The scary McMansions of Lake Parsippany and giving up property rights

One New Jersey resident is not happy about the arrival of a McMansion next door:

Suddenly, the sun is gone, you’re in its shadow, it’s coming closer and closer. You can feel it’s poorly portioned eyes glaring down at you. You try to make the creature out, but its stucco front and vinyl siding sides confuse you, and there’s the artificial stone surrounding its mouth.

No, this is not an early Halloween tale, it’s the McMansion next store…

This is America, and no one should dictate to you what you can do with your property, but when you choose to have every tree cut down, use every inch of a lot and build a home 3 times the size of the original dwelling, that disrupts other people’s lives and infringes on their rights.

I would have never bought my home knowing the house next to me would be knocked down. Why would I think, a perfectly fine 3 bedroom home would be destroyed? What attracted me to the street was that each house was a little different, and each home had a yard and mature trees.

I’ve been told it’s a way to showcase your wealth, but I only see ignorance and bad taste. McMansions do not make good neighbors, they’re downright scary.

This letter summarizes the crux of the issue with teardown McMansions: how should a community or individuals balance the right of homeowners to use their property as they wish versus what their neighbors would like? Who should win when “no one should dictate to you what you can do with your property” yet certain buildings can “disrupt other people’s lives and infringe on their rights”?

Many communities have adopted some sort of community guidelines that both limit the size of teardowns and try to nudge the new structures toward existing architectural styles. Yet, I wonder if that does not solve the real issue: the negative interactions likely to occur between neighbors. Even if a new McMansion meets community guidelines, what are the odds an upset neighbor next to the new McMansion is likely to be happy with the new residents?

In other words, property rights do not necessarily lead to good neighbors, particularly if some neighbors are perceived to not follow the local norms. The result can be isolation, lawsuits, public arguments, and violence. Property rights might take ultimate precedent in a court of law but having a pleasant social life may require ceding some control.

Convicted mobster and his supposed “Sopranos-style McMansion”

As part of his sentencing, a New York mobster has to sell his large home. One media source claims it is a “Sopranos-style McMansion”:

During his sentencing on Aug. 15 in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, Giallanzo was ordered to serve 14 years behind bars, pay $268,000 in restitution to his victims, forfeit $1.25 million in assets and sell his mansion in Howard Beach.

Federal prosecutors said that Giallanzo used proceeds from his racketeering ring to transform his home from a humble ranch into a two-story palazzo that could have rivaled Tony Soprano’s digs on “The Sopranos.” The mob captain reported spent more than $1 million to reconstruct and furnish the home, which features five bedrooms, five bathrooms, radiant heated floors, luxury appliances, three kitchens and a salt water pool with a waterfall.

This is certainly now a large home and has an interesting exterior. While it would meet the definition of a McMansion (in at least two ways), it is quite different from the McMansion of the Soprano family.

Let’s start with the McMansion definition. The picture of the home as it stood at least a few years ago (according to Google Street View) is helpful. It was once a ranch home on a corner lot. Not very big, in a residential neighborhood, and in a tight corner lot that offered little opportunity for a backyard. The new home is a teardown. The house is now two stories. On a small lot, the home even pushes closer to the edges. This is a teardown McMansion.

Additionally, the home has a mix of architectural features. It has a consistent brick facade (at least on the two sides facing the street). It has a round turret on the corner; given the placement of the windows, this could be a staircase. The front entrance includes a entry with a roof and columns and numerous windows of different shapes. The roof has multiple gables on the front. On the whole, the design of the home is too busy. Definitely a McMansion with its mishmash of architectural styles.

The comparison to the Soprano home on The Sopranos would seem to make sense: the owner of the home above was in the mob, he lives in a large house, and he was able to live there because of his ill-gotten gains. But, the home above is very different from the Soprano home. Here are just a few differences: a corner lot in a more urban neighborhood versus a big suburban lot with the home set back from the street and at the top of a longish driveway; whatever style the teardown is built in versus the French styling of the Sopranos home; and current interior features (three kitchens! radiant floors!) versus the 1990s McMansions of the Sopranos home (mostly about size, lots of room, and certain decor).

While these homes might both fit the general category of McMansion, they are quite different. Arguably, the Sopranos home is more tasteful or at least stands out less from its surroundings (because most of the nearby homes are similar).

(See an earlier post about the McMansion features of the main residence on The Sopranos.)

