Teardown a home for a new parsonage that may not be a McMansion

What happens when the needs of a church for a larger parsonage converge with the interests present in a district of older single-family homes where teardown McMansions occur? Here is a case from the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta:

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Peachtree Road United Methodist Church aims to demolish a historic Buckhead Forest house for a new parsonage, stirring preservationist concerns.

The 81-year-old house at 3210 West Shadowlawn Ave. is listed as contributing to the Alberta Drive-Mathieson Drive-West Shadowlawn Avenue Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2015. But that does not prevent demolition and the property has no City historic protections. The church claims the house is “uninhabitable” and can’t meet its mother organization’s requirements for large parsonages…

The historic district application was filed with the National Park Service in 2014 by the Georgia Historic Preservation Division. The filing says the neighborhoods are historically significant as part of a building boom that followed a 1907 trolley line extension on Peachtree, and for its wealth of intact architecture dating from the 1910s through the 1960s. West Shadowlawn, the filing says, was named for a subdivision called Shadow Lawn, which started construction in 1922. The filing includes a photo of the house at 3210. The main church property is not included in the historic district.

Rev. Bill Britt, the church’s senior minister, told the DRC that the plan is to build a parsonage as a home for a member of its clergy who currently rents elsewhere in the city. The existing one-story house would be replaced with a larger, two-story version…

Project architect Brandon Ingram noted that many houses on the street date to the period of the 1920s through 1940s. He said the church wanted the new parsonage to be be “respectful” of that aesthetic and look “a little bit more vintage” rather than “some giant Buckhead McMansion.”

This sounds like a typical teardown situation: there is an older property in a desirable single-family home neighborhood that needs some work. It does not have modern features or the size of new homes today. A property owner wants to tear it down and build a new home. Some in the community want to preserve the old home and worry that a new home changes the local character. Some in the community want property owners to have the right to do what they want with their property and be able to reap the benefits of what might come along.

Does it change the situation if it is a local church that wants to pursue the teardown? The church will likely profit from a teardown – increased property value, a newer home – but it is also a community or non-profit actor and not just a private owner. The church has been around a long time and the parsonage may not change hands for a long time. The intended use is for church staff.

Is a church that is a long-term member of the community less likely to construct a McMansion and instead lean more toward the existing architecture of the neighborhood? Trying to picture a McMansion nearby a historic looking church building – see image below – does not work as well as imagining a McMansion near a newer megachurch in the sprawling suburbs.

Google Street View of Peachtree Road United Methodist Church

If religious congregations are in the business of building McMansions, there may be an interesting story to tell.

Teardown McMansions in Tampa

A large number of teardown McMansions have been constructed in recent years in Tampa:

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Nearly 5,000 residential demolition permits have been issued in Tampa in the last decade — including 709 in 2021. That’s the most in any single year since at least 2005, according to city data.

“Having all of these homes torn down is a wrinkle we haven’t had before,” says Tampa historian Rodney Kite-Powell, “and the pace is really incredible.”

A blogger has tried to keep up with“The McMansioning of South Tampa.” About 2,700 razed dwellings are pictured. Some of the lost homes are majestic and sad. Many, though, were tired and untended. The sheer volume is beyond what a single blogger could chronicle. Ten of the 14 homes knocked down this century on Jerry’s block aren’t depicted on the site’s map. Even so, the layers upon layers of red pins are striking…

Not everyone is happy. Search the local Nextdoor site for the term “McMansions” and you’ll encounter one of the more passionate running discussions in the city. When a one-story home came on the market at the start of the pandemic, neighbors implored the owner to seek a buyer who would maintain it. “I beg you not to sell it to a builder that will level it and build a ridiculously oversized McMansion that ruins the charm of our neighborhood,” wrote Lisa Donaldson. “Please.”…

Others counter that the older homes are no longer functional and that the newer onesraise the value of those around them. “The curmudgeons will always complain … until they are ready to cash out,” posted Marc Edelman. “Tampa is progressing for the better.”

