Toll Brothers and “the proliferation of McMansions”

An obituary for Robert I. Toll connects Toll Brothers and McMansions:

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Robert I. Toll, L’66, a former University Trustee, an emeritus member of the Carey Law School Board of Advisors, and the co-founder of transformative home construction company Toll Brothers, died on October 7 at home in Manhattan. He was 81.

Mr. Toll was born in Philadelphia suburb Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, to a father who was involved in Philadelphia real estate and who had successfully rebuilt his career after the Great Depression. Mr. Toll graduated from Cornell University in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in political science, then graduated from Penn’s Law School three years later. He briefly worked at the Philadelphia law firm Wolf, Block, Schorr, and Solis-Cohen, but then founded Toll Brothers with his younger brother Bruce in 1967. To start out, “we built two homes,” Mr. Toll recalled. “Instead of selling them, we used them as samples for the lots we owned down the street.” These sample homes landed the brothers contracts to build 20 more homes, which each sold for $17,500. Robert, Bruce, and Alan Toll were among the first postwar housing developers to recognize how trends in highway construction would allow access to swaths of farmland for housing and shopping developments. 

Over the next five decades, under Robert Toll’s leadership of the company as chair and CEO, Toll Brothers rapidly grew to become, as the company’s slogan boasts today, “America’s luxury home builder.” The company recognized shifting demographics in the U.S. during the 1970s and targeted baby boomers looking to trade upward. The Toll Brothers blueprint included targeted land purchases, appeals for quick zoning approval, and predesigned houses that allow room for personalized changes by buyers. Boosted by the proliferation of McMansions and the implementation by zoning boards of two-acre lot sizes in many American suburbs, Toll Brothers became a force in the American housing market. Today, over 150,000 American families in 24 states live in a Toll Brothers-built home. Toll Brothers appeared on the Fortune 500 list, and Robert Toll spearheaded several philanthropic initiatives, including Seeds of Peace, a summer camp in Maine for children from global conflict. His many professional honors included recognition as one of the world’s top 30 CEOs by Barron’s magazine in 2005 and as best CEO in the Homebuilders and Building Products Industry by Institutional Investor magazine in 2008 and 2009. The Wall Street Journal once called Mr. Toll “the best CEO in the housing business.” 

Did Toll Brothers take advantage of an opportunity to sell luxury homes to a growing market or help create and establish a growing market? Would they call their luxury homes McMansions or is that a term applied by others?

No matter how these questions are answered, it is clear Toll Brothers contributed to the trend of larger and more expensive homes in the United States. Over 150,000 homes is a sizable number of dwellings. The shift to large-scale builders in the mid-twentieth century is an important factor in suburbanization and housing more broadly.

Additionally, what will happen to all of these luxury homes? Will they be updated and renovated for decades? I assume a good number are situated in neighborhoods and communities where they will not be near any cheaper or denser housing. Will some become teardowns? Will at least a few be preserved? There is still more of the Toll Brothers story to tell.

One approach to the broken dreams of the American suburbs: realistic expectations

After reading Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel Crossroads, I have a not-original answer to the problem of the brokenness lurking behind the promise of the American Dream in the American suburbs: realistic expectations about what life in the suburbs is like.

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Much is expected of the American suburbs and Americans love them for multiple reasons. They are the land of opportunity. Home to the middle-class and the hard-working. A symbol of success. A setting meant to guarantee success to future generations. The land of private single-family homes where owners can control their own destiny.

What if the suburbs could never deliver on all of these promises? What if it was only available to some? What if the humans who tried to pursue these goals still faced difficulties and heartbreak? What if the suburbs covered up a whole host of issues in American society?

Numerous novels, films, songs, and creative works have addressed these questions over the last century. They have clearly showed the cracks in the suburban facade, the tragedies masked by the suburban sprawl.

But, these works often struggle to propose a solution. Get rid of the suburbs? Do not move to them in the first place? Stop promoting them?

If anything, these works serve as a cautionary tale: the suburbs may not be as impressive as they are made out to be. They are home to the problems all humans face as well as have their own particular issues due to their histories and current realities.

At the same time, through policy and ideology, millions of Americans have moved to the suburbs. Balancing the dire stories told of life falling apart in the suburbs alongside the narratives of success and comfort in the suburbs, is there a more realistic narrative available about what suburban life is?

