Invasion of McMansions in Kirkwood, Missouri

Teardown McMansions have infiltrated an older neighborhood in a well-off St. Louis suburb:

Residents said not only are smaller historic homes getting wiped out in the process, but the large houses are causing problems for some of their next-door neighbors…

The one next door to her on Cleveland Avenue was erected last year and is nearly twice the size of the original home. It’s a four-bedroom home on the market for more than $800,000.

She said it’s created a real problem for her. The new home’s rain runoff has turned her driveway into a lake…

The city says the builders have followed all the community’s guidelines:

“…The new house on this site sits closer to the neighbor’s driveway, which may explain the confusion. Yes, the new home was built per permit specifications. The City requires the contractor to have the top of the foundation surveyed prior to beginning framing. The floor system is then verified to determine that the finished floor height is as allowed.

A follow-up story from several days later says the new McMansions are affecting more houses:

Since the homes were built around 2015, Reed said her mother’s basement has constantly been flooded and her backyard has turned into a swamp…

The ITeam recently discovered a Kirkwood ordinance that said new developments cannot cause water run-off problems for surrounding properties.

But attorney Paul G. Henry said getting the city to enforce it could be difficult…

We repeatedly asked Kirkwood officials about why they don’t appear to be enforcing their own ordinance but they declined to answer. Instead, they recommended that we file an information request.

Such issues could put a suburb in a sticky situation: should it protect the properties of elderly citizens who have lived in the community for a long time or allow new property owners to construct homes to their liking? Whose property rights prevail? There is probably some middle ground here where the teardowns can be regulated in such a way to provide a little protection to neighbors (whether this involves water issues or residents are concerned about the changing character of their neighborhoods) but these regulations could take some time to discuss and enact.

Five unusual lawsuits between neighbors over smells

Neighbors can fight over many things with numerous examples involving McMansions noted on this blog (see here and here for two cases). How about squabbling over smells? Here are five interesting cases with two examples excerpted below:

In 2001 David and Joan Gallant bought their house outside Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, from Lee and Shirley Murray, whose farm abuts the Gallants’ property on three sides. For years, the two couples appear to have coexisted peacefully, but relations soured for unnamed reasons toward the end of the decade. In 2013 the Murrays erected an unusual barrier on their property line near the Gallants’ house: a massive, reeking pile of cow dung so large it could be seen on Google Earth.

“The manure was fresh, unseasoned, wet, [and] raw,” David Gallant said in his affidavit. In 2015, the Gallants sued the Murrays, and were awarded $11,300 USD in damages…

In Singapore, a newly-arrived Chinese family living in an apartment next to a Singaporean Indian family could not abide their neighbors’ cooking smells—particularly curry dishes. The Indian family agreed to shut their doors and windows when they cooked curry, but they balked when the Chinese family subsequently asked them to stop cooking it altogether.

A government mediator helped them come to an agreement: The Indian family would cook curry only when the Chinese family was out, and the Chinese family would try a curry dish. The case caused an uproar in the Southeast Asian city-state, with many Singaporeans declaring that the agreement treated the Indian family unfairly and that the Chinese family should learn to tolerate Indian Singaporean cooking. A nationwide curry movement erupted, including a “Cook and Share a Pot of Curry” campaign and an annual weeklong series of curry-themed events.

I am now trying to imagine a case that includes the odd combination of a smelly McMansion…

Seriously, though, smells can have a large effect on quality of life. Few people want to live near a landfill or certain industrial properties. I would guess that most suburban communities don’t have a distinctive positive or negative smell outside of their regional distinctions (such as being close to the ocean or the mountains, as two examples). Perhaps this is like having a generic American accent that makes it difficult to know where someone is from – suburbs everywhere have a faint smell of lawns.

Smells can also cross property lines or units within the same property in unique ways. Indeed, you might not even notice anything until the smell is overwhelming. It can be difficult to trace the source. It may not be present at all times (in the cases above, the manure wasn’t going anywhere while a cooking smell can come and go).

