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.

Comparing the costs of tearing down versus renovating a home

Could it cost less money to buy and teardown a home than to renovate it? Here is one data point from a 2015 story about teardowns in the Chicago area:

The teardown candidates aren’t just tiny bungalows this time. Developers are targeting larger houses as well, particularly if they sit on coveted property. Antiquated plumbing, the absence of upscale amenities such as media rooms, and the high cost of gut rehabbing (roughly $300 a square foot, versus $200 for new construction) are pushing homes on North Shore lots near the lake into early retirement. Two properties that sold for around $4 million each in 2014—one in Wilmette and one in Winnetka—are on their way to the scrap yard, says Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices KoenigRubloff agent Joseph Nash. Both were on three-quarter-acre lots with private beaches, and the Winnetka house had seven bedrooms—big and nice, but apparently not nice enough.

At various points, I’ve thought about what might happen to much of the aging suburban housing stock in the United States. Many of those homes, small or large, will be slowly renovated over time. Depending on the neighborhood as well as the desirability of the individual homes, renovation could take place at faster or slower rates. Yet, will there be a point when many of the older suburban homes will be demolished? How long can they be maintained or renovated? If they need to be demolished, who has the money to replace them and if they are replaced, will the residents be able to stay?

From an economic perspective, presumably the money spent renovating the older homes will at some point surpass the cost of building new ones (that may also be of better quality and more up to code) and living in those. Yet, this ignores a lot of features of homes and their construction:

  1. They are part of neighborhoods and communities. People often enjoy having a certain character when they purchase in a particular place. This character is often related to the homes present as well as to a unified character on streets.
  2. Some will want to keep renovating them. (Clearly, however, others will not – hence, we have teardowns.)
  3. They may be able to last a lot longer than critics gave them credit for. (One of the common complaints about mass produced suburban homes is that they are of poor quality. While this may be true, it does not necessarily mean that they are uninhabitable or cannot be improved over the decades.)
  4. Replacing large swaths of suburban housing requires both foresight and funds. Who is willing to look that far into the future? Who has the resources to undertake large projects in this domain rather than working with the occasional house here and there?

For now, most of the news we hear about replacing suburban homes tends to be in wealthier communities where teardowns are desirable. This may change in the near future.

Could a community be green and have a lot of McMansions?

An Australian community is moving to become a garden city even as there is a demand for teardown McMansions:

The Monash Urban Landscape and Canopy Vegetation Draft Strategy suggests increasing canopy cover in Monash from 22 to 30 per cent by 2040.

Councillor Geoff Lake, who submitted amendments to the plan, said the people of Monash felt strongly about vegetation protection overlays…

“In particular, concerns related to overdevelopment on blocks where the site is razed to build a ‘McMansion’ and vegetation is not retained or replaced,” Cr Paterson said.

She said the council acknowledged that people valued the green character of Monash.

While it sounds like the vegetation plan is partly in response to teardowns, it could lead to an interesting scenario: a community that is both green and has a number of McMansions. The two are often assumed to not be compatible. McMansions are viewed as wasteful, whether because they are part of sprawling settings or provide unnecessary amounts of private space or use mass-produced materials. Garden cities, in contrast, feature plenty of green space alongside greener housing.

I have hinted at this in earlier posts: could we reach a point where McMansions are compatible with green settings? Imagine big homes with garish architecture that are built with eco-friendly materials and in settings that limit some of the worst features of sprawl. I suspect it may be difficult to convince McMansion critics that such homes could ever be green but given the public’s interest in such homes plus the ability to brand numerous products as green, the day where we have green McMansions may indeed come.

Can neighbors act respectfully toward a nearby teardown McMansion owner?

