Thursday, January 26, 2006

McMansion Madness

Did you hear that Atlanta has halted the teardown-McMansion syndrome that’s overtaking its popular intown neighborhoods?

As an Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Jan. 20 article reports, it’s a temporary moratorium that stops construction permits in five intown neighborhoods: north Buckhead, Virginia-Highland, Morningside-Lenox Park, Ansley Park-Sherwood Forest and Lake Claire. On Feb. 6 the Atlanta City Council will decide whether to extend the moratorium 120 days and study proposed regulations on height, how close to the street houses can be built, and how much a lot can be raised by adding dirt, among other things.

Dang right it’s controversial. One person’s so-called right to do whatever he or she wants with his or her property (to wit: building a 7,000-square-foot home to tower over the neighboring ranch houses, thus reducing them to the visual status of doghouses) collides with the so-called right not to have one’s historic neighborhood devastated by bloated, out-of-character houses. But is that really a right? (I’m pretty sure it isn’t, though it may well be an admirable and useful goal in some cases.)

What’s in Atlanta’s best interest, long-term? And should Charlotte consider anything similar?

To answer the second question first, yes – but qualified. Some of Charlotte’s most valuable, historic neighborhoods – Myers Park, Eastover and, to a lesser extent Dilworth – are being ravaged by teardowns. Parts of Dilworth are in a historic district. That can delay a teardown and requires new construction to try to fit in.

But old Myers Park is being dismantled, house by house. I wrote two years ago about the David Ovens home (yes, the auditorium is named for him) on Ardsley being demolished. The out-of-proportion 17,000-square-foot house on Queens Road West at Princeton has damaged that street's once harmonious proportions and has become the butt of numerous jokes. Those are just two examples among many.

Even more insidious if not as well-publicized is that smaller, older houses are often the targets. I know Myers Park is more expensive than a lot of neighborhoods, but it’s losing any vestiges of economic diversity, as the small and older houses are bulldozed. And the inflated property values are pushing taxes beyond the reach of people on fixed incomes. Wiser heads should step in, before one of Charlotte’s few nationally known neighborhoods is obliterated.

I don’t know if the answer is a historic district, as in Dilworth, or design review before construction (akin to what Atlanta seems to be proposing), or a neighborhood conservation district. I do know one of the city’s treasured neighborhoods is at risk.

But overall, are teardown McMansions a bad thing? A good thing? Inevitable?

It’s good for a city when lots of people want to live close in. It’s good for the taxpayers that the property values are being inflated – that may help make up for all those high-foreclosure neighborhoods where values are sinking. Better for us in Charlotte if those big, expensive houses are paying taxes here, not out in Weddington.

However it’s not good when neighborhoods lose economic diversity – which seems to be happening.

And it’s not good – it is, in fact, appalling – that perfectly good, solidly built houses are just being thrown away. I’ve been watching a two-story brick home on Wendover Road – the kind of house that when I was a kid, we used to daydream about living in – being knocked down and its remains carted away, presumably to the landfill. It’s a waste of natural resources that verges on criminal. This is a city with painful housing needs – hard-working people can’t find decent places to live that they can afford. But we’re simply throwing away houses – and all the wood, bricks and metal that were grown, dug up and mined to build them – at a time when houses are badly needed. Something’s bad wrong.

Should the whole process be stopped? Probably not, unless, as I said above, it’s destroying a historic neighborhood. However, the city should ease up on its single-family-only zoning requirements, so some of those $750,000 lots can be filled with duplexes or quadraplexes, instead of $2 million houses on steroids. That might keep a few somewhat-more-affordable places in those areas. And the city should require builders of teardown McMansions to build sidewalks if they're being built on streets that lack them, such as in Foxcroft and Cotwold. Obviously the extra few thousand for the sidewalks won't matter to the buyers.

