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Tag Archives: Audrey Elder

The Irony of McMansions and Urban Renewal

The same era that brought us Urban Renewal has ironically become the latest victim of our most recent phase of suburban renewal.  That post WWII construction explosion introduced the suburban life to America’s landscape and culture.  VA loans created the answer to the largest scale housing crisis America had ever seen.  With the massively increasing ownership of automobiles, developers had a new option for where to build, and it wasn’t a hard sale.  The concept of living outside of the city in a country-like setting only a short driving distance from employment was not only acceptable to Americans at the time, it became a craze and a symbol of status.

Welcome to the world of track homes and cul-de-sacs, Saturday morning lawn mowing, Sunday afternoon BBQs.  Herds of bike-riding boys tearing along perfectly landscaped rose-adorned streets and avenues.  These were the homes of the middle class, and even that was a new concept in and of itself.

Welcome to the ‘50s.

A new crisis emerged: a growing economy demanded more cars, more roads and more stores to spend that bit of extra money on whatever the new little black-and-white television in the living room highlighted.

We go back to the city for the next scene.  Almost no city was immune; the largest to the smallest became swift demolition sites, razing the country’s oldest homes to replace them with large blocky institutional buildings, shopping centers and parking lots.  Mostly, parking lots.

Courtesy of The Jackson County Historical Society

Courtesy of The Jackson County Historical Society

Slack Mansion, Once stood on Deleware Rd. in Independence MO-  

Dictionary.com defines irony as; an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected.

As this story continues, I have to wonder, maybe this isn’t irony.   As the famous George Santayana quote states, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

America 2008.  The Great Recession, the biggest blue light special on homes since the 1930s.  For the most part those homes were purchased by investors that either rented them after a quick rehab, or flipped  them in hopes of a fast profit.  There was another interesting use for these homes however, though very situational, a little trend began and today it is growing exponentially.  Imagine a highly populated area, great schools, excellent commute to the city, and practically no land to build on.  I saw this myself several years ago during a visit to my old stomping ground outside of Chicago.  My best friend from high school lives in one of those post-war track subdivisions.  Rows and rows of cute moderate ranches, splits and tri-levels.  We were getting in the van to take her son to a football game and she says, “We need to take a little detour through the neighborhood, you won’t believe what I’m about to show you.”

The van glided along wrapping left, then right, then left again, before it stopped.  I couldn’t believe it!!!  There it was, a two story brick McMansion proclaiming its immense displacement amid the short happy little homes on each side.  It towered, it seemingly yelled at me.  All I could say was, “What the crap?”

Courtesy of Charmaine Cunningham, Schaumburg, Illinois

Courtesy of Charmaine Cunningham, Schaumburg, Illinois

2015. Calling this a seller’s market is an understatement. Demand for homes is intensly high, it’s a buyer’s apocalypse, with inventory so low the bulldozers are back in full force to build in response.

The custom-built McMansion is increasing in demand with the wealthier middle-aged and older homebuyer.

Whereas buying a home right now is a fantastic investment, I’m going to throw a thumbs down on this one.  Who will be the buyers of these homes in five to ten years?  The millennials?  Think again.  This age group is taking a complete idealistic 180° turn compared to the last several generations.  They experienced the downturn much differently than their parents.  While mom and dad were worrying about how to pay the mortgage on their impressive new California Split, they were worrying about how to pay back the tuition on a master’s degree while working a kiosk in the mall.  They’re conscious consumers, environmentally aware, and life, to them, is more about experiences than status.  If and when they start a family, they will still care about schools and commute; however 4,000 square feet of wasted natural resources won’t even make the list of housing wants for most of this next group of home-buyers.

This practice of replacing mid-century homes in established neighborhoods with McMansions has begun here in the Kansas City metro, and the residents aren’t happy about it.  Prairie Village, Kansas was recently highlighted after creating a petition to have design guidelines changed to protect the conformity of their neighborhoods, though unfortunately the petition does nothing to protect even more from being demolished.  Already they have lost 42 homes in the last five years to this fad.

