Limiting teardown McMansions with ordinances requiring demolitions reuse and recycle materials?

Palo Alto, California will soon require the reuse or recycling of the majority of materials for demolished buildings:

[W]orkers will now be required to systematically disassemble structures, with the goal of reusing or recycling the bulk of the material on the site. Based on experiences in Portland, Oregon, which has a similar law in place, staff believes that up to 95% of the construction debris can be salvaged — either reused or recycled — through “deconstruction.”…

Construction and demolition materials represent more than 40% of Palo Alto debris that gets disposed in landfills, according to an estimate from the city’s Public Works Department. As such, it represents a prime opportunity for diversion and recovery, staff told the City Council at the June 10 meeting, shortly before the council voted unanimously to adopt the new ordinance…

The new model calls for buildings to be systematically disassembled, typically in the reverse order in which they were constructed. Based on two recent pilot projects, deconstruction work using this method would take about 10 to 15 days to complete and require a crew of four to eight people, with the cost ranging from $22 to $34 per square foot….

The new deconstruction ordinance is expected to help the city divert 7,930 tons of waste annually (by contrast, the disposable-foodware ordinance that the council adopted at the same meeting would divert 290 tons). The deconstruction ordinance is also expected to reduce the city’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 22,300 metric tons annually (for the foodware ordinance, the number is 470 tons).

This would be an interesting way for communities to limit teardown McMansions without having to explicitly mention big houses. When there are public discussions about ordinances regarding residential teardowns, it often comes down to a discussion of property rights versus neighborhood or community character. These can get ugly. But, an ordinance like this does not have to explicitly mention residential properties or single-family homes in order to affect them. Going through the reuse/recycle mode would require more time and labor and this might either constrict what is built on the site or stop the teardown process before it begins. Of course, those pursuing teardowns might simply pay more to deal with the new requirements. People who have the money to buy a lot and house (sometimes a perfectly functioning or not very old house) and just tear it down and build a new one might just be able to easily pay these new costs.

With this ordinance in mind, I imagine there are other ways local governments could restrict residential teardowns without necessarily targeting them. Why set up a battle about property rights, aesthetics, and community if it can be avoided by regulations that nudge people certain directions?

LA tightens McMansion rules

The Los Angeles City Council made several changes to ordinances involving teardown McMansions:

In a 12-0 vote, the council approved an update to the city’s Baseline Mansionization Ordinance, applying to single-family homes on lots that are less than 7,500 square feet. Such properties are currently allowed to have floor areas that are 50 percent of the lot size, but under the amendment will be reduced to 45 percent…

The council also unanimously approved an amendment that creates incentives for building detached garages or placing garages in the rear of a home by exempting them for the first 400 square feet from the size of the home, while garages that are attached at the side will have a 200-square-foot exemption.

It also approved the Baseline Hillside Ordinance, which puts limits on homes built on hillsides. The amendments still require the signature of Mayor Eric Garcetti…

Homes that are bigger than typically built in a neighborhood, or that dominate the footprint of the property they are located on, often referred to as McMansions, were limited in the original Baseline Mansionization Ordinance that passed in 2008. But the measure fell “far short of its mandate to create regulations that allow for sustainable neighborhoods and that protect the interest of all homeowners,” L.A. City Councilor Paul Koretz wrote in the motion creating the amendments.

While there has been much debate about these changes, they seem relatively small: downsizing homes from 50% to 45% of the lot, trying to make changes to garages, and places limits on homes built on hills. I’m guessing this won’t be enough to please a number of long-time residents concerned about teardowns nor will it do much to depress demand for teardowns in this pricey market. In other words, expect this to be an ongoing conversation.

Paying for Austin’s permitting backlog which may be partly due to its McMansion ordinance

Several years ago, Austin enacted an ordinance intended to reign in McMansions. But, that ordinance may have contributed to a backlog of permits which the city is now trying to tackle:

The directors of the city’s planning and permitting departments estimate it would take $400,000 to hire temporary workers and pay for overtime to eliminate the current backlog in the next 90 days…

Next year the department plans to ask for $1.6 million in additional money to fund 11 new positions. This memo comes as the city is just launching its annual budget process. Over the next few weeks, every department is going to be compiling a budget wish list, which eventually is sent to the City Council…

Some of the blame for the three-week delay in residential planning and permitting was placed on the “complexity” of the city’s McMansion ordinance, which limits housing sizes in certain neighborhoods. “As such the department will recommend changes to the (land development code) that will simplify the McMansion provisions and will extend turnaround times for those types of reviews to ensure that there is sufficient time to perform a thorough review,” the memo states.

