'Tear-Downs' Change The Face of Suburbia

Until two months ago, the house perched on a corner lot in the Birds Hill section of this Boston suburb was an unassuming two-bedroom slab ranch, built nearly 50 years ago. Then one morning in March, a huge excavator rumbled in and reduced it to rubble.

Soon hammers and saws echoed through the neighborhood, and a four-bedroom, 2-1/2-bath home began rising majestically on the property. At 3,120 square feet, it is twice the size of the former house. The price tag has also doubled, to more than $500,000.

Welcome to the world of "tear-downs," a nationwide phenomenon in which an older house, often in need of repair, is replaced with one that dwarfs surrounding homes.

Across the United States, the trend is changing a wide variety of neighborhoods. It is also sparking controversy, pitting traditionalists against modernists and forcing communities to reexamine zoning regulations.

Fueled by a robust housing market, a shortage of buildable lots in desirable areas, and a defiant bigger-is-better attitude among buyers, the trend, which began slowly a decade ago, has "really started to heat up," says Louise Condon, owner of Louise Condon Realty in Needham. She counts at least a dozen houses in Needham that have been demolished in the past 15 months.

The market isn't the only thing heating up. So are tempers in many towns. Often a replacement house "is just out of scale with what people expect," says Paul Killeen, chairman of the Needham Planning Board. "It's usually the full 2-1/2 stories, built all the way to the allowable sidelines, which can be as small as 10 feet, and built well into the backyard as well. You get a crowded feeling from that."

Some critics worry that as more small homes are demolished, towns will lose the affordable end of the housing market. Others fear that the presence of big new houses will raise the value - and the property taxes - of smaller homes nearby. So far, says Mr. Killeen, that trend is barely perceptible.

Mrs. Condon defends big houses. "Life styles change," she says. "At one time, a family had one car. Now they have two, and if they have a teenage driver there are three cars. When I was growing up, it was a luxury to have your own bedroom. Today children have their own rooms. And our wardrobes are larger than our mother's wardrobes were, which means more closets."

Home buyers also want as many as three bathrooms and a library or computer room, she says. "A nine-room home is on everybody's wish list."

In beach communities near Los Angeles, single-story houses once built as cottages or weekend homes are being torn down. Their replacements, according to Donald Jacobs, an architect with JBZ Dorius Architects in Irvine, Calif., are 2-1/2- or 3-story homes "that take up every buildable area of the lot and tower over the single-stories."

He explains that much of southern California's beach architecture is well liked and easy to live with. "It was built out of wood, with kind of a craftsman look," he says. "Even when they're two stories, the scale is broken down by trim pieces and such."

Mr. Jacobs acknowledges that some builders do a very good job. But too often, he adds, developers "put up something oversized and heavy, such as stucco with a lot of detailing. It might be appropriate on a 6,000-square-foot lot in the suburbs, which are usually 60 feet wide by 100 feet deep. But they're not appropriate on a 30-foot-wide lot. And the details themselves no longer relate to the people living in them or walking by."

To protect neighborhoods, says Don Edson, an architect in San Diego, many communities are trying to write architectural guidelines "regarding bulk and scale of structures in an effort to control the ugly big box house." A few towns are also seeking to define "the compatibility of new structures within the existing fabric of a community."

In Needham, residents debated possible zoning restrictions at a public hearing in March. Most opposed such changes. Killeen says the planning board favors "some kind of lot coverage limitation." Last month, professional planners for seven Boston suburbs also held a meeting of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council to discuss strategies.

Two weeks ago, the neighboring suburb of Newton adopted a floor-area ratio requirement. This limits the size of a new house based on its proportion to the lot size. Additions to existing homes are exempt.

Another, earlier regulation in Newton places a one-year demolition delay on any structure 50 or more years old, and requires a review by the historical commission.

Mark Johnson, economic development planner for Newton, explains that this is a way to encourage owners to preserve their property rather than tear it down.

Although the tear-down phenomenon is a social issue, Killeen calls it "inherently a political process."

Every zoning regulation, he says, "reflects a balancing by the community of the tension between individual rights to use your property the way you see fit and the community's desire for controls that make the community better for everyone." He expects to see more limitations on house size in the future.

In some cases a replacement represents definite improvement. Real estate broker Condon cites one example of a two-bedroom ranch house that sloped. A young couple wanted to buy it, but walked away when they learned that repairs would cost $12,000. A builder tore it down. Now, Condon says, "In its place is a beautiful four-bedroom Colonial."

Sarah Susanka, an architect with Mulfinger, Susanka, Mahady and Partners in Minneapolis, emphasizes that no community is static.

"If we think about a city over time, there are bound to be structures that deteriorate to the point where fixing them up is marginal," she says.

At the same time, she makes a plea for sensitivity. She suggests that developers and buyers think about a neighborhood as a family.

"When you are tearing down a house, you're tearing down a piece of the neighbors' collective personality," Ms. Susanka says. "You can see the neighborhood grieving, not just for the lost structure but for the incongruousness of the new structure, which represents a very different world than the existing neighborhood does. There is something being lost, but you need to show them what is being gained."

If a tear-down is done courteously, she says, "apprising neighbors of what's going to occur, at least the surprise and some of the discomfort can be taken away."

Susanka tells of one client who demolished a house on a downtown lake in Minneapolis. Before beginning, the man wrote a letter to neighbors, introducing himself, explaining his family's motivation, and enclosing a drawing of the new structure.

"It appeased a lot of concern," Susanka says.

Bill Piersiak, president of Sturdy Oak Construction in Dedham, Mass., the builder of the new house on Birds Hill, admits that neighbors often express "a lot of resentment" at the beginning of a project. In his first demolition two years ago, he says, "There was a lot of emotion about the house I was taking down." The owner had lived there for nearly 50 years, and many of her neighbors were longtime residents as well.

Yet Mr. Piersiak, like other builders and real estate brokers around the country, finds that this reaction often softens in time.

"About 90 percent of people who are against a project initially come back when it's finished and say it looks beautiful, it fits in with the neighborhood, and it turned out better than they thought it would," he says.

Piersiak eases tensions by letting neighbors take objects from the house before demolition begins. Their souvenirs have included mantels, glass doorknobs, pieces of wood - which one father and son made into a birdhouse - and even copper pipes, which they sell to junk yards.

Still, it will take more than mementos to make the issue fade. Most builders and brokers see no end to tear-downs. As Piersiak observes, "There are a lot of potential candidates out there."

Given that inevitability, architects and planners stress the importance of making new structures as attractive and appropriate as possible. Susanka describes the task as "appealing to people's higher conscience for what we all seem to be craving, this sense of community."

Solutions will come, she suggests, "if we can instill an attitude of respect in both builders and people buying the houses and tearing them down. If they do it well, they can actually enhance the neighborhood rather than just focus on their own life needs within the house."

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