A few quick thoughts in response:

  1. If just looking at economic factors, teardowns tend to occur in desirable neighborhoods where the new homes can fetch a significant profit compared to the previous dwelling.
  2. Socially, teardowns are more difficult to navigate given the competing interests of property owners who want to make money, builders and developers looking for opportunities, neighbors who might be opposed to a changing neighborhood, those interested in local history and preservation who might prefer to keep older dwellings, and local leaders who may or may not support teardowns.
  3. Sunbelt cities and communities have experienced much growth in recent decades. People are used to change and growing populations. But, this is a different kind of change where existing homes are replaced rather than new subdivisions spreading across available land. There is now an established landscape that could look quite different in coming decades.
  4. Sunbelt communities are generally pro-growth. Does this change at some point given population sizes and composition, the availability of resources, and several decades of established history?

McMansions as part of or outside of a changing suburbia?

This description of the changing American suburbs includes McMansions:

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The demand for something like urban living is real. Even at the outer edges of growing metro areas, mixed-use walkable developments pop up alongside familiar subdivisions and McMansions. “Mixed-use centers—often in suburban locations—continue to be built from the ground up in many communities across the US,” wrote the Congress for the New Urbanism in 2019.

As more immigrants and millennials become suburbanites, and as Covid and remote work give the suburbs another growth spurt, they are evolving into something different. Between 2019 and 2020, the share of millennials who live in suburbs increased by 4 percentage points; and in 2014, more than 60 percent of immigrants lived in suburbs, up from just over half in 2000.

Many communities that were once white, exclusionary, and car-dependent are today diverse and evolving places, still distinct from the big city but just as distinct from their own “first draft” more than a half-century ago…

If a “second draft” of the suburbs is now being written — at least in some of America’s growing and expensive metro areas — what might it actually look like?

This is part of the complex suburbia we have today. Where do McMansions fit into this? The selection above suggests “mixed-use walkable developments” are near McMansions. But, what happens to the McMansions in the long run? Here are a few options:

  1. The McMansions continue in their neighborhoods for those that want them. Even amid proclamations that McMansions are dead, there are some homebuyers and suburbanites that want such homes.
  2. McMansions themselves are altered in ways to fit the new landscape. Perhaps they are subdivided into multiple units for more affordable housing. They could be added to. Their properties could host accessory dwelling units.
  3. McMansions are demolished and replaced with something else. This could be because the quality of the homes does not stand the test of time or the land is more valuable used another way (some of the teardowns become teardowns).
  4. Some McMansions live on through historic preservation marking a particular era of housing and American life.

For some, McMansions represent the peak of an undesirable suburban sprawl and excess. For others, they are homes that provide a lot for a decent price. Their long-term fate is to be determined both by those who like them and those who detest them as the suburbs continue to change.

If you replace a suburban colonial with “a very modern house” rather than a McMansion, is this a win?

A profile a recent teardown in Bethesda, Maryland highlights that the new structure is not a McMansion:

Teardowns can often raise concerns in established neighborhoods when a McMansion suddenly arises in a collection of bungalows. The design team didn’t want that to happen. “We didn’t want it to look like a UFO just landed in their yard,” Bloomberg says. “We looked at scale, proportion and massing.”

This quote above highlights what the new home is: it is has better scale, proportion, and massing compared to McMansions which tend to get these wrong. It was designed by an architectural firm rather than builders.

The best text description of the new home is this paragraph:

“Everything feels very scaled,” Bloomberg says. “It has a warmth to it even though it’s a very modern house – there [is] lots of wood, which helps make it very warm and welcoming.”

The pictures of the interior reinforce this description: it is a more modern structure.

But, one picture early on in the article hints at a contrast between the new home and the neighbor:

The teardown does not appear to be that much different in size than the neighbor but it certainly presents a different style of home compared to the brick and shuttered Colonial. Teardown McMansions are often criticized not fitting in with the existing style of homes.

I have asked before: would Americans prefer to live next to a McMansion or a modernist home? The article says “there has been no neighborhood backlash” to this new teardown. Now, what happens if a teardown McMansion goes up next to this modern home…

Too many teardown McMansions in the Washington, D.C. region?

One writer complains of the spread of “infill McMansions” in the Washington D.C. region:

An example of a teardown McMansion – Naperville, Illinois

The modus operandi is always the same: Take a totally usable older house that is the same style and size as neighboring dwellings, though perhaps needing a rehab, and knock it flat, along with every mature tree on the property—there will be no room for them, owing to the enormous footprint of the planned structure. Then construct a particle-board chateau that has at least 75 percent more square footage than the neighbors, complete with a quarter-acre driveway for the obligatory Range Rover…

While the sheer size of the structure guarantees disharmony with the local houses, the eye-lacerating incongruity of its style brings it to a new level. The structures resemble the architecture of the Loire Valley, Elizabethan England, or Renaissance Tuscany—as imagined by Walt Disney, or perhaps Liberace. As with McMansions everywhere, the new owners could have obtained a sounder design for less, but they prefer the turrets, portes-cochères, and ill-proportioned Palladian windows that they bought.