The planning and permitting departments, which used to be one department called Planning and Development Review, are responsible for approving all real estate development in the city, from housing remodels to new subdivisions.

It can take some time to see how ordinances actually play out and perhaps the initial ordinance can be “smoothed out” for this sort of process. Communities can also run into this problem if they have high rates of growth. Austin is a desirable place for construction so it may make sense that it has a lot of permits to deal with.

I wonder how much these decisions to speed up the permitting process are driven by builders and developers who generally want to move as quickly as possible. If there is a bit of a delay in the process, would these builders actually cancel their projects or go elsewhere? Builders and developers are often powerful and are viewed as important harbingers of economic growth. Yet, isn’t Austin so desirable that a delay won’t harm things much? Granted, lots of people might want more efficient government but that also may just require more government employees.

Temporary McMansion control in 20 LA neighborhoods

The Los Angeles City Council recently passed an ordinance limiting the construction of large homes in a number of Los Angeles neighborhoods:

The City Council unanimously passed the Neighborhood Conservation Interim Control Ordinance, which put a two-year ban on the size of new, single-family dwellings in some neighborhoods.

The ordinance temporarily limits the size of single-family dwellings in 15 neighborhoods: Valley Village, South Hollywood, La Brea Hancock Neighborhood, The Oaks of Los Feliz, Miracle Mile, Larchmont Heights, Lower Council District Five, Beverlywood, Inner Council District Five, Fairfax Area, Bel Air, Faircrest Heights Neighborhood, Kentwood, Mar Vista/East Venice and Old Granada Hills.

The law also puts a temporary moratorium on the issuance of building and demolition permits in five proposed Historic Preservation Overlay Zones: Sunset Square, Carthay Square, Holmby-Westwood, Oxford Square and El Sereno-Berkshire Craftsman District…

Los Angeles city planners are crafting new zoning codes for development in the city. Updated regulations are expected to be released in about 18 months.

The key in this ongoing battle is what the updated regulations look like. At the moment, this ordinance slows down large teardown houses in certain neighborhoods. Yet, it will still be difficult to balance property rights versus the wishes of the neighborhood groups in a few years.

Two other possible side effects:

1. I wonder if this will lead to teardowns and McMansions in neighborhoods outside these boundaries. While these neighborhoods are off-limits to some degree, the demand for housing doesn’t disappear.

2. What will happen to both the population and character of these protected neighborhoods in the next few years? Will there be population increases or decreases? Will builders and developers take their projects elsewhere? Will these places be held up as paragons of citizens rallying together to save something?

If you want a few visuals of the homes that cannot be built in the next few years, check out these five recently constructed homes at Curbed LA.

Mansionization picks up again in Los Angeles

The construction of larger homes has picked up again in Los Angeles, drawing attention from a number of critics:

But as the housing market rebounds and construction picks up, many homeowners complain that “mansionization” has revved up — reigniting long-standing policy battles and sometimes bitter fence fights over the face and feel of L.A.’s neighborhoods…

But neighborhood groups have begun mobilizing, asserting that rules meant to control building sizes are still too porous. Critics argue that builders have exploited loopholes — bonuses that allow extra square footage — to erect homes too large for their lots. The recent surge of complaints prompted Michael LoGrande, director of the Department of City Planning, to tell lawmakers that more stringent controls might be needed…

For decades there was “kind of a consensus about what a Southern California house should look like” — low, rambling and open to the landscape, cultural historian D.J. Waldie said. That philosophy, along with requirements imposed by builders, gave rise to uniform neighborhoods lined with homes of similar sizes and styles, Waldie said.

But in a growing city with scant undeveloped land and changing tastes, some Angelenos see things differently. They look at older neighborhoods and think, “‘this is where the good life is lived,'” Waldie said. “‘But I don’t want to live in a 1,300-square-foot house.'”

Los Angeles isn’t the only major city that has dealt with this issue in recent years (see Austin, Texas) as ideas about housing as well as economic conditions change. And the battle lines in Los Angeles seem fairly similar to debates elsewhere: residents of existing communities do not like new behemoth houses (often labeled McMansions) that don’t match the architectural style of the community while proponents of the bigger houses argue they should be able to have modern features. Local ordinances tend to try to give some to each side, setting design guidelines or limits that don’t restrict the construction of new homes but limit how they might use their property or differ from nearby homes. It should be no surprise that individual homes, perhaps the seat of American individualism, should exemplify this classic issue – individual property rights versus the wishes of the community – that is one of the core issues running through the 235+ years of the United States.

A McMansion that can be built within Austin’s McMansion Ordinance

One Texas home designer shows off what he can build under Austin’s McMansion ordinance. Based on all 69 pictures of the house under construction, how different is it from a McMansion?

