foreclosures during the economic crisis and foreclosure rates have still been high in recent years:

The rate of foreclosures in the greater Miami area declined in August to 16.42 percent of outstanding mortgages from 18.14 a year earlier, according to CoreLogic. The foreclosure rate is the percentage of mortgages in some stage of the foreclosure process.

The data firm said the rate of mortgages with delinquencies of 90 days or more in the Miami-Miami Beach-Kendall area also fell in August to 22.89 percent from 25.45 percent a year earlier.

Despite the continuing downward trend, Miami’s foreclosure rate in August remained far higher than the national rate of 3.35 percent of outstanding mortgages, the firm said. The area’s mortgage-delinquency rate was also far higher than the national average of 6.76 percent in August, CoreLogic said.

I wonder if this suggests that while McMansion construction may be down in the United States compared to a peak 6-8 years ago, the market for art critiquing McMansions hasn’t yet peaked.