Suburb of Elk Grove Village now turns to NASCAR race car ad

Elk Grove Village has sponsored a college football bowl game. Now, it is sponsoring a NASCAR car:

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The Northwest suburban municipality — of Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl fame — has inked a two-year marketing partnership with the Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing team that will enable it to affix its business marketing tagline, logo and brand to the No. 6 Ford Mustang stock car during the NASCAR Chicago Street race events next year.

The announcement was made during the ninth Made in Elk Grove Manufacturing & Technology Expo at the high school. The daylong exhibition, awards and networking event highlights businesses within the village’s sprawling industrial park — which the village has sought to promote through several unconventional marketing sponsorships. The town sponsored the college football bowl game in 2018 and 2019, plus three USA Olympic teams last year.

“Elk Grove Village is home to the largest industrial park in North America. We’re surrounded by incredible transportation options and our town works hard to make this a destination for businesses,” Johnson said in a statement. “Partnering with RFK for a marquee race allows us to reach a huge audience with a partner that shares a passion in American business and manufacturing.”

Suburbs continue to market themselves in order to stand out from the hundreds of other suburban communities with which they might be competing. Lots of suburbs could say they have industrial space, nearby transportation options, and are business friendly. Fewer might be able to say they have “the largest industrial park,” sit near O’Hare Airport, within such a busy region for railroad traffic, and right next to major highways, and offer exactly what Elk Grove Village can offer businesses. This branding effort will help highlight these distinctive features.

But, the big question is whether this broader exposure translates into increased business and development activity in the community. Will those watching Brad Keselowski zoom around a track visit makerswanted.org in large numbers or relocate their firms to the suburb? Is it enough that the suburb might have an increased status but no change in activity?

Creation care, “practical love,” and the American suburbs

One evangelical leader is asked about caring for the environment as a Christian imperative and they connect the issue to the American suburbs:

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If you play the visionary, what must the church or mission agency do now to prepare for the coming changes? How will they take the gospel message to the world?

Much of what we will have to do is practical love, not just suburban evangelism. I don’t know how leaders of World Vision, SIL, Compassion International, or TEAM should change their strategies—but they must be talking about this. Do the analysis, and anticipate the threats.

Will “practical love” be necessary also in the suburbs?

As environmental impacts ramp up, more and more people will discover they are vulnerable. On the West Coast, the Colorado River is running dry. An entire swath of the country is or may soon be on water rationing, and I don’t know how to deal with that. We are not as protected from environmental impacts as we think we are.

Supply chain issues are affecting cellphones and new cars, but what happens when it hits the grocery stores? Trace it back, and you will discover that there were no apples, because the pollinators were absent. This brings it home, but by then, it will be too late.

I see two connections to suburbs in this discussion:

  1. There is “suburban evangelism” and this contrasts with “practical love.” To address changes in the environment, “suburban evangelism” may not be enough.
  2. The environmental issues will eventually come to the suburbs. Suburbanites might feel like they are protected by a certain level of wealth and distance from immediate dangers, but environmental change will find them.

In other words, there is a particular way of Christian faith that aligns with suburban life. Right now, that faith does not regularly intersect with climate change or environmental issues.

A much larger, and related, question: what about suburban faith does not line up with addressing climate change and other important social issues? (I have some thoughts about this: I have an analysis titled “Faith in the Suburbs: Evangelical Christian Books about Suburban Life” in this book.)

Trying to make suburban mass transit more attractive by offering private rides and vans to reserve

Pace has tried for decades to increase bus ridership in the Chicago suburbs. Here are two new strategies:

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Commuters can reserve a $2 ride in a small bus that typically stops at train stations and travels on major roads…

On-Demand service runs from early morning to evening with zones in Aurora, Batavia, Hoffman Estates, Naperville, Round Lake, St. Charles/Geneva, Vernon Hills/Mundelein, West Joliet and Wheaton/Winfield. Rides need to be booked at least an hour in advance.

Another experiment is the VanGo program that lets people reserve a Pace van at the Lake Forest or Lake-Cook Metra stations and drive to employment centers such as Baxter International. An expansion to Palatine is under consideration.

“We give you a code for the vehicle, it unlocks the door, it unlocks the key, you can take it to work and back at night to the train station” along with co-workers, Metzger said.

VanGo drivers must have a credit card and a good driving record, plus meet other requirements. A round trip is $5.