1. It looks relatively large. At the least, it is not a small house.

2. It is built in a more traditional style: no two-story entryway, no Palladian window, there is some lawn around the whole house (though not much on the sides of the house), there is a limited number of roof gables. There is a real front porch where residents can actually sit. At the same time, the siding is not too distinctive, there don’t appear to be too many windows on the sides of the house (the neighbors are fairly close), and the kitchen is fairly typical dark cabinets, granites countertops (including an island), and stainless steel appliances.

3. The first floor has an open floor plan where the living/family room to the right of the front door opens right up into the kitchen. There are at least two bathrooms. Oddly, there are photos of two laundry rooms.

Zillow suggests the home has 2 bedrooms, 2 baths, is 2,248 square feet, and is in a neighborhood with a range of home values. This particular house seems fairly muted compared to some of his other designs. It is hard to know exactly how much the Austin McMansion ordinance changed what could be done with this particular house but the McMansion designs elsewhere seem more stereotypical.

One last question: the designer appears to have labeled the home a McMansion. Given the loaded nature of this term, is this the best strategy?

Suburban tree ordinance helps fight off McMansions, preserve “suburban quality of life”

Many suburban residents may not pay much attention to tree ordinances in their community. However, a recent debate about the ordinance in Oyster Bay, New York reveals some interesting motivations for such ordinances:

Amendments to the code of the Town of Oyster Bay were discussed at the Tuesday, Aug. 14, town board meeting. They included regulations pertaining to the growing of bamboo on both residential and commercial property (see article on page 10), storm water management and erosion and sediment control, and the removal of trees on private property…

Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto opened the hearing by explaining the town’s decision that the law as stated was burdensome and needed balance. He said, “Trees are probably the most visible symbols of our suburban quality of life.” The supervisor explained the law was intended to protect the tree population but that when it was instituted they didn’t hear the other side of the story. Now the board members are hearing from residents who are saying, “Who are you to come into my backyard and say I can’t remove a tree.” He said homeowners viewed it as a loss of their individual rights and called it “government intrusion.” After listening to many speakers who seemed to understand his views, he said, “It’s a question of balance.” Mr. Venditto said it was the homeowner dealing with trees on their private property that were the ones the repeal of the ordinance would benefit.

Still the possibility of repealing a tree ordinance reminds people of why they wanted one in the first place. Nassau County Legislator Judy Jacobs (D-Woodbury) was the first to speak. She reminded the audience that, “The initial tree ordinance was passed in 1973 following the total destruction of a 15-acre parcel of land in Woodbury which was bull dozed by a developer, Sidney Kalvar, who was denied an application for zoning on the property.  Hundreds of trees were just leveled and a barren piece of land replaced the natural growth which was there.”

In 2007, an amendment to the town’s 1973 tree ordinance was adopted as a result of the work of Save the Jewel By the Bay which was working to protect the hamlet of Oyster Bay from an onslaught of “McMansions.” The town added to the tree ordinance as well as adopting several zoning ordinances to prevent McMansions; both ordinances were adopted townwide.

Trees clearly have environmental benefits. Yet, they also serve as status symbols. Two things struck me here:

  1. Regulations about trees are tied to fighting McMansions. A common image of the construction of McMansions includes a developer/builder coming in with teams of bulldozers, flattening the landscape, and then mass producing unnecessarily large and ugly houses. Of course, this is not that different of a process from other suburban construction going back to the early days of mass produced housing in places like Levittown. My question: can McMansions be made more acceptable if the developer/builder work more with the existing landscape and retain many of the trees? Put another way, can’t communities simply tell McMansion builders that they must retain or plant a certain number of trees? It doesn’t seem to me that McMansions and trees necessarily have to be antithetical to each other.
  2. Trees denote a “suburban quality of life.” Suburban streets are often depicted with broad, leafy trees spanning over the roadway. I recall reading how the creators of The Wonder Years wanted this sort of suburban image and found it in Culver City, California. Yet, one can find this is many urban neighborhoods. So perhaps it is more about the number of trees. Urban streetscapes are often limited to having trees in the space between the sidewalk and street and sidewalk and building. Or, perhaps it is about trees plus a little green space around the trees which is also tougher to find in cities. I wonder how much having older and/or more trees on a property increases the property value of suburban homes. Neighborhoods with few or shorter trees tends to indicate that the neighborhood is newer but is there a price reduction because of this? How much of the character of an older neighborhood is tied to the trees? Is having plenty of older trees an indication of the community being older and monied?

A final note: the article mentions that two residents say that in order to be known as a “Tree City USA” community, a municipality must have a tree ordinance on the books. I was not aware of this and have wondered what it took to get such a designation and sign along the roadway.