Personally, I think those huge houses are just kind of weird. I mean, who in their right mind wants to look after 7,000 square feet of floors, furniture, trinkets and window treatments? (And what little kids really like to sleep so remotely from siblings and parents? Kids like togetherness.) Life's got too many fun things to do. Why shackle yourself to the upkeep of a monster house?

I keep hoping people will miraculously come to their senses. Maybe soaring heating, electrical and lawn-watering bills will get their attention. But then again, if $3-a-gallon gas hasn’t made folks rethink those idiotic and unsafe SUVs, I shouldn’t hold out hope. (Note: Nothing I’ve said about big houses applies to the occasional family with six or seven kids, who really needs all that space.)

Friday, January 20, 2006

So, Mary, What Do You Want?

Some great comments on the Middle Class Squeeze (see below).
First, kudos to “chilton” for coining a great term: “Pulturbia: cheap, on-slab housing with faux ‘community.’ ”
An anonymous commenter tossed out a challenge:
Mary, pick a side of the fence, please. When talking about the problem of sprawl, you note, “That’s not the way cities evolve naturally when left to their own devices.” Then you criticize “arriviste mansions,” which, of course, are the result of intown neighborhoods evolving naturally when left to their own devices.So, which is it? Should we let market forces prevail, or should we have the government tell us what to do? And if the latter, just curious: are you prepared to put historic preservation status on your own intown home, which would prevent a McMansion but severely limit your resale value?
And then “chef” commented:
I’m not sure what you’re asking for. Do you want mandated housing – force people to live certain places so they are integrated? Do you want to force developers to build $800k subdivisions next to $150k subdivisions? It seems like you want to force some sort of “solution” but fall short of saying what it is. If people can afford $800k houses, why not let them build and live where they want?
A few comments: This is a topic that could justify a research-paper length discourse, but I’m trying to keep the blog entries shorter, so I apologize for giving short shrift to some complicated situations. And bear in mind there are no easy solutions, because whatever you do, some negative consequence will emerge. Cities are complex organisms.
But it’s a misconception to think those “arriviste mansions” are a pure result of natural economic evolution. They’re not. They depend on government regulation, specifically on zoning laws that keep development at lower intensities. Without single-family-only zoning, some of those mansions would be apartment or condo buildings. Or stores, offices, or factories. Without that government meddling (a.k.a. zoning), when we’re forced to vacate our intown home in 15 years because we’ve retired and our tiny journalist pensions won’t cover the property taxes, we’d sell out to a high-rise condo developer for a lot more than even Simonini and brethren would pay us. (I’m pretty sure our humble ranch isn’t eligible for historic landmark status, especially since we replaced some of the drafty-but-vintage 1950 metal casement windows in front. We’re less authentic, but warmer.)
In a city evolving “naturally,” that is, without the government constraints of zoning, etc. etc., we’d see much more intense development in the desirable areas. That condo project at Carmel and Colony that the Giverny neighbors fought so intensely would be dwarfed by the nearby high-rises and office towers.
All that said, I don’t think we’re going to have that mythical-but-pure, dog-eat-dog free marketplace, where you can build anything anywhere and I can put a Starbucks in my front yard next to your McMansion. We don’t have it now. And on balance that’s a good thing. A totally free market would pollute the water and air and we’d all pay a lot more for street paving, among other things.
So I have to opt for a government regulatory system, but with different regulations, in some instances, from what we have now. Not more regulations, necessarily, just different ones. For example, current regulations require certain lot sizes and setbacks and limit the placement of your carport and won’t let your aunt bake pies to sell at the farmer’s market if she lives in a neighborhood zoned for residential only. I’d ease up on the single-family-only rules (and let people bake those pies!). BUT I’d force developments to have a small percentage of housing affordable by people who aren’t rich. Every development, even ones with $800,000 houses, would have to comply. You’d be free to buy an $800K house and move in. But on the corner might be a duplex where your widowed grandmother might live, or your niece who’s a kindergarten teacher.
That’s because it’s in the larger community’s best interest to have housing for people who aren’t rich, and it’s been proved over and over that a small percentage of less-affluent families don’t hurt property values, when they’re dispersed through higher income neighborhoods. But large collections of very poor families clustered in one neighborhood do hurt property values there. So it’s in the larger community’s best interest to encourage economic integration in ways that don’t negatively affect other areas.
Several Virginia and Maryland counties have adopted those “inclusionary zoning” ordinances, as has Davidson, and they seem to be working fine.
Interestingly, Myers Park – designed 100 years ago before Charlotte zoning laws – had deed restrictions that dictated that on certain streets the houses couldn’t be too expensive. John Nolen, who planned the neighborhood, thought it was important to mix housing sizes and prices. So Myers Park (and to a lesser extent Eastover) has huge houses, smaller houses and even garage apartments (a form of “affordable housing” that’s been all but lost due to overly restrictive zoning rules).
What about all those starter home neighborhoods? That’s trickier. I’m not sure what the best solution would be, even though I worry that they'll be our slums of 2036.
Allowing more affordable housing in higher-income areas would ease some of the market pressure for starter homes, but probably not enough. Stronger design rules – like the ones Cabarrus County recently instituted – would be appropriate. And if the high-interest-rate mortgage business were forced to clean up its act, I bet a notable percentage of the starter home market would evaporate.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Middle Class Squeeze in Charlotte