2065. Another era of renewal? What resources will they have left to build with? Or, even more terrifying, will the earth even be capable of growing trees to build with?  Surely the carbon footprint of all that construction over the last 100+ years had no effect on Earth’s future, right?

Our buildings are physical examples of our history.  Our buildings also represent something taken from the earth that can’t be put back.

“It has been said that, at its best, preservation engages the past in a conversation

with the present over a mutual concern for the future.”

-William Murtagh, first keeper of the National Register of Historic Places

Audrey L Elder

Past to Present Research LLC

Liana Twente

Director of Archives and Editing – Past to Present Research LLC

 
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Posted by on May 7, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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When You Can’t Save Everything

Where is the highest current shadow inventory? The largest concentration of vacant, abandoned, foreclosed or soon to be foreclosed properties? Not likely in a suburban cul-de-sac. We’re talking about the economically heaviest hit parts of America…in and around the urban core. No one city knows how bad it can get than Detroit, Michigan, because no one city experienced the wrath of the Great Recession with as much devastation. Now, today…no one city has pulled itself out of the ashes with as much progress, creativity, and potential. The rest of the country should be learning. It’s like a gift of prevention. It is also one that comes with making some tough and often difficult and unpopular decisions.

It’s big picture time. And unfortunately we can’t save everything. Which starts getting really hard to decide what to save and what not to save when pretty much every building in your core is of historic age. Options?

  1. Restore (within recommendations from the National Trust for Historic Preservation). This method ensures the visual representation of the building will continue to tell its historically significant story for generations to come.
  2. Rehab- Make it livable by creating investor opportunities, which often comes with the loss of some of a property’s historic attributes.
  3. Reuse- Imagine an old gas station transformed into an ice cream shop. An old Queen Anne Victorian painted in pink and purple stripes on the outside and gutted on the inside to become a dance studio for kids.
  4. Demolition

Number four is what everyone should want to avoid.  When you look at the big picture…versus demolition, the pink and purple house doesn’t sound so bad.

Demolition

So how can anyone determine which gems in the giant jewelry box need to be fully protected? Here’s where we can really learn something from our friends in Detroit. I was fortunate to have the opportunity last month to go to a presentation by Emilie Evans, Detroit’s Preservation Specialist at Michigan Historic Preservation Network. Evans taught us through her own experiences, that creating an informative inventory is everything. Using trained volunteers and smart phone data collection, their network was able to determine the homes most in need of historic preservation, the rest marked for rehabilitation or reuse. Here is her article entitled “Rightsizing Conversation.”

By using proven programs such as the one Evans created, adding a dash of community support and a pinch of creativity, our country can continue on its progression towards recovery without hastily (or greedily) destroying some of the most significant examples of history and historic architecture that stands within and around our urban cores.

The Federal “Hardest Hit Fund” was created in 2010 for the purpose of using $7.6 billion in federal funds to help people in the 18 hardest hit states in the nation stay in their homes. Since that didn’t work out so well the funds are now being used to pay for demolishing homes in blighted areas.

So why are so many organizations and city leaders heralding the use of Hardest Hit Fund monies for demolition? The answer is in the potential for more money. Many areas are literally out of room to develop. In some cities these fund are being used to go beyond the removal of vacant or dangerous blight to all out eminent domain. Here’s just one story out of Charlestown, Indiana.

An emptied lot is grounds for new construction and profit. Back in the 1950s demolition, new construction, and large scale development was believed to indicate progress. This is also the same era that touted that DDT was so safe you could eat it. We’re smarter now, right?

The last and final argument in avoiding demolition – natural resources. If a building is feasibly salvageable, why destroy the natural resources already put in place then turn around and consume more natural resources to build something new? We take the time to recycle a wad of tinfoil but still don’t get it when it comes to recycling buildings.

When all options have been exhausted, sometimes a dangerous building is going to have to come down. That lot can be used for recreation, a community garden, or something else of benefit to the community. At that point – when we are taking care of the infrastructure already put in place – then, we can build more.

Past to Present Research LLC

Audrey L Elder

 
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Posted by on November 17, 2014 in Historic Preservation

 

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