Suburban Boom: Razed and Rebuilt

Neighborhoods change character as more older homes are leveled for larger houses

To the first suburbanites, nothing bespoke success like a lawn. A house was just a house back then, something far superior to a cramped urban apartment.

Today's busy Americans prefer attached garages. They tend toward homes with two-story entrance foyers, large gourmet kitchens, and master-bedroom suites. These days, nothing says you've made it like a Tudor mansion in miniature.

It's an evolution of taste that's changing the streetscapes of suburban communities nationwide. Instead of selecting from existing housing stock, more developers and individual buyers are purchasing older structures, razing them, and building modern behemoths.

The result, critics say, is an aesthetic jumble that threatens to destroy the neighborliness and architectural character that makes such communities appealing to begin with.

Opposing 'tear downs'

Although many suburbs have instituted size regulations, planners here in Chicagoland and across the nation are taking the battle a step further - issuing moratoriums on "tear downs" and setting up design review boards. The ensuing debate pits two great American traditions against each other: the importance of elbow room and the value of community.

"We've seen more tear downs this year than ever before," says John Houseal, acting director of community development for the Chicago suburb of Wilmette. "Some people have expressed concern that the housing being built is not in keeping with the neighborhood character they moved here for."

The problem, Mr. Houseal says, is that many modern houses have an architectural sameness to them. Their fortress-like architecture and prominent front-loading garages replace porches, trees, trellises, gardens, and backyard garages - features that make streetscapes more attractive and that allow for more human interaction. As amenities move inside, so do a neighborhoods residents.

"A lot of people who move to Wilmette want to be part of a community," he says. "They don't prefer to live in a place where people drive up, push a remote-control button for the garage, and drive in, never to be seen again. They'd rather see their neighbors out on the porch swing."

In response, Wilmette's planning department is preparing a survey to determine whether residents would support new rules prohibiting attached garages and further regulating the size and design of new homes. Under a formula devised in 1990, new homes in Wilmette must be set back from the street by about 25 feet and cannot occupy more than about 20 percent of their lots.

Sprawling new homes in the affluent Chicago suburbs of Winnetka and Lake Forest have prompted city planners there to adopt moratoriums on some tear downs. The suburb of Hinsdale, which does not have a professional planning staff, is weighing stronger regulations to control a torrent of tear downs that number about 200 every three years.

"The land value in Hinsdale has been upgraded so much that the cost of purchasing a humble house and the land is equal to purchasing a vacant lot," Hinsdale building commissioner Chuck Schmidt told the American Planning Association. It's often cheaper, experts add, to build a new house than to renovate an existing one.

Land-use debates frequent

In recent years, the amount of time America's city councils spend on land-use issues has soared. As more Americans become homeowners, and as more cities enact zoning laws that prohibit multistoried apartment buildings, single-family lots are becoming more valuable. Continuing suburban sprawl in many metropolitan areas has increased pressure on older suburbs to adopt more accommodating approaches toward new development.

More often than not, however, communities elect to institute stricter controls.

Last year, the Board of Commissioners in Nags Head, N.C., defeated a zoning-ordinance amendment that would have allowed homeowners to cover more than 30 percent of their lots with permanent structures. Officials in the Kansas City suburb of Mission Hills rejected a proposal to construct a 6,700-square-foot mansion where a 3,500-foot home now sits. And the St. Louis suburb of Clayton established a six-month ban on new homes with front-entry garages.

Although opponents of tear downs often bemoan the loss of smaller, more affordable houses, some of which hold historical value, there's another side to the story.

Developers note that freshly minted mansions usually have a positive effect on neighborhood property values. And attempts to reject new construction, particularly on aesthetic grounds, are often subject to court challenges. Homeowners whose ambitions are thwarted, they add, can always move to communities with more liberal regulations.

Besides, they say, developers do not prosper by building homes people don't want to live in, and there's no denying the timeless power of "curb appeal."

"Most buyers say they want their houses to appear as large as possible," says Dirk Denison, a Chicago architect. "If these people were allowed to build a house five stories high, they'd probably do it."

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