Would such lawsuits involve air rights? What expectations should the average resident have that they can control the smells in their space?

Defining a McMansion, Trait #2: Relative size

When I tell people that I have published about McMansions, the same question almost always arises: “What exactly is a McMansion?” My paper defining the McMansion answers this but in a series of posts here, I want to update the definition based on what I have seen in the last five years.

While McMansions are certainly larger than normal, in certain circumstances they can appear even larger than their square footage: when constructed next to smaller homes (often teardowns, sometimes infill properties) or when squeezed onto small lots (so that the homes seem to be bursting off the property). While I know the second case does happen quite a bit, most of the McMansion coverage of this trait in recent years focuses on teardown properties. Some patterns I’ve observed:

  1. The typical case involves someone from outside the neighborhood purchasing an older home (often a postwar house), demolishing it, and constructing a significantly larger home and/or a home that has a different architectural style than nearby homes. This one picture is a great illustration. Note that the new home does not necessarily have to be over 3,000 square feet or even include the worst McMansion architecture; it just has to be different from the existing homes.
  2. Media coverage of teardown McMansions is overwhelmingly negative. This is likely the issue only comes up neighbors upset over the construction of a teardown McMansion start looking for ways to stop the construction or limit future construction. On the flip side, it is hard to know how many teardown McMansions are constructed without much furor.
  3. It is hard to know exactly what motivates neighbors to complain so vociferously about teardown McMansions. Americans seem to want the ability to buy new homes in good neighborhoods (balancing modern features with valuable locations) but don’t like what it happens to them. The complaints often fall into two camps. First, those who live directly adjacent to a teardown may have a range of new issues to confront: people able to see in their windows, a hulking property next door, losing sunlight, the older home now looking dated or different. Second, the larger issue is often couched in terms of the character of the neighborhood. People feel that when they move to a particular place, that street or neighborhood should stay similar – after all, they liked its features enough that they moved there. A teardown McMansion threatens that.
  4. The fights between neighbors can be quite contentious, a rarity in many suburban communities where middle-class decorum suggests conflict avoidance is best. Lawuits occur (example and example), and some neighbors may even pool their resources to buy a nearby home and save it from being torn down. But, if the foundation of American life is owning a home, perhaps it is not surprising that such conflict arises when owners perceive their home to be under threat. See my six steps for responding to a nearby teardown McMansion.
  5. These conflicts often involve local officials. Numerous communities across the United States have guidelines for teardowns (see the example of Austin several years ago and Los Angeles more recently). Outside of historic preservation districts, these guidelines typically limit the size of the new home (through guidelines like a Floor Area Ratio) and/or provide guidance on particular architectural features.
  6. The teardown debates tend to put local officials in a strange position. Whose rights should they defend? Property owners? If so, do they want to allow long-time residents to have a voice in shaping their own neighborhoods or do they want individual owners to be able to sell their property at a good profit? Can they openly support builders and developers? I suspect most communities want to – growth, particularly high-end houses, is an important marker of vitality – but you don’t want to always run roughshod over your constituents. Teardowns are most common in neighborhoods and communities that are already well off – see recent evidence from the Chicago region – and this tends to pit already well-off community members versus well-off outsiders.

Teardown McMansions are a subset of McMansions as a whole, often constructed in desirable neighborhoods and sometimes raising the ire of neighbors and concerned citizens. Balancing the rights of neighbors and property owners will likely continue to be a sticky issue for many local governments.

Race affects why Americans don’t like people walking on their property

One writer contrasts the approach in Europe and the United States toward walking through the countryside:

In Sweden, they call it “allemansrätt.” In Finland, it’s “jokamiehenoikeus.” In Scotland, it’s “the right to roam.” Germany allows walking through privately owned forests, unused meadows and fallow fields. In 2000, England and Wales passed the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, which gave people access to “mountain, moor, heath or down.”