“Monster houses” contribute to San Francisco’s housing issues

An overview of the tight housing supply in San Francisco hints at the influence of teardown McMansions:

Its residents have had much to grumble about in recent years: an influx of “monster houses” built by the well-heeled who buy, tear down and rebuild on lavish scale; a gaggle of Google buses and other shuttles that take techies to and from jobs in Silicon Valley.

Many Americans don’t like teardowns popping up next door. They typically take one smaller home and turn it into one larger home. But, do such homes restrict housing supply? Perhaps indirectly: (1) they bring in wealthier residents who likely don’t want multi-family housing and (2) they increase the value of the property meaning it would be more difficult to convert the same lot into multi-family housing. At the same time, McMansions could later be converted into multiple units (as proposed by some).

Generally, I would guess being for McMansions likely means being against affordable housing. Yet, the two subjects don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

When you spend $2 million to block a nearby McMansion

The Washington Post profiles several neighbors who saved their neighborhood from a McMansion – but now may be on the hook for a big amount of money.

They had seen home after home in Bethesda, Md., torn down, replaced by behemoths boasting high ceilings, multiple gables and soaring porticoes. So when a small 1940s Cape Colonial on Oldchester Road was about to go on the market last year — and already attracting the attention of a well-known McMansion developer — three neighbors designed a custom-built approach to save it.

They pooled $2 million to buy, modernize and resell the old house. They hope the updated brick Colonial, which they expanded from three to six bedrooms, will preserve the charm of their neighborhood and maybe even make them a modest profit.

But the group’s attempt to flip the house — on a street where a 1999 Harrison Ford movie was filmed — has yet to pay off. The now-renovated home at 7812 Oldchester Road in the Bradley Woods neighborhood of Bethesda has been on the market since late August, its price having dropped from nearly $2.4 million to $2.175 million…

But the Bradley Woods triumvirate — a senior Justice Department official, a real estate lawyer and a high-end home designer — remain confident they made the right decision, despite the property lingering on the market for 3 1/ months, longer than the two-month average for a Bethesda home.

What is missing in this story is the amount of money and wealth that is needed to even make this move: most Americans opposed to McMansions or other changes to their neighborhood or community could not simply buy the property and then try to make some money off of it. Instead, they have to either convince their neighbors that this isn’t in their best interest (and this is a tough case to make when so much money is on the line on what typically is most people’s biggest single investment in life) or go through the regulatory and legal process to attempt to block the teardown. All of this might lead to negative interactions as it pits property rights versus what the neighbors or community feel might be in their own best interests (and it often is about collective property values). But, if you have resources, you can just take care of the problem yourself.

Neighbors: keep gangster’s house or support replacement McMansion?

Tampa residents are facing a quandary: do they support two possible McMansions to replace the home of a notorious gangster?

The community is rallying around the five-bedroom, 2.5-bath house built in 1952 by Santo Trafficante Jr., a supposed gangster who ran casinos in pre-Castro Cuba as the head of one of the most powerful organized crime syndicates in Florida.

Parkland Estates residents are upset about an application asking the city to split the lot in two at the request of Trafficante’s surviving daughters, Mary Jo Paniello and Sarah Ann Valdez…

“They’ve always been good neighbors and this is kind of a slap in the face,’’ said Anneliese Meier, vice president of the Parkland Estates Civic Club, which vigorously opposes the plan. “No matter what the history is, it’s a gorgeous house and should be preserved.”…

She said splitting the lot might mean the 63-year-old house will be torn down to make way for two larger homes.

“That doesn’t fit the character of this neighborhood,’’ Meier said. “McMansions tear up the community. They are big houses on small lots. Nobody’s happy about it. We’re tired of seeing this happen in our community.”

Both situations could leave the neighbors with some notoriety that they might think could threaten their property values. But, it is interesting that the neighbors quoted in this article think the McMansion is worse than the gangster: the family were good neighbors but a McMansion would pose a more important threat. Perhaps this suggests that neighbors think people are replaceable but the physical structure has a stronger impact. A broader question to ask many Americans would be: would you rather have a bad neighbor in a nice house that enhances the neighborhood or a bad house nearby with lovely neighbors?

