Sunday, January 4, 2004

Memories get razed as 'McMansions' rise

But developers say high-end housing in demand

By Sheila McLaughlin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

MONTGOMERY - Robert Hornback had a homebuyer's wish list in mind when he transferred to Cincinnati from Minneapolis last year.

He wanted a spacious, newer home for his young family of five. He wanted to live comfortably in an established neighborhood with friendly amenities. Good schools were a must. And, he wanted to be inside the Interstate 275 loop so he could beat the traffic to his sales job downtown.

Click to view an Acrobat PDF file (536k) showing detailed examples of "teardowns" in northeastern Hamilton Co.
"We wanted to be in the heart of the city with a good school system where we could walk to the park or walk to the square for coffee, or even go out to dinner and be close by," Hornback said.

He got it all - a new $665,000 house on a half-acre lot that sits in a 50-year-old neighborhood, but is surrounded by $180,000 brick ranches. Just 18 months ago, a similar brick ranch sat on Hornback's lot, but developers moved in, purchased the house, demolished it and built a four-bedroom, two-story beauty that Hornback purchased.

What happened on Zig Zag Road in Montgomery is unfolding around Greater Cincinnati and the nation. Developers determined to meet the needs of consumers like Hornback are scouting neighborhoods for older, smaller homes situated on large lots that can be razed and replaced with sprawling, more expensive dream homes that consumers are clamoring for.

In many cases, developers are having an easy time: Profit-minded homeowners are calling to say they're willing to sell to make room for the bigger homes.

But the trend is drawing sharp criticism locally and nationally. Foes say the demolition of older homes robs neighborhoods of their historic character and replaces them with "McMansions."

It's become so contentious that some local officials are considering ways to better control developers' buy-and-rebuild efforts.

Homebuilders say they're trying to win customers like Hornback and cash in on popular locations.

"It's quite simple," says developer Chris Rodgers, who owns Christopher Robin Homes and has done several such projects in Sycamore Township.

"We're out of business if we don't have properties to build houses on. It's a supply-and-demand type thing. There is no new ground left in Cincinnati for new construction. The only way you're going to get new construction is with teardowns."

Some residents fight trend

One of the hottest spots for teardown homes is near Interstate 71 in northeastern Hamilton County.

Hornback's is among four upscale subdivision-style houses built in a row on Zig Zag Road last year, after developers acquired and razed existing ranch homes. So far, seven houses have gone down on the street not far from Montgomery's historic district and have been replaced with larger houses.

Much of the activity is centered in Montgomery and Sycamore Township, which have run out of open land for residential development. Both northeastern Hamilton County communities are known for good schools and high land values.

But that tear-down-and-rebuild trend is not welcomed by some, including long-time resident Mary Lou Rose. The historic preservation activist has watched dozens of perfectly fine homes around her community be demolished and replaced with big, new $400,000 to $600,000 houses.

Rose, 74, and her husband, Maury, 78, figure they eventually will be surrounded.

"We'll probably be the last lone ranchers," she said.

The Roses have drawn attention to the trend and its drawbacks, including a petition drive to Montgomery leaders last year that asked that for controls to make the new houses more compatible with the neighborhoods. The city took no action.

A study published last year by the National Trust for Historic Preservation called the trend "disturbing" and said it was approaching "epidemic proportions" in historic neighborhoods across the country.

Residents in well-established neighborhoods complain that the new houses - typically triple the square-footage of what was there - don't fit in, and that they wreck the historic character of the older neighborhoods.

Developers, who stand to make about $100,000 on each house, say such complaints about hurting a community's character are overblown.

"There is a misconception among homeowners in general that these areas are Williamsburg, Va. - that the structures are meant to be forever and ever," Rodgers said. "But the suburbs of Cincinnati are just what they are. They are just suburbs."

'Bash and builds'

Teardowns, also known as "bash-and-builds" or "knockdowns," are common throughout the Greater Cincinnati area. Upper-crust Indian Hill , for instance, has watched it happen for decades as the wealthy buy, bulldoze and build bigger.

Blue Ash officials said they are seeing some teardowns, especially along Cooper Road near Montgomery.

Activity has been more spotty in Covington, where developers have focused more on unsafe structures or fill unused lots. The trend is also visible in pockets of Cincinnati, especially in neighborhoods outside of downtown.

Teardowns in Cincinnati have typically happened in areas with river views or near parks or quaint shopping areas - such as Mount Adams, Mount Lookout, Hyde Park and Oakley. Some city officials welcome them as a way to reduce urban sprawl and to ward off decline.

"We love it. When you build a $300,000, $400,000, $500,000 house inside a neighborhood of $100,000 homes, it brings all the values of the homes up," said Ron Thomas, Cincinnati's assistant director of building inspections. "It makes other people want to keep their houses up."

According to the Trust's study, "Taming the Teardown Trend," the phenomenon once was limited to such wealthy communities as Aspen, Nantucket and Beverly Hills.