These are mass transit options – still mass transit because the vehicles are operated by a transportation entity and because they are hoping there are multiple riders in the vehicle – that try to adapt to suburban sprawl. A lack of density in the suburbs means that traditional railroad and bus lines cannot reach enough people and the ease of traveling by car means that many people will choose driving. These options offer more flexibility to individual users and specific locations.

Will it work? Can Pace compete with ride shares companies or companies that offer access to vehicles? I am skeptical that it will be effective in the long run given the current nature of suburbia.

Like Wakanda, drop the suburbs so cities and rural areas are closer

Why do we need suburbs between city and rural life? Perhaps the fictional Wakanda offers an answer:

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“One of the things I love about Wakanda, if you notice, if you watch ‘Black Panther’ carefully, there’s the city, the city’s got all this mass transit and all this housing parks and all this stuff,” explained Chakrabarti, who wrote a book called “A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America.” “And the moment you leave the city, you’re in farmland. And there’s this connection between rural life and urban life.”

He added: “I just think that is a really interesting paradigm to think about people, either living in super dense circumstances or really living in true rural hinterland and doing the things that we need everyone to do in farmland, which is grow our food and all of that stuff. And it would mean you would use a lot less land on this planet at the end of the day.”…

Whether major American cities ever transform from where we are today — heavily suburbanized and car-dependent — remains to be seen. But all we have to do is look to Wakanda for an idea of how our cities of the future could work.

I would argue that the American suburbs are popular, in part, because they appear to offer both features of city and rural life. Suburbanites like access to housing, jobs, and cultural amenities but they also want smaller communities and proximity to nature. With cars, they can on their own schedule access these features.

I remember the first time I saw in person this cleaner break between a city and rural areas. I had a chance to spend several days in Tokyo while in college. On one day, we took a train out of the city. As we moved at a high speed away from the city center, we suddenly moved from the denser city to fields. The same break could be seen from the air when flying in and out of the city.

This is not typically the case in the United States where suburbs might stretch for dozens of miles from the city limits before finally dwindling out. Moving more people into denser locations would indeed free up land or freezing development in metropolitan regions within an established boundary would do the same.

Can a successful suburb have a thriving downtown and a stadium-driven mixed-use district?

With the Chicago Bears considering building in Arlington Heights, one village trustee expressed concerns that a sizable project would compete with the suburb’s successful downtown:

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But, he said, “I’m going to tell you right now I’m not a fan of the site plan. And I hope this doesn’t blow up and ruin things for you in any way because I’m just one person sitting up here. But I have to be true to myself and true to my thoughts.”

Tinaglia, who founded his Tinaglia Architects firm in Arlington Heights in 1991, blasted the mixed-use transit-oriented development aspect of the Bears’ proposal, arguing the plans for restaurants, stores, offices, hotels, homes and more on 206 acres of the 326-acre property would detract from what is in downtown Arlington Heights.

“For a community that doesn’t have a downtown — that doesn’t have what Arlington Heights already has — that community would die to have this,” Tinaglia said. But he said he didn’t believe Arlington Heights’ current business owners could survive the competition from the kind of development being proposed.

Just how many entertainment centers can exist in the suburbs, let alone in one community?

Many suburbs would like to have a thriving downtown. Arlington Heights has one. It boosts the status of the community with its older buildings, current businesses bringing in residents and visitors, and possibly residents living downtown and also visiting local businesses and restaurants. Not all suburbs have downtowns; some never had them due to consisting of multiple suburban subdivisions joined together while others may have had a downtown that is now struggling or non-existent. The suburban downtown has had numerous challenges over the years – strip malls, shopping malls, driving and parking, big box stores, and more – so having a successful one is not something a suburb would lightly give up.

On the other hand, not every suburb has an opportunity to be home to a major sports stadium and all of the development around it. This is a new opportunity that could be worth a lot in terms of business activity and tax revenue, population growth, and status tied to being the home of an important football franchise.

It will be interesting to see if there is a compromise to be had here where both a downtown and a new mixed-use development coexist. Do they have to be in competition or can they serve different audiences?

Suburban fiction and the unhappy white suburban families of Jonathan Franzen

There exists a common fictional narrative involving the American suburbs: the white nuclear family that looks successful from the outside – home, children who achieve, high-status communities, good jobs, well-educated, etc. – is internally falling apart. The suburban veneer is thin; when it is scratched away or falls off, the white suburban family is hurting. Such a story has been told in various forms for decades.