You heard it here first: Charlotte slowly becoming a city of stark haves and have-nots?
Two different bits of recent news coverage might sound a warning bell.
First was Michelle Crouch’s article Jan. 11, “Homes’ sum is greater than parts” about the Montibello Crossing neighborhood. A developer wants to buy the whole 47-acre neighborhood – all 63 homes, vintage 1970s – and tear them down so he can build much pricier houses (or, as one Eastover resident I know calls them, “arriviste mansions.”)
Last year the average sale price for Montibello Crossing houses was $257,000. Several neighboring subdivisions are much ritzier, with average sale prices last year in Gleneagles at $610,000, Quail Hollow at $690,000 and Seven Eagles at $851,300.
The second piece was the excellent series, just concluded, on the problem of foreclosures in Mecklenburg County. Did you look at the map? Since the foreclosure problem is primarily tied to entry-level (i.e., inexpensive) housing, the map shows a large band of neighborhoods, sweeping east to west across the county, generally north of downtown, are being filled with new subdivisions holding nothing but entry-level housing.
Don’t get me wrong. This city needs housing that people who aren’t wealthy can buy. We don’t want everyone who isn’t making a six-figure income to have to move to Union, Cabarrus or Gaston County. I’m not saying it’s a problem that those houses are being built (although if you read the series, you’ll see it’s a problem when mortgages are given to people who shouldn’t really get them, and foreclosure results). The problem comes when too much housing for low-income people gets concentrated, instead of being sprinkled throughout the city amid higher-income housing.
Here’s market reality: If you cluster too many subdivisions of low-cost houses, you can’t sell higher-end houses in that area. People think it isn’t a good investment – and they’re probably right. All those starter-home subdivisions may well be condemning large chunks of Charlotte to a foreseeable future of nothing but low-income residents. It’s an economic monoscape in the making, and not one that will be healthy for the city.
If there’s anything we’ve learned from the past half-century, it’s that neighborhoods housing only large concentrations of poor people are more prone to crime, drugs, social problems and joblessness.
Then, in south Charlotte you’ve got people in moderate-level housing being squeezed out by super-expensive housing.
Catch my drift? Does this not sound like a future of economic apartheid?
What will that kind of future mean for public schools? Once the courts threw out the old, court-ordered student assignment plan, the schools rapidly splintered by income and race – reflecting the way the city’s neighborhoods are segregated by income. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is staggering from large, and unexpected, increases in low-income and immigrant students. (Yes, many do very well, and being poor shouldn’t mean any student gets a worse education. But statistics show that as a group, kids from poor homes don’t do as well as kids from wealthier ones, and they require a disproportionate amount of public money in order to give them an equitable education.)
Meanwhile, the slow attrition of affluent kids into private schools or home schools continues as the rich get richer, and the influx of poor and immigrant kids tilts formerly middle-income schools into the high-poverty category.
Can the middle class even hold on here? It’s not a comforting vision of the future.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Uptown's Great Skyline Views At Risk?