The basic proportions are unfailingly clumsy. The roofs aren’t symmetrical, so that one more giant walk-in closet could be shoehorned in. From the side, this asymmetry and the too-small windows make the construct look like an old sawmill in the Pacific Northwest, or a three-story wooden barracks hurriedly thrown up during World War II. Some manage to look imposing from the front, mimicking George Mason’s brick mansion. But closer inspection reveals the fraud: The front is a brick veneer; the sides and back consist of vinyl siding. Often enough, the brick is a shocking uremic yellow…

The infill McMansion spectacle is a warning and a symptom, like political polarization, of the rising income inequality and concomitant decline of community feeling in the United States. It is not something that fell out of the sky, but a phenomenon that was carefully engineered by financial management.

Having just published an article on suburban teardowns outside Chicago, it is interesting to see similar processes at work in wealthier communities in another region.

Even as the focus of this piece is on a particular kind of McMansion – the teardown McMansion – the critique of McMansions hits multiple aspects of such homes I identified in a 2012 article. Here is what I see above:

-Teardowns are a problem in multiple ways. They often do not fit the architecture of neighborhood. They take up too much of the lot on which they are built.

-The size of the teardown and the incongruity with the existing homes are not the only problems: the architecture of the home is subpar. A McMansion can take multiple architectural features and styles and try to mash them together in an imposing array of size and newness.

-McMansions are problematic houses but also symbols of other significant societal problems. The article notes income inequality and a lack of community plus financial intrusion in housing.

So, yes, critics argue teardowns or infill McMansions have some unique disadvantages. But, these concerns about teardowns are connected to concerns about McMansions as a whole.

New publication – More than 300 Teardowns Later: Patterns in Architecture and Location among Teardowns in Naperville, Illinois, 2008-2017

I recently published an article in the Journal of Urban Design (online first) analyzing several hundred teardowns in Naperville, Illinois. Here is the abstract (and several of the pictures I took for the study depicting recent teardowns):

Analyzing before and after images of 349 teardowns between 2008 and 2017 in the wealthy and sprawling suburb of Naperville, Illinois, shows patterns in aesthetic choices and their fit in older neighbourhoods. First, the teardowns are significantly larger and have different features including larger garages and more windows. Second, over 60% of the teardowns feature Victorian styling. Third, the teardowns are often next to other teardowns in desirable neighbourhoods near the suburb’s vibrant downtown. These visual findings show how teardowns that add to the housing stock often imitate common architectural styles yet exhibit disparate features compared to older neighbouring homes.

This project had several starting points.

First, I started studying the phenomenon of McMansions back in graduate school and eventually published a study looking at how the term was used in the New York Times and the Dallas Morning News. The idea of a McMansion has multiple dimensions – size, relative size, poor architecture and design, and a symbol for other issues including sprawl and conspicuous consumption – and the word can be used differently across locations.

Second, I started studying Naperville in graduate school as part of a larger project examining suburban growth and development. I published some of this research in two places: (1) examining consequential character moments in different suburbs, including Naperville, and (2) analyzing the surprising population growth in Naperville that helped take it from a small suburb to a thriving boomburb. Naperville is a unique suburban community with lots of teardown activity in recent decades.

Third, I am broadly interested in housing. This is particularly important for suburbs where owning and protecting single-family homes – and all that comes with it – are primary goals. Additionally, residential segregation based on housing is a powerful force in American society.

All three of these streams helped lead to this project. And there is a lot more that could be done in this area as teardowns affect numerous neighborhoods and communities in the United States.

An additional reason to dislike Chicago McMansions: contributing to lower population density

One Chicago observer suggests teardown McMansions impoverish the city in three ways: they suburbanize neighborhoods, they are poorly built and do not fit in with the architectural context of the city, and help lower the population density of neighborhoods. More on this third point:

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But Chicago’s density is declining, and some of the city’s most prominent neighborhoods have actually started to lose residents. Lincoln Par, once home to 102,000 people, barely housed 70,000 in 2020. Lakeview, once holding 124,000, was at 103,050 around the same time. North Center had decreased from 48,000 to 35,114, and nearby community such as West Town and Bucktown had similar fallen in scale.