Nordic and Scottish laws are even more generous. The 2003 Scottish Land Reform Act opened up the whole country for a number of pastimes, including mountain biking, horseback riding, canoeing, swimming, sledding, camping and most any activity that does not involve a motorized vehicle, so long as it’s carried out “responsibly.” In Sweden, landowners may be prohibited from putting up fences for the sole purpose of keeping people out. Walkers in many of these places do not have to pay money, ask for permission or obtain permits.

We’re not nearly as welcoming in America. Travel across rural America and you’ll spot “No Trespassing” and “Private Property” signs posted on trees and fence posts everywhere. And even where there aren’t signs, Americans know they don’t have the implicit permission to visit their town’s neighboring woods, fields and coastlines. Long gone are the days when we could, like Henry David Thoreau on the outskirts of his native Concord, Mass., freely saunter “through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”…

Roaming rights began to erode in the late 19th century, according to Mr. Sawers. In the South, states passed trespassing laws for racial reasons, seeking to keep blacks from hunting and fishing so as to starve them into submission. Elsewhere, wealthy landowners of the Gilded Era became concerned with game populations, and trespassing and hunting laws were passed to restrict immigrants, he said.

It is interesting to note both (1) the historical change in the United States toward property rights and exclusion and (2) European countries may allow walking through property but have restrictions such as committing damage, walking near homes, and hunting. But, perhaps even more noteworthy is the suggestion that race matters here as well: as the United States was moving toward more equality and racial/ethnic diversity, property rights were another means by which to keep groups separate. We know that this would soon matter tremendously in terms of restrictive covenants and segregated neighborhoods but even restricting the simple act of walking was seen as necessary to keep certain boundaries.

What to do if “a McMansion is going up next door”

If a McMansion is built next to existing houses, what can neighbors do?

“It’s built so much higher than my house, virtually every window looks out into my backyard,” she says. Desperate to protect her privacy, she planted Italian cypress trees as a natural barrier. She tried to reason with the builder, whose unsympathetic response was: “Shouldn’t everyone be able to build their dream home?”

What’s going on in Mountain View is an extreme version of a problem cropping up all over the country: Huge houses are being built on plots of land originally meant to accommodate smaller dwellings, sparking a heated debate over what’s best for the community. Some argue that owners of larger homes pay more taxes, which can benefit all. But if your home happens to have its air and light blocked by a behemoth next door, you would likely be very, very upset — and can most likely kiss the idea of cashing out on your home sale goodbye…

A similar drama is playing out in Arcadia, CA, where more than 30 homes larger than 5,000 square feet (some as large as 8,000 — 9,000) have been proposed in the 850-home community over the past six years. In response, a group of longtime residents formed Saving Arcadia, which is currently battling the municipal government and City Council. Its argument: Overly lenient rules for developers have led to the proliferation of McMansions on lots that were zoned back in the 1950s for smaller homes. Plus, these oversize dwellings overburden the city’s water, gas, electricity, and other utility services…

Another option is finding a creative solution. One example is building downward (if a property is set on a hill) in order to increase square footage while preserving neighboring views, which is increasingly happening in various areas near Newport Beach. So maybe there’s hope that we can all play nice after all?

A homeowner who doesn’t like the nearby McMansion has a number of options available to them – these are sorted roughly in order of severity:

  1. Talk to the neighbor and builder. Might they be willing to make changes? They don’t have to but perhaps they are also unaware of what neighbors think of their actions.
  2. Modify your own lot or house to avoid having to see the new dwelling (if this is possible given its new size). For example, buy some artificial plants.
  3. Fight for local regulations. Many communities (see examples like Austin and Los Angeles) have considered rules about teardowns in recent decades and try to balance the interests of property owners versus those of neighborhoods. A variety of tools can be used including design guidelines, lot to house size ratios, approval processes, and historic districts.
  4. Buy up the properties that may become McMansions. This requires money but then you can control the fate of the nearby properties. See examples here and here.
  5. Sue your neighbor. You have to have resources to fight this out and it is likely to sour relations for a long time. But, some neighbors choose this option. See an example here.
  6. Move away. This is what the resident in this particular article does. This may be a last resort option or one favorable to those who don’t like open conflict (which is often minimized in suburbia).

