Monday, June 23, 2014

McMansions Feeding on Urban Trend

It's the trend that wasn't supposed to happen.

McMansionization.  The phenomenon of tearing down relatively diminutive, unimpressive homes to construct super-sized trophy homes.  Some people call them monster homes.  Like they're trying to gobble up the old 'hood.

It's a result of mostly white, mostly wealthy Americans returning to the cities their ancestors practically abandoned just a generation or two ago.

And just as unpredictably, it's driving a lot of people nuts.

As suburbanization and white flight decimated America's inner cities after World War II, many experts wrote an epitaph for the urban core.  Even as scholars hoped some sort of miracle could help reinvigorate neighborhoods that were dying all around our country's downtowns, it looked more and more like nothing could dim the popularity of suburbia.

But something unexpected happened on the way to limitless sprawl.  Inner-city living quietly became desirable.  And not among the poor, who couldn't ever have afforded to leave for suburbia, or the non-whites, who where usually shunned in suburbia, but by relatively wealthy whites.

Even though many jobs had decamped from downtown skyscrapers and followed their employees to the 'burbs, plenty had not, and those workers were getting tired of their mind-numbing commutes.  Then too, as manufacturing left the urban core for suburbia, and then overseas, a lot of abandoned yet funky, solid buildings were available on the cheap, which attracted the interest of our post-industrial creative class.

As suburbanization had run amok across the country, a lot of people had begun to question the rationale of bulldozing trees for cookie-cutter subdivisions, placing shopping and employment districts along freeways, instead of within communities, and intentionally excluding most all mass transit options except school buses.  And eventually, the more people inched along for hours along those traffic-choked freeways, and had time to wonder what was so awful about those inner-city neighborhoods they were driving through to reach a better quality of life in the 'burbs, it began to dawn on more and more commuters:  that quality of life I'm supposed to have in suburbia is being spent on these freeways!  If we lived closer to the office, we could be home by now, or at least in our local artisanal coffee shop or wine bar.

Suddenly, suburbia wasn't so attractive anymore.  And the exurbs don't really solve any of the problems new generations are finding with suburbia.  Besides, there's still that commute, which only gets longer the further away you purchase your home.

At first, the return to America's cities took the form of infill development, and the remodeling of dilapidated yet salvageable  properties that had survived half a century of white flight and suburbanization.  But the cheapest spots in the newly-desirable neighborhoods eventually filled in, and the choicest of the old homes that had lost their luster were eventually renewed up to and beyond even their former glory.  Along the way, in the trendiest old neighborhoods, new apartment buildings and townhomes sprouted, boasting architecture intended to make them look old, yet modern.

It was all hip, sophisticated, and cool.  It was urbane.  And prices began to climb.

Inevitably, this tide of new-and-renewed had saturated whatever vacant land could have been built upon, or whatever old homes could be easily remodeled.  And not every family moving back to the urban core wants to live in apartments.  So urbanism's newcomers have turned to what they believe to be the next best thing:  tearing down existing homes, and constructing brand-new ones.

But it hasn't necessarily been the next best thing.

It sounds like a good idea, in theory.  Keep the walkable neighborhood, with the grand, mature trees, and the quick commute to employment and hip new restaurants.  Find the least-attractive, worst-preserved, and smallest of houses in aging single-family neighborhoods, tear them down, and in their place, build a house with amenities you would want in suburbia, and you see no reason to deny yourself just because you're back in the city.

Hey, you're improving the neighborhood by increasing property values and removing from the streetscape something that was likely an eyesore.

But eyesores are in the eyes of the beholder, aren't they?  And while it is true that a man's home is his castle, some of these new houses are practically, literally, castles.  Right next-door to far smaller, far more humble domiciles.

Which begs the question these days:  are the older homes the eyesore, or the new McMansions squatting awkwardly in their midst?

Back in the day, most urban neighborhoods were built just like suburban and exurban subdivisions are:  by the same developer, or groups of developers, who pretty much adhere to a similar style so they can save money on construction costs.  Whether it's a street of row houses in Washington, DC or Brooklyn, or a street of detached single-family ranch houses in Dallas, most of what was originally built shared similar facades, street set-backs, rooflines, and materials.  They may have looked exactly the same, or they may have all featured a different floorplan, but taken as a whole, every house on the block looked like it belonged there.  There was a level of continuity, cohesiveness, and character that made it feel like a community.

Plus, their sales prices when new were all fairly similar, meaning that a consistent lifestyle could be expected from the neighborhood.  Some city planners complain that such an economic consistency has been part of American society for far too long, but when it comes to money, few of us have been eager to share our block with people far poorer than us, or even far richer.  Poor neighbors can drive property values down, and rich neighbors can drive taxes out of our reach.

With today's McMansions, however, the diversity some city planners say we've needed has definitely arrived, but it probably doesn't look like anything even the most optimistic social scientists envisioned.  In the most desirable neighborhoods of inner-city Dallas, for example, two- and three-level homes tower over short ranch-style cottages, often on double lots.  On some blocks, McMansionization has virtually wiped out all of the original, smaller homes, actually neutralizing the stark differences that would otherwise be apparent.  But most blocks are still in transition, and likely will be for a while, since early homesteaders from suburbia are still paying off the remodeling expenses they accumulated before the McMansion craze took over their neighborhood.  The effect is odd at best:  cute, fresh, modernized old homes next door to impossibly large, garish new houses that are proportioned more for an estate than an urban lot.