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I have recently read several of the big novels of Jonathan Franzen. In both The Corrections and Freedom, the various members of white suburban families are not doing well and neither is the family as a whole. He switches perspectives from different family members (and some connected characters) who are experiencing both their own personal struggles and ones connected to their upbringing and those ongoing ties. The suburban homes are not happy ones; they are settings for unresolved conflicts, anger, and a sense that life should have turned out better.

Is this the same kind of suburban fiction that has been tread many times before? The settings have changed a bit – the suburbs of the 2000s are not exactly the same as the new mass produced suburbs of the 1950s, there is new technology available, etc. – and Franzen has a particular style. However, the stories felt similar to others in key ways.

(Disclaimer: I have not read all of Franzen’s work or his most recent novel set in the Chicago suburbs.)

Who is affordable housing in Naperville for? September 2022 edition

Two recent proposals aim to bring affordable housing to Naperville. The first project had 401 housing units and the affordable housing units within the development would be for this group:

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While the council has not adopted any measure requiring affordable housing, Pulte designed Naperville Polo Club in response to the city’s stated priorities, Whitaker said. They are committing to sell 20% of the town homes at an affordable level based on area median income, or AMI.

“Pulte will target buyers at 80-100% Naperville AMI consistent with household income targets set forth in SB Friedman’s Affordable Housing Program,” Whitaker said in the letter. “This target demographic for for-sale housing represents household incomes of approximately $100,000 to $125,000 and translates to a home purchase price below $440,000.”

With the median household income of DuPage County at over $94,000 and Will County at over $90,000 – Naperville spans both counties – this affordable housing is only accessible to people above the lower 50% of household incomes in the counties.

The second project involves affordable units set aside for two groups who need them:

It’s not often the Naperville City Council receives a standing ovation.

But it happened Tuesday after a 9-0 vote authorizing pursuit of an affordable housing project on city land southeast of the corner of 103rd Street and Route 59 on Tower Court. As part of the potential agreement for development, a minimum of 60 units would be built for seniors and for adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

When the vote finished, more than a dozen audience members clad in red shirts with “I (heart) affordable housing” written on them stood and cheered the decision — more than a year in the making — that paves the way for young adults with special needs to live independently.

In both cases, housing is needed.

But, what is “affordable housing” about? Is it about keeping Napreville residents in Naperville like seniors and young college graduates? Is it about providing housing that provides no threat to larger homes and higher property values? Is it about providing units to those who live and work in wealthier suburbs but cannot easily afford to live there? Is it about providing units within a region where tens of thousands need affordable housing? Is it about providing housing for those who could not otherwise live in a wealthier suburb?

Is this the path to “small-town democracy still works as intended”?

The village board of suburban Round Lake recently voted against a proposal to annex property and create a year-round ski hill. One representative of local opponents described the outcome this way:

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“It is heartening that small-town democracy still works as intended,” Ashman added.

What happened in this process of “small-town democracy?

Opponents who had coalesced into a large, multifaceted grass-roots force were uncertain of the outcome until Trustee Mark Amann, who was appointed earlier in the meeting to fill a vacancy, ended the speculation…

The opposition group started with about a dozen residents a few months ago but grew with a united goal and different areas of expertise.

A Facebook group ballooned to 779 members, 120 yard signs were posted, hundreds of fliers were passed out in town and a website was created. Nearly 2,000 signatures in opposition were gathered on an online petition, and a blog chronicled the issue…

“I had to go with my conscience and my gut,” he said after the meeting. “The bottom line was he (applicant Dan Powell) didn’t have any skin in the game. We were at more risk than he was.”

This exemplifies why suburban Americans like local control and local government. In a smaller community (Round Lake has over 18,000 residents), the closer connection residents have to the local board or council. If residents do not like something, it is easier for them to make their voice heard. Here, residents took advantage of social media and websites plus utilized yard signs and fliers. Those opposed felt this was not in the best interest of their community. If elected officials do not do what residents want, it can be easier to remove them at the next election.

Whether such a process leads to the “right” outcomes is another question all together. Such a process also makes it easy for communities to resist affordable housing, development or changes that might be good for an entire region, or protect a particular character or set of resources.