Teardowns

Photo via http://thecuckingstool.blogspot.com

A few months ago, the StarTribune ran an article by Stephanie Audette titled Tension builds in Edina over teardowns. The article highlighted the recently growing trend of people buying homes in Edina just for the lots. The new homeowners tear down the existing home and rebuild a new (bigger! better!) home on the same lot. It was a fine article, mostly about how Edina has adopted a new Construction Management Plan to lessen the temporary impacts the construction process has on neighborhoods (things like parking, noise, truck traffic, dumpsters, etc).

This trend can only mean positive things financially for the City of Edina. Their least desirable housing stock will regularly be removed and replaced with (most likely) high end construction. Property values everywhere will increase and the City will collect more taxes. Along the way they’ll probably require the new builders to replace some aging public infrastructure in places (like sidewalks or curbs). And to top it off, the likelihood that the new owners will be relatively affluent suggests that the residents will have plenty of money available for discretionary spending at local shops. Other than residents who are annoyed by truck traffic, it’s really hard to identify any losers in this situation (but I’ll try anyway).

  • Some folks will mourn the loss of architectural integrity of the neighborhoods. Older bungalows are being replaced by new homes 2 or 3 times the size of the old homes. This is subjective, but some people feel very strongly about it (the word “monstrosity” appears several times in the comments at the StarTribune site). I am sympathetic to residents concerns about the sheer size of some of the new homes.
  • Some existing residents will feel pinched by the rising property taxes. It would be very frustrating to be a long-time homeowner and feel like you could no longer afford to pay the taxes on your home due to escalating property values. Still, it’s hard to feel too bad for someone whose principal complaint is that their home is now worth way more than it used to be worth.

And yet, despite my inability to determine exactly who is losing in this situation, it certainly feels like overall we’re losing wealth as a society (or at least acting inefficiently), since most of the homes being torn down are perfectly usable homes in respectable condition. Since there are thousands of homes in much worse condition in other parts of the Cities that could be torn down at a much lower cost (or empty lots that are practically free), from a societal financial efficiency perspective, investment in Edina seems misdirected. But we also understand that society is not investing, individuals are investing, and what is best for the group is not necessarily best for the individual.

Readers, this topic is admittedly way outside my area of expertise, so I’m hoping you can help me answer the following questions:

1. Is tearing down perfectly usable homes in order to build new homes problematic in ways other than the subjective metrics like the architectural integrity of a neighborhood?

2. What policies could or should be in place that would help redirect some of this investment into other neighborhoods that could arguably use renewal more than Edina?

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8 Responses to Teardowns

  1. Peter Bajurny June 6, 2012 at 4:15 am #

    The durable value of a home is the land it sits on, not the replaceable structure that sits on top of it. The fact that the buyers are able to see this is good. With less restrictive zoning it could even be possible to replace some of these structures with multi family housing.

    Those who sell can take their money and buy the older homes in the metro and rehab them. It could be possible to do this with some kind of tax incentive aimed at those selling in Edina and buying and rehabbing elsewhere in a similar distance from the central cities.

  2. Nathaniel M Hood
    Nathaniel June 6, 2012 at 6:16 am #

    "1. Is tearing down perfectly usable homes in order to build new homes problematic in ways other than the subjective metrics like the architectural integrity of a neighborhood?"

    It's hard to argue that some of these homes aren't 'out of character' with the neighborhood, and some of them certainly look ridiculous. However, successful neighborhoods adapt. That seems to be what is happening in Edina and southwest Minneapolis. I don't believe these neighbors have much valid criticism outside of subjective metrics (and the temporary annoyance of nearby construction sites).

    "2. What policies could or should be in place that would help redirect some of this investment into other neighborhoods that could arguably use renewal more than Edina?

    Do we need these larger homes? Probably not, but this seems like a trend policy will be unlikely to effectively stop. For families with disposable incomes, Edina is an attractive place – all things considered, it's decently located in relation to job centers and even has its own downtown (50 & France). If we stop development there, it's likely to go elsewhere. My fear is that elsewhere would be far outside the Interstate loop into the 3rd & 4th rings.

    I thought this was an interesting post. Good topic. Well-written. And I look forward to reading other comments. -Nate

  3. David Levinson
    David Levinson June 6, 2012 at 7:13 am #

    In Berkeley, there were rules against tear downs, but less so on expansions. So you would see houses stripped down to the sticks, raised up a floor, expanded outward, and reskinned (and presumably the original sticks (beams and posts) replaced once it was out of sight).