McMansions constructed in established neighborhoods can draw the ire of neighbors but one resident of Frederick, Maryland suggests civility should win the day:

As for the Magnolia Avenue controversy, the proposed house to be built is certainly not a mass-built, PUD-style “McMansion.” I believe it is just like the one being built near West Second Street and College. I walked down Magnolia the other day and there are numerous, very nice modifications to existing homes that I believe are inconsistent with the original architecture and a couple of houses that have been remodeled that don’t look like others there. I don’t think those modifications would have been allowed if this neighborhood were in the historical preservation area. I think the Artises’ home will be a great asset to the neighborhood. But now is not the time to restrict the Artises’ property rights after they made a significant financial decision based on existing laws and regulations.

I have met the Artis family. They are really nice people, and I believe any neighborhood would love to have them as their neighbor. Regardless of how this all turns out, I hope that we all remember that this is about a family more than it is about a house, and that our comments and discussions should remain kind and respectful — because we may be getting some nice new neighbors soon. We can’t just roll up the sidewalks once we move in and not allow anyone else in.

Granted, this resident is in favor of property rights and does not seem to mind the particular proposed home. But, the larger question is intriguing: is a McMansion next door or down the street worth incivility for years or a lifetime? The examples cited in the media – such as neighbors suing each other or consistently bringing the issue to the local government – suggest this is hard to do. Many would feel strongly if their immediate surroundings were impacted in a way that they felt was (1) negative and harmful as well as (2) unnecessary. Some would say that the teardown McMansion infringes on their quality of life and finances. They would suggest their anger and actions are justified.

At the same time, there are thousands of teardowns across the United States each year. How do the neighbors treat each other? Do they welcome the new homeowner to the neighborhood? If they dislike the new home, is there a frostiness that lasts a long time or does it eventually thaw? (For example, would someone deny their kid the chance to play with the kid in the new McMansion?) Perhaps the real answer is that many communities do not have thriving local social interactions to start with so the teardown issues do not matter much in the long run.

For more background on this particular case in Frederick, read here.

Jake Paul, celebrities, and a behavior code for McMansion dwellers

Jake Paul is angering his neighbors while living in a Los Angeles McMansion and this raises a number of questions about with whom the term McMansion is used:

The 20-year-old, who first became internet-famous on the now defunct app Vine, has been living with friends and “coworkers” in a Beverly Grove rental near Melrose and Kilkea. Mic reports they use the house as ground zero for loud parties and for some of his “stunts,” including lighting a pile of furniture on fire in the house’s drained pool and popping wheelies on a dirt bike on the street…

Paul has been living in the McMansion-style contemporary—where rent is $17,459 per month, MLS records show—since June 2016. (Paul is reportedly pulling in “millions” of dollars and is an actor on the Disney Channel show Bizaardvark, so he can afford it.)

The house is described on the MLS as having five bedrooms and five bathrooms. It was recently a Spanish-style duplex, but building permits show a new house was built on the site in 2016.

Beverly Grove has long fought against McMansionization of the neighborhood. Now many neighbors may be wondering, if they didn’t build it, would Jake Paul have come?

Three related questions:

  1. Can people who live in McMansions criticize others for ruining the neighborhood? Or, are the people complaining about Paul also the same ones opposed to McMansions? As the last sentence quoted above suggests, once you start letting in McMansions, it is hard to stop them.
  2. Is there a behavior code for McMansion owners? If your neighbors already don’t like your house, which may often be the case with teardowns, perhaps it would be best to lay low and try not to ruffle many feathers. On one hand, there is a stereotype that McMansion owners are the types who drive in and out of their cars without seeing anyone else yet there are often presumed to be people who have to prove something (and this comes out through their house and maybe through other behavior).
  3. Are McMansions more acceptable for celebrities and wealthy people? When people generally use the term, they are referring to more middle or upper-middle class who are trying to show off their wealth. But, celebrities typically have more resources than the average person. At the same time, the truly wealthy celebrities live in mansions that are far beyond typical McMansions.

To sum up, I would argue that celebrities who don’t antagonize their neighbors are rarely accused of living in McMansions.

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.

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.