Real Estate: The Teardown Conundrum

I don’t know how many of you have had the pleasure of attending a Newton Historic review meeting, but it’s a real eye opener. Here’s a typical story. A client purchased a house on the south side of Newton. The house is an average home built in 1959 in a modern style. By today’s standard, the house doesn’t work: small bedrooms and baths, closet space is lacking, and the kitchen is a small box with original appliances. The oven is sooo cute but has the capacity of an easy bake oven. The yard is very large and flat and the lot size is well above average for Newton. The client brought her contractor to the house for his opinion about possibilities and cost projections. It turns out it will cost more money to renovate and expand than tear the house down and build new. The couple wasn’t sure if they wanted to tackle a new house design and build, but decided we should start the process to be proactive. 

Any structure that is more than 50 years old in Newton requires a historic review.

Often this is just a formality. The building jacket is pulled and the history of the house and the neighborhood are inspected. The applicant brings pictures of the house exterior from all angles, along with the surrounding properties. If you require a hearing, you must attend the review process meeting a City Hall. After reviewing the pictures, considering the findings and listening to neighbors’ object to every request, someone on the commission makes a motion, someone else seconds and the commission votes. The choices are Preferably NOT Preserved or Preferably Preserved. Preferably NOT preserved gives the owner the green light to proceed with demolition. Preferably preserved comes with a one-year delay in tearing the home down or in special cases, an 18 month delay. 

After the wait time, the owner can tear the house down at will! Many people aren’t aware that once the imposed wait is over, they could build ANYTHING as long as it meets zoning guidelines.

Personally, I’m not advocating for leniency regarding teardowns. I was appalled at the rudeness and lack of respect two members of the commission displayed. I did get the sense that these two members had little regard for what was brought forth and had already made up their minds. What I do know is that every neighborhood changes and evolves. It would be ideal if builders kept in mind the surrounding lots and the unique, historical neighborhoods when planning new homes. Still, people will buy what is built, and I don’t think we should be legislating taste.

With that said, I’m in agreement with the zoning changes implemented in 2011 to prevent enormous homes from being built on tiny lots. It’s perplexing why some permits are granted and some are not. Often, neighbors attend the meetings to learn about the plans and to fight for the status quo. They’re clearly fearful of the imminent disruption to their home life and worried about what the new property will look like. Instead of arguing about the issues, it would be amazing to see neighbors working together to create a homes that bring a 21st century vibe. Perhaps with this kind of collaboration, new construction would improve the neighborhood instead of sticking out like a sore thumb. 

There was a case at last week’s meeting; a home was recently purchased and some serious problems came to light. The owners thought it was more prudent to build new rather than fix the many structural problems they encountered. They hired an architect who designed a more current, larger version of the old house but still worked beautifully with the neighborhood. The neighbors loved the house and were supportive of the demolition. 

In another case, I was taken aback by neighbors’ objections to a house being taken down because the foliage was so special. I kid you not – the discussion dragged on about the “beautiful” foliage which consisted of rose bushes hanging over a chain link fence. Many neighbors’ concerns revolved around the fact that there are too many development projects and the feel of their neighborhood is changing: 

“I think we need to tighten zoning. If one house is on a 35,000-square foot lot, two homes should not be permitted in place of the one.”  

This is the perfect opportunity for the developer/owner to work with the neighbors to design a house that works with the surroundings. It can be done and has been done. Attend a special permitting hearing and you’ll be flabbergasted about your own neighbors’ behavior. You’ll want to lock up your kids and dog and pray they don’t own a gun!

Yikes!

Honestly, I’m torn between property rights and neighborhood concerns. Newton is becoming a town that is unaffordable to most people. Single-family homes under 500,000 no longer exist. Areas that were once inhabited by working class immigrant families are being scooped up by upwardly mobile young professionals and new immigrants. Will this change the fabric of Newton? It already has, in both good and not so good ways. Like it or not developers are paying more money for homes than end users. Is it right to deny seniors the opportunity to make the most amount of money possible to supplement their retirement? Is it right to say yes to one tear down and no to another simply because too many tear downs are occurring and the feel of the neighborhood is changing? Remember, after waiting one year the owner has the right to tear down the home and build the ugliest house possible if it meets zoning and set back guidelines.

I have to believe that we can do more to promote good will among neighbors. I think the Historic Commission has a responsibility to promote harmony, not discord. We can’t stop progress simply because change is hard. I’m sure it was incredibly hard when the Mass Pike tore Newton in half. However, can we deny that the convenience the Mass Pike offers is part of the appeal of Newton? I look at my neighborhood and I’ve witnessed incredible change. The most valuable thing I have learned is not to pass judgment until the project is completed. Most often, once the house is landscaped, it fits in. Maybe we should require a landscaping plan to go along with architectural plans? There is certainly more we can do to keep moving forward in a thoughtful way without creating so much tension between neighbors.

This guest post contributed by:

Margaret Szerlip

Compass

Email:  margaret@compass.com Mobile:  617.921.6860

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Author: Margaret Szerlip

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