It has spread in recent years to the inner suburbs of Dallas, Chicago, Seattle, Denver and Boston, taking with it historical and architecturally significant homes.

The wildfire of activity prompted some planners to try to limit the impact. For instance, Denver limited square-footage and established other requirements to make the houses better fit into existing neighborhoods, said Peter Brink, the Trust's director of programs.

Trying to control it

The stepped-up pace in pockets of Sycamore Township and in Montgomery - where about 30 homes have either been razed and rebuilt or pegged for redevelopment since 2000 - began to raise some eyebrows last year.

Officials in both communities say they are looking for ways to control the activity, while acknowledging they can't stop it.

And, to some degree, they don't want to. Even a Montgomery councilman sold his family home for redevelopment a year ago this month.

Frank Davis, Montgomery's economic development director, said the city has enacted restrictions that protect trees and deal with construction mess. But they aren't ready to set design standards and limit the size and scale of rebuilt houses because that might inhibit homeowners from making money off their property.

"If you start prohibiting that or restricting that, you're taking away somebody's ability to earn additional wealth off the greatest asset that they have," Davis said.

"There also is some sentiment that some rejuvenation and some rebuilding is good for the community. Continued reinvestment is good to prevent a slow decline in the neighborhoods."

Resident backlash

Maury Rose said he never intended to stop the teardowns when he handed city officials a petition signed by 200 residents last fall asking planners to place restrictions on teardowns.

"I only want it to fit better into the neighborhood," he said.

Resident backlash in Sycamore Township was spawned by other concerns.

"Concord Hills is a monster all its own," said zoning administrator Greg Bickford. "They didn't want to be crowded in."

High land values, good schools, and the neighborhood's proximity to the Kenwood shopping district, Interstate 71, and Indian Hill have made it one of the hardest-hit teardown areas in the township.

Bickford said about 15 of 120 lots in the 1950s neighborhood of modest ranches and Cape Cods have been gobbled up since 1998 for "panhandle developments" that can place up to four houses on a private drive between existing lots.

Three or four more houses on Keller Road were razed to put in a small subdivision of $800,000 homes, and last month, another ranch was bulldozed at Keller Road and Miami Avenue.

Fed up with all the construction, residents protested to township officials in September to stop another project by Christopher Robin Homes, which had already torn down six houses to build about a dozen more.

The township rejected the plan because it didn't meet zoning requirements. Rodgers has since revised it to build fewer homes.

"As long as they are meeting zoning requirements, I think we can all live with that," said Cathy Goold, who moved to Concord Hills from Pleasant Ridge seven years ago and led the charge against Rodgers' latest development.

"It's when they try to be greedy and carve out more and destroy the trees, then we all take exception to that."

Township officials had taken measures in recent years to discourage the so-called panhandle developments that wedged new homes behind existing homes.

The latest round of discord in Concord Hills prompted them to establish a new zoning district that allows property owners to band together and restrict the number of houses allowed on lots that come close to one acre.

"Somebody's going to say, 'I don't want my quality of life ruined,' " Bickford said. "But somebody else is going to turn around and say, 'I'm not going to mind an $800,000 house built next to me because that jacks up my value.'

"If they are really interested in preserving their neighborhood, we have given them the tools to do that. Now it's up to them to step forward."

Giving buyers what they want

Rodgers and other developers say they just want a fair shake at making a living and giving buyers what they want.

He said much of the housing being replaced was built for soldiers returning from World War II. They are too small for today's homebuyer.

"The technology and demands of what people want changes as time goes by. We are (providing) what today's buyer wants," Rodgers said.

Dan May, whose Montgomery-based Ireland May Ltd. has bought smaller, older homes and replaced them with larger ones, said he tries to make his homes fit in with the neighborhood by making them appear historic.

"I just don't know if everyone's always going to be happy," he said. "But the need is there. The demand is there."

Builder Daniel Stein of Stein Homes hopes to move in June from his home in the exclusive Reserves of Montgomery to a 7,000-square-foot rebuild with a four-car garage that he is constructing at Delray Drive and Cooper Lane.

He plans to live there with his wife and three sons, but has his eye on two other houses in Montgomery for teardowns.

"I will be doing a lot more. Montgomery's got so much to offer, and with all the availability of people wanting to sell their houses," Stein said.

Montgomery officials don't yet know where they will draw the line.

Brink said there are no clear-cut rules on how much is enough. A community has to decide when to start protecting existing neighborhoods, taking into consideration such things as aesthetics and other qualities, as well as the city's housing stock.

"Once the teardowns happen and you increase these McMansions, you eventually are freezing out lower- and lower-middle class folks," he said.

For the meantime, Hornback has settled in on Zig Zag, which attracted him because his is one of four teardown sites neighboring each other. He says residents seem to have accepted him as part of the neighborhood.

"I think they do to my face," he said. "But justifiably, there is a group that is not in favor of this."

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