These neighborhoods are becoming more expensive, and much of this de-densification may be due to a “spreading out” of sorts; wealthier people are moving in and are able to afford more space.

But there’s more to it than that. Previously, when a neighborhood in Chicago was in demand, builders capitalized, and the housing stock swelled. Chicago’s zoning laws, however, have changed, and while they allow for high-rise development in various downtown areas, they prohibit this same approach in neighborhoods. One thing is for sure, though: No matter how strict the zoning ode is in residential areas, single-family homes are pretty much always allowed.

One theory, termed “The homevoter hypothesis,” speculates that this is due to the control that homeowners have on urban development. Their interests have the most influence on local aldermen and, therefore, residential development. The good of the community and the city is not a factor in their agenda, which instead focuses on home value growth, and how to wield zoning changes in order to achieve it.

The argument seems to make sense: those who want to live in more well-off Chicago neighborhoods bring resources and an interest in larger homes. This could mean converting structures to single-family homes or tearing down older structures and starting over from scratch. If there is indeed an increase in larger single-family homes in Chicago, there should be data to support this. Anecdotally, my occasional travels in some of these neighborhoods suggests a good number of new homes nestled between two-flats and three-flats.

Additionally, there may be other forces at work that could also be leading to de-densification in Chicago neighborhoods:

  1. Chicago residents are leaving neighborhoods faster than people want to come in, regardless of what housing stock is available. The population is down in a number of neighborhoods across the city.
  2. The demand for new housing is higher in locations in and around the Loop because of the concentration of jobs and cultural opportunities plus the activity of developers. While Chicago has been known as a city of neighborhoods for a long time, the neighborhoods might not be as hot as the center.
  3. Developers and builders also want these new single-family homes because they can make a lot of money on each property.

Put all of this together and the new Chicago McMansions represent a change to numerous streets and neighborhoods.

Chicago as “the nation’s capital of deconversions” from condos to apartments

Henry Grabar suggests Chicago is ground zero for efforts to convert condos to apartments:

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Stories like this make Chicago the perfect place to understand how condos usually meet their end—not in a pile of rubble, but in a buyout that leaves some owners feeling lucky and others feeling betrayed. Lauren Kerchill, the owner of a Gold Coast unit overlooking Lake Michigan, was a holdout when investors came to buy out her building. After fighting to toss her condo board, she told Crain’s Chicago Business she was called “petty,” “greedy,” and “uneducated.” She just didn’t think she could find another home like hers nearby. In the end, she didn’t have a choice. Her neighbors voted to sell her building, at 1400 Lake Shore Drive, for $107 million in 2019—another record, this time the most expensive deconversion in the country…

But there’s another side to the story, in which deconversion is the only way out for condo owners stuck in deteriorating properties. In June, the collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, drew attention to the challenges that confront condo boards as they assess structural damage and raise money for repairs. Maintenance bills for the Great American Condo Boom of the ’70s and ’80s are starting to come due in areas like South Florida…

While states like Florida, California, and Hawaii saw tons of new condo construction in the decades after the concept was established in the 1960s, Chicago saw a different kind of boom: older buildings becoming condos. Fearing rent control, facing declining profits, or saddled with obsolete prewar commercial space, landlords in Chicago raced to sell off their units in the 1970s. Yuppies and middle-class workers gobbled up these starter apartments, which provided an easy and cheap entry point to homeownership.

Fifty years later, those buildings are among the oldest condominiums in the country. Owners who have not kept on top of maintenance, and even some who have, sometimes find themselves facing massive repair bills.

It would be interesting to read more about the specific aspects of Chicago’s history, real estate market, and local regulations that play into the the number of condo deconversions in Chicago.

More broadly, this gets at two larger housing issues:

  1. How do deconversions fit with a larger American promotion of homeownership? Condos offer opportunities to offer homeownership opportunities in settings where the single-family home is less possible. But, given market conditions right now, is there now increased interest in having more rental units?
  2. While aging and the associated expenses is an issue for condo buildings, it is also an issue for many more housing units in the United States. What happens to older homes and residences when there is limited interest in repairing them or redeveloping the property? In wealthier communities and desirable locations, there are often developers and individuals interested in rehabbing or rebuilding structures. Hence, teardowns or new residences in suburban downtowns. Elsewhere, replacing or changing housing is a more arduous task.