    It is an interesting problem, pitting the social use of something vs. consumer sovereignty. My functionally obsolete house is your dream-home. The same applies to infrastructure. This bridge, which would be an improvement in many places, is inadequate here with high standards. It is expensive to move buildings and bridges (though not impossible).

    You (everyone) should read Brand's ''How Buildings Learn''.

    • Nathaniel M Hood
      Nathaniel June 6, 2012 at 8:33 am #

      This was an issue they had (and maybe still do) in the UK circa 2006/7. Strict building regulations prevented tearing down of most older buildings, especially those outside major metropolitan regions near agriculture. From my understanding, the goals were to a) stop sprawl and, b) preserve agricultural heritage.

      As a way around it, property owners did what is described above; they'd keep the original framing, lift the property, add space here and there. The end result wasn't exactly a success. Often times, even with the original building, they lacked "the original character of the neighborhood" as they were often a hybrid traditional English farmhouse meets contemporary European post-modernism.

      What I'm getting at here is that I don't know if the situation would be any better if Edina allowed tear downs versus not, because you'd likely see something what you see in Berkeley or the UK – which is redevelopment anyway.

  4. Julie Kosbab June 6, 2012 at 7:41 am #

    I think an unstated concern about tearing down homes that are nice but not OMG HGTV DREAM HOME is that there's a huge amount of waste in the sense of landfill use. All that torn-down house goes somewhere, and depending on the home's era, much of it doesn't even go to architectural salvage.

    There's a considerable amount of social pressure to build the house that fits whatever is the current standard of luxury. Some older homes can't be fitted out with the latest in double-oven kitchens or steam showers or whatever it takes to make someone feel they "made" it.

    While individuals are welcome to use their own resources as they choose, I have to wonder if you'd also see some contradictory behaviors if you were to buzz these new homes on old lots — look, a Prius!

  5. Melanie June 6, 2012 at 10:47 am #

    If you have strict restrictions against tearing down homes and rebuilding new ones, do you also need strict regulations making sure all home owners maintain and update their homes to certain standards? Is that something we want city councils to regulate and enforce? I am thinking about what will happen in the next 50, 70, 100 years to ALL the current homes in these neighborhoods as they age. I am guessing some will be just fine for a long time and most owners will make incremental updates to keep them "modern", but at some point the neighborhood will end up with homes so old the cost of modernizing them is more than the cost of doing a tear down and rebuilding.

    As far as policies to encourage investment in other areas-look at what is drawing people to invest in Edina or the other further ring suburbs- as Nathan said, it is things like proximity to jobs and commerce. I would add it is also schools and security. If the city invests in improving those things in other neighborhoods, individuals will invest in the homes and properties. Maybe it is chicken and egg?

  6. Sam Rockwell
    Sam June 7, 2012 at 5:50 am #

    This is out of my expertise area as well, but I thought I would take a swing at it.

    From a climate perspective, constantly tearing down old structures and replacing them with larger ones is a pretty bad idea. First, the land owner uses energy and resources to tear down the old house and build the new one — I have to assume that the landowner would use far less energy and fewer resources to update the old structure, thus diminishing our over-sized american impact on climate and the environment. Second, a big private house is less energy efficient than a small one. It takes more energy to heat it in the winter and cool it in the summer. We all know that making cities more dense is great for community building and for transportation efficiency, but it is also great for improving building efficiency. All walls allow heat to escape in the winter but if you live in an apartment, or even a duplex, some of that heat escapes to your neighbor's abode instead of outside. Additionally, a bigger house means more outside-wall surface area and thus more heat-escaping surface area. In the last 50 years Americans doubled their average house size (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5525283) and correspondingly doubled their CO2 output (http://cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/emis/tre_usa.html). Because buildings account for nearly 40% of american CO2 output (http://www.documents.dgs.ca.gov/dgs/pio/facts/LA%20workshop/climate.pdf), stopping trends such as that which is occurring in Edina seems worthwhile.

    So what do you do to reinvest this money? One strategy would be to rework the tax code a bit. If Edina hiked up its development tax (I assume it has one) it could dissuade full redevelopment. Combine that with tax credits for energy efficiency modifications and/or development of multi-unit buildings and you restructure every landowners thinking. Both of these techniques are used in various places through out the US.

  7. mides June 7, 2012 at 7:49 am #

    It seems there is an aspect of waste to tear downs that is just accepted. New and bigger is not always better. I had the same sort of reaction when I read the article. Something seemed off, but I couldn't really figure out what it was. Tear downs will become all to common as Minneapolis and St. Paul work through the federal NSP dollars to deal with the foreclosures and vacants.

    Then again, I might be totally wrong, I love my big old house in the middle of Whittier.

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