A Legal Backlash Against Oversized 'McMansions'

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There's a backlash in many communities against building "McMansions" — larger-than-average homes built on traditionally sized lots — in established neighborhoods with smaller homes. Cities such as Austin, Texas and Atlanta are considering laws that would stop the building of new homes that tower over adjacent houses and fill up small lots in older sections of town. Kathy Lohr reports on attitudes around the nation on this trend.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Noah Adams.

MADELEINE BRAND, host: And I'm Madeleine Brand.

They're often called McMansions, those huge imposing new homes that take over established city neighborhoods. Buying an older home, especially for the lot, and then razing it to build something bigger and more upscale is a real-estate trend that began more than a decade ago. But as these homes have cropped up across the country, some cities are rebelling. They're trying to stop the new construction altogether.

From Atlanta, NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR reporting:

Imagine living on a quiet tree-lined street. The camellia next door is heavy with red blossoms.

Ms. ADELE NORTHROP(ph) (Virginia Highland Resident): And all of a sudden, wake up one morning, the house that was for sale is obviously sold. Not only is it sold, it's gone.

LOHR: Adele Northrop lives in the Virginia Highland neighborhood of Atlanta. The neighborhood was built in the 1930s and she's shocked at how quickly she sees it coming down.

Ms. NORTHROP: When they come into a small city lot and bulldoze, they do massive destruction. It's the demolition that is so unforgiving.

LOHR: The lot has been cleared down to the red Georgia clay, with the exception of a single tree in the front. It's a large shade tree that the developer has tried to save, but the bulldozer has scarred its bark and roots. The rush to tear down older homes in this neighborhood and others led some city council members to take action. Mary Norwood proposed a moratorium on new construction.

Ms. MARY NORWOOD (Atlanta City Council Member): It is the over the top, it is the egregious out of scale that I am trying to isolate, and have been for three years.

LOHR: The Atlanta mayor signed a temporary ban early this year. That led to passionate debate outside City Hall chambers between realtor Lisa Crawford Pringle and Will Colby over whether the moratorium should be extended.

Ms. LISA CRAWFORD PRINGLE (Realtor): The heritage of the neighborhood that I live in and the history...

Mr. WILL COLBY (Realtor): I agree.

Ms. CRAWFORD-PRINGLE: ... is worth the wait.

Mr. COLBY: I agree.

Ms. CRAWFORD-PRINGLE: And I'm willing to put my house, my investment, my money, my livelihood on the line.

Mr. COLBY: But you don't feel like you need advanced notice when people who are changing the rules? People...

Ms. CRAWFORD-PRINGLE: I completely understand.

Mr. COLBY: Remember being on the playground with the kid who couldn't win?


Mr. COLBY: Because they couldn't play by the rules? So what did they want to do? They want to change a rule so they can win. That's what's going on here.

LOHR: Ultimately there were not enough votes to continue Atlanta's moratorium on McMansions, but the mayor and council are revamping the city's zoning codes that date back to 1982. Many cities are facing similar experiences. Austin, Texas enacted a moratorium this month. Harry Savio, with the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, says the rules that city put in to place are just too strict.

Mr. HARRY SAVIO (Home Builders Association of Greater Austin): We were concerned about the maximum size of a house, 2500 square-feet. If you think about it, according to the National Association of Home Builders, last year or in 2005 the average sized home built nationwide was 2,422 square feet. So it really doesn't make sense to set your maximum size at what the national average is.

LOHR: Austin homebuilders are considering whether to sue the city because they object to the way the moratorium was adopted, they say suddenly, without proper notice or public hearings. The issue is complex, from how tall the home can be to how much of the lot space they can take up. McMansion is a term that most in the development and construction industries don't like. But with 6,000, 8,000, even 10,000 square foot homes going up, everyone understands what it means.

Mr. ROBERT LANG (Director, Metro Institute, Virginia Tech): It's like pornography. You know it when you see it. Pure effrontery to virtually anyone.

LOHR: Robert Lang is director of the Metro Institute at Virginia Tech. From the suburbs of Washington, D.C. to Chicago, older in-town suburbs are the target of these high end homes. The boom has led to dispute between the rights of the original neighbors and the rights of those who are just moving in.

Mr. LANG: There is a premium that people will pay to be in an older environment, but they're not particularly happy with the 1955 vision of the good life, let's say. Which is a small home and a car port, maybe. Though people like the property and where its situated, but they prefer to put a house on it that has a, you know, enormous kitchen and master bedrooms complete with their own baths and closets an all the rest of the rigormarole that you get in new construction.

LOHR: Those who've been following the debate say compromise is the key; that developers, builders, architects and planners need to work with neighborhoods to come up with something that they can all agree upon.

Gary Garzinski is with the National Home Builders Association.

Mr. GARY GARZINSKI (National Home Builders Association): It may not end up being a McMansion, but it also may not end up being a replication of the exact products that are in the surrounding neighborhoods from 45, 50 years ago. People looking for new housing are looking for new amenities in a house, and aren't looking for us to just go in and reproduce the 1950's Ramblers, or the 1930's Victorians. So that's where the compromise comes in.

LOHR: Many developers say the moratoriums are pushing away people who want to revitalize and redevelop the inner suburbs of cities. Adele Northrop, who's lived in her 1930s bungalow since 1973, feels development can happen, but differently.

Ms. NORTHROP: I don't think we can keep it the way it was, but I think we can grow orderly, and we can preserve the architectural integrity, and the sense of community that has made in-town so desirable. People want to be here. I'm just not sure they know how to be here.

LOHR: While city governments figure out what kind of new homes they'll allow, some point out the issue is really a different and better debate than in-town neighborhoods have dealt with in the past. Rather than a problem of abandonment and deterioration, this comes down to a problem of managing wealth.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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