Would city residents rather live next to a 6,000 sq foot teardown McMansion or a fourplex?

With one proposal in San Francisco to tear down a 1,200 square foot older home and replace it with a 6,000 square foot home, the neighbors say they would rather have a fourplex in its place:

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The even crazier part? One super-rich family can live in 6,000 square feet, but the same-size box in Noe Valley and the majority of San Francisco could not include homes of 1,500 square feet apiece for four families. (This proposal would include an in-law unit, but the city doesn’t check whether they’re occupied, and it’s believed there are thousands of vacant units around the city.)…

“We would 100% support this if it was four families,” said Schwarz, who bought his own home in 2004.

So would his neighbor Steve Boeddeker, who said he’s irked developers are scooping up homes all over the neighborhood to turn them into McMansions and resell them for many millions…

The current rules for McMansions aren’t working. They’re allowed, though neighbors can file a discretionary review application, arguing there are “exceptional and extraordinary circumstances” that require more analysis. Five families have done that for the Noe Valley home, including Shannon Hughes and her husband, Schwarz.

This is an interesting case as San Francisco is often considered ground-zero for issues of overpriced housing, the need for affordable housing, and NIMBY responses to new development.

At least in public comment, few people would say they want to live next to a teardown McMansion. The extra-large size of the new home in comparison to the existing older homes plus the new and poorly regarded architectural design mean that plenty of neighbors do not like the new land use. The teardown is a threat to the existing character of the neighborhood.

At the same time, relatively few residents want to have a single-family neighborhood convert land into higher density residential units. Even as one fourplex is not that many more units, Americans often have negative ideas about renters in apartments or feel that increased density will threaten their property values and neighborhood feel.

My guess is that plenty of urban homeowners would prefer that neither option arrive next door: keep the teardowns and the conversions into multiple units somewhere else. But, if the choice is between the two, the McMansion may be the worst option.

Tearing down a nine year old house to construct an even bigger one

Teardowns often involve demolishing an older home and replacing it with a larger, updated new home. Such development can draw the ire of neighbors. However, teardowns can sometimes involve newer homes. Here is one example from the Chicago suburbs:

The proposed project in Elmhurst, however, involves demolishing an even newer home. Jim Bowen, CEO of Wheaton-based exchange-traded fund sponsor First Trust Portfolios, and his wife, Marisa, plan to knock down a house built in 2012 to create a larger lot for a new house they will build.

In early 2013, Marisa Bowen paid $1 million to buy the newly built, 4,044-square-foot house from its builder. Then, in 2017, the couple paid $440,000 for a vintage, 1,683-square-foot house next door that they subsequently demolished.

In August, the couple received Elmhurst City Council approval for yard setback requirements for a new house they plan to construct on the combined, 0.45-acre property. Elmhurst officials recently told Elite Street the couple has sought a demolition permit for the nine-year-old house. City documents show their plan is to construct a new home with a 5,012-square-foot footprint.

Teardowns require some resources as the purchaser needs to buy the existing home, pay to tear down the home, and then construct a new home. In particular locations, a new, larger home can pay off in significant profits.

This case is a different in several key ways. First, it involves one relatively new home. Teardowns are intended to provide more space and newer features compared to the residence previously on the property. The nine-year old home would appear to have some desirable features: according to several real estate websites, it has roughly 4,000 square feet, it has a three car garage, and is worth more than a million dollars. The proposed new home is even bigger and may have different features.

Second, the teardown involves combining two lots and demolishing an older house in addition to the newer home. This process can sometimes go the other direction: someone takes a larger property, subdivides it, and makes even more money by selling multiple homes. Here, the older home is relatively small by today’s standards: over 1,600 square feet with 3 bedrooms and 2 baths. By tearing down two homes, the new larger house will have more space to fit on a larger corner lot.

Because this involves a newer home and two lots, this is going to take some money. Teardowns require some resources as the purchaser needs to buy the existing home(s), pay to tear down the home(s), and then construct a new home. The payoff can be high, either in resale value compared to what was there before or in a more desirable home for the current owner.