- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 29, 2005

W hen David Lublin started looking for a new home, he found himself naturally drawn to the leafy streets of Chevy Chase. “I always used to say I wanted a nice little house in Chevy Chase,” says Mr. Lublin, an associate professor of government at American University who grew up in Montgomery County. “It’s such a pretty neighborhood, with a nice, lived-in feel.”

However, he wasn’t counting on the leaflets that started appearing on his front steps, or the new larger homes that threatened to overshadow the more modest houses on the street.

“The one around the corner blocks the sky from my kitchen window,” he says.

Whether you call them McMansions, starter castles, or edifice rexes, mansionization is hardly a phenomenon peculiar to Mr. Lublin’s neighborhood. Around the country, particularly in urban areas and their close-in suburbs, newer, grander houses are replacing older homes, annoying longtime residents and pitting community concerns against individual property rights.

In the process, neighbors become enemies, developers are anathema and a once-quiet enclave literally can be split asunder.

“A lot of people resent it,” says Mr. Lublin. “They feel that it’s saying that their homes are like garbage and should be thrown away.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently warned of an “epidemic” of so-called teardowns in historic neighborhoods — when an older house is razed to make room for a larger house.

But teardowns can be an issue even in comparatively newer communities, where the larger footprint of a brand new McMansion can seem to swell around the lot like pudgy flesh around a too-tight ankle bracelet.

Some 50,000 to 75,000 homes are demolished each year for construction of a larger house, says Gopal Ahluwalia, staff vice president for research at the National Association of Home Builders.

“You see a lot of it in the major metropolitan areas,” says Mr. Ahluwalia. “In this area, there is increasing mansionization from McLean to Silver Spring.”

The consequences of mansionization are particularly visible in many Washington neighborhoods and the nearby suburbs precisely because these areas of older housing stock and a well-developed tree canopy are attractive to potential home buyers looking for a few urban amenities or a shorter commute.

What they are not looking for, of course, are homes with cramped closets, single bathrooms and tiny kitchens.

“Lifestyles have changed dramatically from the age of building of these previous homes,” says Dale Mattison, an associate broker with Long & Foster in Chevy Chase. “When I was growing up, my family of four lived in a two bedroom semi-detached house with one bath, and we were all quite comfortable. Today, my family of four is comfortable in a house with five bedrooms and seven baths.”

In 1950, the average single family home was about 983 square feet.

Twenty years later, that figure had risen appreciably, to 1,500 square feet. By 2004, though, the average single-family house swelled to 2,329 square feet, according to the National Association of Home Builders. And if you are talking McMansion, you’re likely to be talking about more than 6,000 square feet of house.

“A year ago someone bought a one-level house on a nice lot,” recalls Mr. Mattison. “Today there are two homes on the same lot, both larger than the original house.”

In short, Americans are looking to supersize their homes just the way they supersize everything else, from automobiles to fast-food dinners. So it’s no surprise that many area residents want a piece of Potomac and the convenience of Chevy Chase.

“Lifestyles today are very busy, and this area can be especially hectic,” says Mr. Mattison. “People are not as concerned with acreage, and they don’t particularly want to spend their free time cutting the grass, anyway.”

What people want, says Mr. Mattison, is more: More space; and more amenities, such as home theaters, pool rooms and glassed-in garages.

Some of the criticism of the new starter castles has as much to do with what is seen as an excess of bad taste as an excess of space.

Strip away the Mediterranean tiles, French Empire gables, or Tudor windows, and you’ll find that many of these homes are all of a piece; foyer with chandelier, formal living room and dining room, open plan kitchen with family room, and master suite.

Still, Mr. Lublin notes that most of the newer housing in his area is “very tastefully done.”

“I do think attacking all new homes as McMansions is a bit unfair,” he says, “but I do understand that some people feel that developers are making decisions for the town.”

Some longtime residents are cashing in on the boom, shelving their sentimentality in favor of cash in the pocket.

Mr. Ahluwalia cites one Charlotte, N.C., neighborhood where all 24 homeowners banded together and sold their houses to a developer, who promptly razed the houses.

“They got about $700,000 apiece,” says Mr. Ahluwalia. “That’s a lot more than they could have gotten had they sold their homes individually.”

Does your home qualify as a replacement? It may, if the location is right and the houses going up in your neighborhood are 21/2 to three times the price of your home. Land in some city neighborhoods and the inner suburbs is frequently more valuable than the 1970s-vintage home sitting on it.

Some Realtors even specialize in teardowns. It’s easier for them, no lockboxes, no asbestos or lead-paint worries, and the things that some homeowners frequently leave behind — food, garbage and other junk, are simply bulldozed or carted away.

Infill homes also work to reduce sprawl and traffic and preserve green space on the suburban edge.

Meanwhile, larger homes can benefit neighborhoods, inspiring other residents to spruce up their own houses, raising property values and enlivening staid and stodgy old places with new vigor.

“It can really be a bonanza for a jurisdiction,” says Mr. Ahluwalia.

But not everyone wants to be so enlivened. They’re against what they see as a kind of upscale gentrification and distressed by what they see as an invasion of outsiders who don’t respect the character of the neighborhood.

“It’s interesting in that it’s a movement to zone out overly large houses,” says Mr. Lublin. “Usually the attempt is to zone out poorer people.”

Yet socioeconomic variety is typical of urban neighborhoods, notes Mr. Mattison.

“You see a wide range in values from block to block,” he says. “It’s not like a suburban subdivision where one different house would really stick out.”

Change can also be a good thing. Some of the same people who protested the coming of the Metro to Bethesda, for example, now enjoy its convenience, not to mention the upscale businesses that have followed.

While neighbors might be attempting to retain the style and character of a neighborhood, they also might be playing loose with property rights.

Chevy Chase, a town of 1,032 homes and with a median income of about $160,000, experienced more than 50 demolitions in the last five years. After tense meetings, relentless leafleting and a petition movement, last month the town imposed a moratorium on demolition and new construction.

“When I first heard about the moratorium, I worried that it would go too far,” says Mr. Lublin. “But since I moved here it seems reasonable. It’s not saying no additions.”

Some residents feel, however, that they should have the right to do what they want with their property. Such restrictions can have negative effects on property values.

“It’s a tough balancing act that decision makers have to confront,” says Mr. Mattison. “You’re dealing with constituent rights versus property rights.”

While not every town or city is ready to totally shut down the teardown, many are making at least some effort to curb the kind of development that may make the old neighborhood unrecognizable. Tighter restrictions on heights in Wesley Heights, for example, ensure that some of its 1920s mansions won’t be overshadowed. Local jurisdictions are also working to limit the kind of tree cutting or tree removal that often happens when a starter castle takes the place of an older home.

Neighborhood-specific limits like these, called neighborhood overlays, are frequently easier to accomplish than citywide or countywide restrictions.

There’s even a movement afoot to downsize the footprint. The small-house movement, sparked by the 1998 publication of Minnesota architect Sarah Susanka’s “The Not So Big House,” emphasizes the need for the cozy quality in the home space that can’t be had in some of the barnlike structures that seem to be the current rage.

Small houses also use less fuel at a time when many Americans are increasingly concerned with rising costs.

In the end, though, says Mr. Mattison, a lot of the criticism stems from a fundamental disagreement about what looks good.

“A lot is dependent upon aesthetics,” he says, “and regardless of how much opposition there is, there is no legislating for taste.”

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