DemolitionToday’s Newton Tab featured an article by Jim Morrison  about the increasing rate of “teardowns” – older, mostly smaller houses, being demolished and replaced by much larger and more expensive houses.

Alderman Vicki Danberg is quoted about how this accelerating rate of teardowns is changing the overall mix of our housing stock.  As the smaller houses are replaced with much more expensive houses, Newton is slowly becomes a community with less and less room for any but the wealthiest of home owners.

I’m pleased that Alderman Danberg has raised the issue.  As she said “the City and its  residents need to provide some  guidelines as to what is of value to the City and what is not”.

I think there are at least two important and separate issues worth discussing – the value of maintaining an economic mix of housing in the city, and maintaining the character of neighborhoods.   Both of these goals run up against the value of letting homeowners do what they like with their own property and maximizing their property value as they see fit.

The only regulatory check on teardowns that the Tab article mentions is the Historic Preservation Commission.  The commission reviews the demolition of any house older than 50 years.  If the commission deems a particular house historically significant they can order a 12 month delay before it can be torn down.  In many cases that just delays the demolition and drives the cost up, in others it may tip the balance and prevent a teardown.

Here’s  my personal take on the issue.   Historic preservation regulations are clearly not intended to deal with the general issues of affordability and maintaining neighborhood character, and trying to use those regulations to generally slow down the rate of teardowns is misguided.

The vehicle for dealing with the issues should be zoning regulations.  Zoning regulations by definition are our collective rules for balancing property rights against community values.  Zoning rules inherently put some restrictions on what property owners can do with their property in return for maintaining some desired qualities in our housing stick.   The current zoning rules break down in to a few broad categories, none of which really deal with the issues mentioned above.

* Zoning Districts – a given piece of property is within a specific type of Zoning District that limits what can be built there.  If your house is in a single family home district, you can’t tear it down and build a retail store – even if you would make more money that way.  These zoning districts are a very broad way of maintaining some semblance of neighborhood character.

* Setbacks – There are various rules about how close your house can come to the edges of your property.   These rules limit the size of a house you can build in return for maintaining a certain level of consistency in housing and also to prevent your house from impinging too much on the abutting houses.

* Floor/Area Ratios (FAR) – these rules limit the total square footage of a new house to the size of the house’s footprint.  Once again, these rules trade owners ability to build as big a house as they want vs the community’s value of housing consistency and protecting abutter’s properties.

Much of the talk in recent months has been what (if anything) should be done about the growing number of teardowns.  I think that’s the wrong question to ask.  Other than unique historic properties, teardowns are not the real problem.  In fact teardowns are often a very good thing.  They’re a way of renewing our housing stock and replacing older buildings, often in bad shape, with new better housing.

I think that the missing component in our zoning regulation is the explicit recognition that all neighborhoods in our city are not the same.  In a street of 2000 square foot houses, a new 4000 square foot house will stick out like a sore thumb, and change the character of the entire street.  Likewise, that 4000 square foot house will be at a much much higher price point than the house it replaced.

In a different neighborhood that same 4000 foot house would fit right in with the houses around it and be in the same price range.

So how could zoning rules address those sort of issues?   I think rather than only limiting house size by FAR and setbacks, I believe that the zoning rules should also limit replacement houses to some multiple of the torn down house’s size.    How big should that multiple be – 20%?, 50%?   I don’t know.  That’s a matter for broad discussion by the community.

Though its an entirely new concept for our zoning, there’s nothing radical about this idea.   Current zoning law doesn’t allow you to build a 4 story house or a gas station next to my house, even if it would maximize your property value, because that would negatively impact my property and change the character of the whole neighborhood.   Likewise this proposed teardown/rebuild ratio would similarly limit the size of the new home so that it doesn’t negatively impact my property and change the character of the whole neighborhood.

Here’s a few questions for you all:

* Should we be concerned with maintaining an economic diversity of housing in the city or should we striving for the highest possible property values of all property in the city?

* Do you believe replacing a modest size house with a much, much bigger house is a good thing or bad thing for a neighborhood?

* Do you think tying a replacement house’s size to the torn down house’s size is a good idea or misguided?




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