All those people buying up condos in those uptown towers ’cause they love the view? Guess what. Nothing in city regulations can stop the owner of some parking lot next door from putting up a tower to block the view.
I guess it’s only a major point if you’re one of the people buying in to places with names like “the Vue,” but it’s a great example of our city planning policies being a day late and a dollar short.
The point came up Tuesday night in a forum called “Towers: Is Charlotte Losing Or Finding Its Soul?” at the Levine Museum, put together by an interested group that calls itself the Civic By Design forum. Architect/developer David Furman, who’s building Courtside among other uptown projects, was asked about the problem of shadowing, which you get in places with a lot of tall towers.
The questioner wanted to know what’s being done here?
“I think nothing,” said Furman.
City planner Kent Main, in the audience, confirmed that. We do not have any regulations on that, he said. One reason buildings in New York City are terraced back from the street, he said, is because of those kinds of regulations requiring sunlight and shadow studies. But, he said, he didn’t think Charlotte had reached that point yet.
He’s right. We haven’t. But here’s the problem with that kind of thinking: By the time Charlotte has reached that point, with everyone wanting a tower on every uptown plot, how hard is it going to be for City Council to buck the pressure they’ll get from all those developers planning to build all those towers? Setting sunlight rules and viewshed rules will limit the ability of some property owners to build everything they want, wherever they want it.
The time to adopt regulations is now, before the pressure gets so intense.
How important is the view to potential condo buyers uptown? Patrick Kelly, a young architect who works with Civic By Design forum coordinator Tom Low, went around to a bunch of for-sale condo tower projects uptown to hear their sales pitches.
His conclusion: “They’re all selling the view.”
Betcha all those buyers will be a tad ticked when they learn their “view” has no protection. Welcome to Charlotte.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Stonewall Jackson or Martin Luther King?

Go to almost any city in America, and if you want to find the neighborhood that was urban renewed out of existence, look for Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Bingo.
So you guessed it! The Charlotte street some people want to rename MLK Drive runs smack through what used to be the historic black neighborhood called Brooklyn. It was mostly urban renewed out of existence. It was further plundered when I-277 was built along one side.
Now that part of downtown is a rather desolate sector of government buildings, parking lots and an underused (except by Canada geese) park.
Here’s another funny thing. A bunch of Southern traditionalist types are pouting because they say the street, named Stonewall, honors a Confederate War hero. However, there’s no evidence that it does or doesn’t. More on that below.
One more funny thing. A big chunk of Stonewall Street years back (my guess is 1950s) was renamed Independence Boulevard. Wonder if the same folks kicked up a fuss then. When I moved here in 1978, Independence ran along Stonewall Street. It came past CPCC, as now, past Charlottetown Mall, and then shot up toward the Observer building, but at some point (I can’t quite remember where) it curved left, then right again and went down what’s now called Carson Boulevard. Somewhere around there Independence magically changed names – this IS Charlotte, after all – into Wilkinson Boulevard. The coming of I-277 rerouted that section of then-Independence and the city restored its older name: Stonewall.
Back to Stonewall. Dan Morrill, local historian, says it’s his “reasoned judgment” the street wasn’t named for Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, whose widow, Anna Morrison Jackson, was from Charlotte and lived here for years. “The street name is old,” Morrill says. “I looked at two maps, one dating from 1890-something and the other 1877.” Both maps showed it named Stonewall Street, he says.
What makes him think it wasn’t named for Stonewall Jackson is that, as he says, “I would have thought that in all of my meanderings about Charlotte that I would have heard that that was what it was named for. ... I read every edition of the Charlotte Observer from 1890 to 1925, and I never saw any reference to that.” He also thinks that if it had been named for Stonewall Jackson, it wouldn’t have been called just Stonewall Street, but would have been Thomas Jackson Street or something.
“I’ve got a feeling, “ he says, “that if somebody wants to go down there [the Carolina Room at the main library] and spend a week cranking microfilm, they might find something.”
Tom Hanchett, historian for the Levine Museum of the New South, who’s done a lot of research into old Charlotte neighborhoods, also isn’t sure. “It’s a strange street to pick for that name,” he says. He also mentions: “It’s a sucky street to name after King. Can’t we do better than that?”

