commentary (2006-07)

Teardown is a relatively new urban phenomenon

Making Room for McMansions

by Matt Edens

You may have missed it amidst all the worry that a couple of Danish cartoonists may have kicked off World War III, but closer to home the mayor of Atlanta stirred up her own hornet’s nest recently when she issued, at first glance, a fatwa against something many people in the Georgia metropolis hold as sacred as Mohammed. 

Dubbed the “McMansion Ban” by the press, the headlines earned Mayor Shirley Franklin props from people who see the titanic tract houses as totems of suburban sprawl. But those who bothered to read the fine print may have noticed that the mayor’s moratorium on new building permits in four older, upscale Atlanta neighborhoods had very little to do with stopping sprawl, unless a city can sprawl inward. While the “McMansion Ban” made for snappy headlines, the moratorium (since overturned by the city’s zoning board) actually concerned what are typically known in the real estate business as “teardowns.”

The term is pretty self-explanatory: A teardown occurs when someone buys an older, smaller home and, rather than remodel it, just shoves the place over and starts from scratch. While such drastic renovations somewhat rarely occur here, in Atlanta they’ve become run of the mill as the city’s infamous traffic congestion continues to make living inside the I-285 beltway more and more desirable (for the first time in decades, according to the 2000 census, more people are actually moving into central Atlanta than out).

Downtown lofts and inner-city gentrification account for some of the migration, but the teardown phenomenon plays its part, too, principally targeting the city’s older inner suburbs with a desirable address and expensive real estate. Toward Buckhead, in neighborhoods such as Morningside and Lennox Park, developers are snapping up small, 1930s vintage brick cottages for nearly a half-million dollars and then replacing the two bedroom, one bath homes with much bigger houses—with as much as 5,000 square feet, priced at more than a million. 

The trend puts smart-growth advocates and historic preservationists—areas of interest that often overlap—in the unenviable position of trying to decide which is better: building the big house in town or telling the developer to take it to the greenfields 20 miles away?  Further complicating things is the fact that, while some of the new Atlanta houses are truly tacky, others have Arts and Crafts detailing and designs that hardly fit the mental image the term “McMansion” typically conjures up.

Other than in Sequoyah Hills, there have been few teardowns in Knoxville to date. But, with I-40 a constant construction zone and proximity to downtown becoming more desirable, the trend could take hold. Already, over the past decade, development has rapidly claimed most of the remaining vacant land in and around the upscale areas of 37919. And, with empty lots becoming scarce and costly commodities, it may be increasingly tempting to fire up the bulldozer and create some.

Currently, in Sequoyah, Westmoreland, Westwood, Forest Heights or any of 37919’s half-dozen older areas, there would be little the neighbors could do if a developer did decide to knock down the place next door and put up something new (particularly if the developer doesn’t attempt to subdivide the resulting lot). Unlike older, and increasingly upscale inner-city neighborhoods such as Fourth and Gill and Old North Knoxville, none of 37919’s caché communities has any sort of historic or conservation zoning (with the sole, controversial exception of a small section of Lyons View Pike surrounding what was once the J. Allen Smith House).

The situation, in some ways, isn’t all that different from Atlanta.  While all were old enough to be eligible, none of the neighborhoods covered by the “McMansion Ban” benefited from any sort of historic zoning or designation, either. The reason was quite simple—few residents saw any need for it. Unlike inner-city neighborhoods bootstrapping their way back from blight, homeowners in older, pricier subdivisions often see their property values as sufficient protection. Typically they’re right: Encroaching commercial development or slumlords seeking to subdivide houses into rental property primarily seek out the softest real estate markets, not the strongest.

Teardowns, however, transform a market’s strength from a protection to a potential threat. If people will pay $200,000 or more for a tiny, two-bedroom Cape Cod, how much would they pay for a brand new house five times its size on the same lot?