Today, the Washington Post has an article featuring a ridiculously tall, remodeled town house along a tired row of diminutive, historic ones, all attached, and all with the same roofline, with the exception of this goofy-looking interloper.

The monster home craze is taking an odd turn in some college neighborhoods, such as the pre-war districts near Fort Worth's popular Texas Christian University.  Developers have been purchasing old, often ramshackle houses near campus, and constructing monster buildings that look like single-family houses, but are actually private dormitories for students, not residents who want to become a part of the neighborhood long-term.

Even in New York City, where exorbitant land costs have kept the McMansion craze to a minimum, the "mansions" developers are now building in Manhattan are monster apartments.  They're created either by combining several existing smaller apartments into one huge one, building several multi-level penthouses on the top of new buildings, or even gutting the first five levels or so of an otherwise conventional apartment building and turning the space into one huge condominium.

Why do less wealthy New Yorkers have a problem with this idea?  Well, for the ground floor trophy apartments (desirable because they usually have an exclusive entrance off of the street), their creation occurs in the space where shops, restaurants, and doctors offices have traditionally been located.  That means a building's residents lose amenities, and the sidewalk loses commercial energy as a blank wall for a private residence replaces a pedestrian-friendly enterprise.

Plus, the more apartments are combined, that many apartments get taken off of the city's housing inventory, driving up housing prices on an island that can never seem to have enough housing.

On the one hand, a property owner should be able to build whatever kind of house he wants, can afford, and can maintain.  Within reason, of course.  Few people, for example, would want to live next-door to a structure shaped like a 60-foot water tower that the owner claims is a house.  And in Fort Worth's case with student housing being built near TCU, it's hard to deny neighbors their frustration with developers appearing to abuse single-family zoning rules.

At its core, however, the monster home phenomenon is more than zoning, or even money.  It's about changing values; only in this case, whose values are worth more?  Some people, particularly those who own smaller, older homes, don't mind whatever inconveniences such structures present their family.  Or they don't live the lifestyle that requires a lot of space and modern luxury.  Two bathrooms as opposed to four?  A separate dining area?  A media room?  Twelve-foot ceilings as opposed to 8'6"?  How much of what today's self-indulgent family wants in their home is truly necessary?  And just because you can afford to build it, should you?

Meanwhile, why can't a family pour money into their big home, particularly if they view home ownership as a safe place to put a lot of their money?  Sure, the larger the home, the more energy it needs, and the more things you'll need to fix.  But if the homeowner can afford it, why should the neighbors care?  Builders claim modern homes are far more energy-efficient than most older homes, so whose structure is more wasteful per square foot?

Sometimes, of course, a developer or a builder will tear down a legitimate eyesore and instantly improve a neighborhood by replacing the older structure with something new and more appropriate.  But such projects seem to be more the exception than the rule. 

Nevertheless, if the main issue here involves changing values, whether it's the aesthetics of what a house looks like, or the size required to accommodate how a family wants to live, or even the fact that close-in neighborhoods are now more attractive to more people than those in the 'burbs, how should that change be transacted?  How should the people pursuing the change act?

McMansionization can be a significant component of the broader phenomenon of gentrification, which is itself complex and divisive.  However, gentrification typically involves vast socioeconomic changes within a previously marginalized neighborhood, whereas McMansions usually sprout the most in neighborhoods that managed to remain somewhat stable throughout their city's war with suburbia.

At its worst, McMansionization happens because people who can afford to have what they want to have usually get it.  And it's the worst side of McMansionization that attracts the most attention, isn't it?  It's the imperiousness, the disdain for what currently exists - and who currently exists.  It's the idea that my ability to do something is more important than your inability to do something, and that somehow, being unable to tear down your house and build a new one to match my McMansion makes you morally inferior.  And you are morally inferior; otherwise, I'd have to take your opinions into consideration if I'm going to be your next-door neighbor.

But of course, a lot of people who build McMansions don't necessarily care about their neighbors.  Or at least - the neighbors who've likely lived through the block's dark days, and survived.  Perhaps it's that cavalier attitude about a neighborhood's history, where people have lived and died, and families have grown up, that most bothers those of us who either don't want, don't need, or can't afford the McMansions other families desire.

In another fifty years, what will these neighborhoods look like?  Will they have transitioned mostly to McMansions, like several popular Dallas neighborhoods have already done?  Will the streetscape resemble a city skyline, with homes of various heights and shapes up and down the block?  Will these big homes be able to hold their value?  Value both in terms of their resale price, and the values their families represent?

It's a trend that wasn't supposed to happen.  So, even with all of the negatives that have come along with it, the fact that it has happened isn't all bad news for cities.  McMansionization has proven that people can still find value in old neighborhoods, even if they don't respect the people who preceded them there.

Let's hope we can learn some lessons from this within the next half-century, before McMansionization reverts to the suburbs.

Like that will ever happen.

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