More cities consider tearing down highways

A recent article highlights efforts in Syracuse and other cities to tear down highways in dense urban areas:

“It seems like it’s gaining popularity,” said Ted Shelton, a professor of architecture at the University of Tennessee who studies urban highway removal. “For so long, we’ve thought when a highway gets to capacity, we need to add a lane. But what we’ve learned is there’s no way you can build enough capacity.”More cities — including Long Beach, Dallas, New Orleans, Nashville and Hartford, Conn. — are debating the idea of tearing down highways and creating something designed to keep people in the city, not send people out. In Seattle, a double-decker highway is slated to come down, although a giant machine called Big Bertha has run into trouble excavating the 2-mile-long tunnel for the new roadway.

In most cases, tearing down freeways would create “rich urban fabric that supports complex cultures and economies in a way that it can’t right now,” Shelton said…

“There’s not been a single city in the world that’s taken a freeway out and things haven’t gotten better for everybody,” said Peter J. Park, who ran the project to tear down the Park East Freeway in Milwaukee several years ago.

Still, in many cities where Americans are accustomed to using their cars to get places quickly and cheaply, urban planners might have a tough road ahead of them. For many Americans, urban highways are as essential to day-to-day life as washing machines or light bulbs.

At the least, getting rid of an urban highway opens up space and eliminates the noise, pollution, and congestion generated by the highways. At the better end, innovative projects can use that space for parks or new projects that help beautify spaces and jumpstart economic development. As noted, this is counterintuitive: building more roads is not the answer and alternative plans of action can actually reduce traffic while enhancing space. This is a reminder that cities don’t have to revolve around providing automobile access.

McMansions as “weapons of mass construction”

One writer resents having to put up with McMansions, labeled in the headline “weapons of mass construction,” for the sake of the economy:

I hate being all in this thing together. Or let’s just say, I hate being all in this thing together with the home-construction industry. Right now, a McMansion the size of the Louvre is going up directly across the street from my house. Nine other monstrosities are also being deployed in what was once a beautiful, empty meadow. The field has been filled with backhoes and earth movers and building materials on and off for at least two years.

The projects, once begun, take forever to finish. The crew starts work on a house, then gets dispatched to finish another project in a different town, and then comes back. So it takes months to get the micro-chateaux built. It’s like watching someone set fire to your neighborhood, then douse it, then come back and start the fire again six weeks later. You’d rather they just ruined things once and for all and got it over with. If you’re going to sack Rome, sack it. Drilling, digging, dust and leveled trees have been our reality since 2011. It makes it very, very hard to root for the home builders.

I am constantly reading that young people are not buying houses at the pace needed to get the economy percolating. Well, maybe someone should tell the developers to stop building lurid, vile houses that no one can afford. Or to stop building lurid, vile, prefab, ticky-tacky houses even if people can afford them.

When the economy cratered in 2008 and my 401(k) got massacred, I wasn’t as upset as I should have been because it meant that the McMansions scheduled to be erected across the street wouldn’t get built until the recession was over. Four happy years ensued, without bogus cathedral windows and four-car garages and faux-Belgian cobblestones and Philistines for neighbors. This situation put me in the uncomfortable position of having to root against my own country. As long as the housing industry was flat on its back, life was good.

I really wish that the economy were not so dependent upon the health of home builders. I would love to root for these guys. I really would. But they build trash. They tear down adorable bungalows and build McMansions in Princeton, N.J. In Chicago, in Boston, in Los Angeles and even in little old Easton, Pa., they are bulldozing whatever stands in their way and throwing up their eyesores. Throwing up being the operative term.

What does he really think? I wonder if this is closely tied to what he suggests is a personal experience with nearby houses. It is one thing to dislike McMansions on the whole and argue they are bad for society – like Thomas Frank suggested a few months ago – but then not live by them. In fact, a lot of social problems are like this: we know there are bad things happening in our county, state, country, and around the world but it is different when they are removed and abstract. There is some of that argument here: such homes are ugly, he doesn’t want to have to rely on the housing industry so much, etc.

It is another thing if a new McMansion under construction greets you every morning when you walk out your front door. Or if construction projects take a really long time. Are these concerns the result of teardowns where a historic neighborhood is threatened?

Chicago McMansion battle reaches the McMansion pumpkin stage

One battle over a proposed McMansion in Chicago recently turned to pumpkins:

The large pumpkin popped up over the weekend next to his lot at 829 S. Bishop St. It was painted with the words, “When size matters … McMansion Pumpkin.”

Many neighbors have referred to Skarbek’s plan for his home as a “McMansion.” He plans to build a home much larger than the row home that had been there, and the home will eventually interrupt a string of front yards that are all set back from the street…

Later Tuesday, Skarbek’s next-door neighbor, Paul Fitzpatrick, said his wife decorated the pumpkin, which actually sits on his yard to the north of a fence surrounding Skarbek’s lot while the new home is being built.