In many places, the teardown McMansion cannot be stopped, particularly if there are not existing guidelines which are likely based off earlier cases or if the neighbor is not independently wealthy. Still, the neighbor who does not like it can pursue a number of options and each is likely to affect their relationship with the teardown neighbor.

China introduces plan to eliminate gated communities

Gated communities may be popular in the United States and many other countries but China is looking to open them up:

Along with its ambitions to finally put an end to “weird” architecture, China is also hoping to ban gated communities. In the same directive that called for stricter building standards, the State Council of the People’s Republic of China has also recommended that future residential enclaves be opened to the public. Existing gated communities would also gradually have their once-private streets integrated into the public road network. Not only would the move ease traffic congestion, the government argues, but it would also make better use of land.

But that particular part of the plan has drawn criticism from legal experts and fierce opposition from the public. Lawyers say such a mandate infringes on residents’ property rights, which according to China’s property laws, are “inviolable.” According to the South China Morning Post, the cost of roads and other shared spaces inside gated communities are factored into the price of residents’ homes, so they are essentially considered private property. China’s Supreme Court recently told the Hong Kong newspaper that they will be “paying close attention” to the directive.

Is this a microcosm of a larger debate between a more free market economic system versus more government control? The question of whether developers can build and residents, particularly those who feel they have joined the middle or upper class, can move into gated communities seems tied to a number of bigger issues.

I’m reminded that one tool of power available to governments is to dictate use of land and regulate architecture. Americans tend to prioritize property rights but the United States has a variety of land and architecture regulations, particularly zoning at a local level as well as historic preservation districts. Less frequent is the use of eminent domain, though it has been used regularly in the past for urban renewal which was often about taking land and profiting from new development. See the recent case in Chicago where Mayor Rahm Emanuel has discussed seizing the old post office building to make money for the city.

So how far should governments go regarding regulating land and architecture? A completely free market system would lead to some negative outcomes but too much implies tyranny.

13 reasons to hate McMansions

City Watch makes a case against McMansions – here are a few of the 13 reasons given:

Some people hate them because they conflict with the City Planning Commission’s anti-mansionization policies contained in their Do Real Planning manifesto.

Some people hate them because they conflict with the policies of the Framework Element, a key part of LA’s General Plan. The Framework is clear that new residential developments must respect the character and scale of existing residences. But, as anyone can see when driving through neighborhoods blighted by mansionization, the scale and character of McMansions intensely clash with existing homes, whether they are Spanish Revival, Tudor, mid-century, or even ranch-style…

McMansions routinely include two or even three car attached garages. This feature not only incentivizes automobile driving, but the new double driveways also wipe out green space and trees in front yards and parkways. But since the attached garages are routinely used for recreation, storage, and other habitable uses, the owners park their luxury cars on their front yard driveways, next to sidewalks…

Because McMansions are huge, they devour enormous amounts of construction materials, such as cement, metals, plastics, and wood. Furthermore, because they are shoddily constructed, they will have a short life-span. Future buyers will quickly tear them down to avoid the extensive repairs necessary to keep McMansions habitable. This short life span, then, also adds to the rubble created by the mansionization process.

Some of the reasons given are specific to Los Angeles, which has been debating measures to limit McMansions for a few years. But, many of the reasons could apply anywhere: such homes don’t fit the existing architecture in the neighborhood, they are generally large, and they require the use of numerous resources ranging from demolition and construction to maintaining the home over the years and what is required to be part of suburban sprawl.

If the opposite case were to be made – 13 reasons for McMansions? – I would guess the primary reason would be property rights. The argument would suggest that if an American owns a piece of land, they should be able to do with it what they wish. Of course, people and organizations don’t have complete freedom; particularly in cities, there are a variety of zoning laws and regulations that limit how property can be used. But, if a plot of land is in a residential area, should neighbors or the local government be able to restrict what kind of single-family home is built?