Monday, January 09, 2006

New Urbanism: Too Elitist?

More on the "is New Urbanism a good idea?" theme. Comments welcome, below:

Longtime west Charlotte activist Sue Friday sent this note:
"I just don't think anyone should be advocating new urbanism. I doubt you and I could afford to live in Seaside. The problem with NU is that it encourages people to set themselves up in elitist communities and feel good about it. Birkdale, built away from everything out in a cow pasture and on the wrong side of 77 is a prime example. I think part of its "charm" is exclusivity -- price and distance from undesirable people. Places like that damage Charlotte, drain off strength, $, and energy. It would be so much more exciting if it had been done as redevelopment in some of the older, poorer neighborhoods accessible to everyone. What has been done to the northern end of the county and the small towns there is inexcusable. The worst part is how smug so many of the planners and developers are because they can paste on a NU label."

I disagree. Here's my response:
"Lord knows, there's plenty of elitist development going on around Charlotte, and most of it isn't New Urbanist at all. I don't think it's fair to condemn New Urbanism because it's being applied, in many cases, in suburban locations like Birkdale. In Charlotte, the 'burbs are where almost all the large-scale development is going on. Why condemn New Urbanism -- one style of design -- just because it's being used in greenfield development? Would you rather have a Birkdale looking the way it does, or have another standard-issue regional shopping mall there, a la Northlake?
Yes, we'd both prefer that more development was happening in older, poorer neighborhoods. But it isn't Birkdale's New Urbanist design that caused it to be built where it is or target the markets that it does. The villain in that is the whole larger picture of metro-area development economics.
Since suburban development is going to happen anyway -- much as you and I would prefer to see underused, in-town sites developed instead --why shouldn't it be better designed, better for the environment, more suited to support public transit and more like the neighborhoods that have stood the test of time? Plenty of New Urbanist developments aren't elitist -- although Seaside sure isn't among them. One key New Urbanism principle is to include a range of housing at a range of prices, by including more "affordable" options: apartments over stores, garage apartments and live-work units, etc. etc. Seaside has those places, but Seaside got so popular even the tiny places built to be "affordable" aren't, any more.
Like you, I like places with more age on them. They have more soul. I'd much rather live in Elizabeth than Baxter. I'm not going to be attracted to anything new, even New Urbanist new. But new stuff keeps getting built. And I think New Urbanism is a better option for it than replicating Piper Glen or Hunter Oaks or Foxcroft the ga-zillions of subdivisions named for the landscapes the developer destroys.

The head of the Knight Program for Community Building at University of Miami, where I have a yearlong fellowship, sent a note responding to comments from one or two fellows who criticized New Urbanist developments because they aren't redeveloping existing city neighborhoods, etc. His name is Chuck Bohl. Here's what he wrote:
"In the words of one new urbanist realist, 'New Urbanism cannot prevent tooth decay.' It is not a panacea for all of the challenges of community building, and neither is zoning, housing policy, traffic engineering, social services, economic development, community development and environmental regulation in a vacuum.
"New urbanism restores physical planning and design to the toolkit, and, rather than the urban renewal and heroic Modernist architecture and planning of the 1960s, it espouses relearning how to make walkable, mixed-use places with an attractive public realm of great streets and public gathering places, civic institutions, and a mix of housing types. [New Urbanist] principles have been applied to HOPE VI [public housing] projects, manufactured housing neighborhoods, and all manner of urban infill."