“I meant it as a good gesture,” Carrie Fitzpatrick said. “He likes big houses, so I thought he’d like a big pumpkin. I spent a lot of money on that pumpkin, and if it backfired, I’ll feel really stupid.”

A holiday-themed McMansion fight turned petty. Both sides appear to be trying to pass it off as no big deal but even in a country of moral minimalism (the argument of M. P Baumgartner in The Moral Order of a Suburb), this is an odd way to go about things. If the neighbors are already pursuing a lawsuit, the other main way for Americans to settle irreconcilable differences, why move to the pumpkin stage?

More on Twitter co-founder and his teardown vs. neighbors in San Francisco

I recently wrote about Twitter co-founder Evan Williams’ fight with his San Francisco neighbors over his proposed teardown McMansion. Here is more information about the story:

“We don’t want nouveau riches McMansions sprouting up all over our ridges,” one resident wrote to San Francisco’s Planning Department.

And here, at least, is one local example of the side-effect of a tech boom that the city has fought hard to fuel. San Francisco worked hard in particular to convince Twitter to keep its headquarters in town in hopes that it would amp up the tech scene north of Silicon Valley. Williams, who is 40, was Twitter’s CEO before stepping down in 2010 to support more tech startups…

The strife started after Williams and Lundberg Design, the design firm hired by Williams, contacted neighbors about the couple’s plans. A couple of longtime residents quickly began circulating a handwritten flyer around the neighborhood, decrying the “APPALLING” plan to demolish a “widely coveted, unique and historic (to most) house.”

“TEAR DOWN is NEEDLESS, WASTEFUL, POLLUTION, DISRESPECTFUL,” the flyer said in all caps. It asked people to send in one letter per person if possible because “volume counts.”…

Williams isn’t alone in his neighborhood woes. Other high tech moguls have run into opposition from neighbors, including late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who was trying to demolish a Woodside property and rebuild as well, and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who sued his Pacific Heights neighbors last year for their overgrown trees. Ellison’s Pacific Heights residence was, coincidentally, designed by Lundberg Design.

Sounds quite contentious. The columnist suggests San Francisco might have to change a little if it wants to keep important firms; what if the Twitter co-founder threatened to move away, taking away tax revenue and jobs? Communities compete against each other by offering tax breaks or other incentives so couldn’t corporations and their leaders make stipulations about housing issues?

When you don’t like a teardown home, call it a McMansion

A local official in the Philadelphia suburbs writes about a Lower Merion site where a notable older home was torn down and now a home home is being constructed. What is interesting here is how the official describes how preservationists are using the term “McMansion” as part of their criticism of the new house:

Those who criticize the Kestenbaum residence built in La Ronda’s place are trying to deflect blame for their own failure over many years. Their use of terms such as “McMansion,” “McMonstrosity,” and “cookie cutter” demonstrates ignorance of what Kestenbaum is actually building.

I have toured the construction site and can report that Kestenbaum is building a home befitting the historic traditions of craftsmanship and old-world elegance that are hallmarks of the Main Line estates of yesteryear. The home is made of hand-chiseled stone, with extensive masonry work and important architectural details throughout.

The home bears no resemblance to the cookie-cutter McMansions found in expensive tract housing elsewhere in the Philadelphia region. To so characterize the Kestenbaum residence is insulting, incendiary, and ignorant.

I have met the neighbors of the new Kestenbaum home. I have spoken to property owners with a real interest in what happens in their community and their neighborhood. Their reaction to the new construction is consistent with what I have reported. The responses of so-called neighbors described recently in The Inquirer are in fact those of a few preservationists who are continuing to pursue their one-sided agenda, regardless of whom they hurt in the process or what falsehoods they promote.

It seems that the use of the term “McMansion” is quite effective here, hence the response from this local official. The term suggests that the new home is a “cookie-cutter” home lacking in appropriate architecture. Compared to the older home that was on the site (and you can read a bit more about it here), preservationists see the new home as a travesty (see an example here). Overall, this new home is likely quite different than the suburban McMansions that one might expect to find not too far away. But by using this pejorative term in a teardown situation (an older home replaced with a newer home), preservationists have tied this new home, however nice it may be, to negative images of the exurbs.

This story also provides an example of questions that pop up in communities throughout the United States: what exactly should be done with older homes, particularly well-designed estates?