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McMansions affect community character in Montgomery

Teardowns and mansionization are a nationwide problem. Montgomery County has few regulatory controls to prevent property owners from demolishing older homes and building new houses that are out of scale and character with neighboring buildings.

Silver Spring McMansion. Photo by the author.

Although Montgomery County has a historic preservation ordinance, not all old homes are historic and there are few tools currently available to residents to prevent speculators from building McMansions like the one under construction in my Silver Spring neighborhood.

Starting in 2006, the National Trust for Historic Preservation began promoting a toolkit on teardowns and mansionization. Among the references are some visual guides. Under "McMansion" in the Trust's "Teardowns Glossary" are several terms applied to the houses: faux chateaux, starter castle, and big box Victorian.

None of these terms truly captures the bricolage of stylistic elements attached to the surfaces of these buildings so I began calling them Cliffs Notes houses.

Cliffs Notes houses are buildings that are out-of-scale and character of the settings where they are built. They draw from a wide array of architectural vocabularies and present them in greatly abbreviated fashion: Revival styles (Colonial, Tudor, Mediterranean), Craftsman/Bungalow, Victorian, and even modernist styles.

Elements are sampled from these historical sources and are reconfigured in the exteriors of single homes. For example, a single Cliffs Notes home may have a Queen Anne tower attached to a main block that features a clipped gable roof with false half-timbering details, quoining, Italianate window surrounds, Palladian windows, and a Greek Revival full-height front porch.

Woodmoor McMansion (right) juxtaposed with a 1930s house (left). Photos by the author.

Teardowns and McMansions of all shapes and sizes are common throughout Montgomery County's affluent neighborhoods, especially Chevy Chase and Potomac. But as a 2006 Montgomery County Planning Department report shows, teardowns are becoming widespread throughout all of Montgomery County's southern suburbs.

2006 Montgomery County Planning Department map of existing residential teardowns.

Over the past few months, workers have been transforming a lot at the corner of Dennis Avenue and University Boulevard West in Silver Spring into a new Cliffs Notes home. Up until earlier this year, the 7,636 square-foot lot had been occupied by a 936 square-foot one-story frame house built in 1952.

1952 home. Photo Captured by Google Streets.

Located in the Four Corners part of Silver Spring, the lot was part of a farm owned by Charles and Virginia Clements. In 1951, the property was carved up to create the Northwood Knolls subdivision.

1948 Montgomery County Real Estate Atlas. Original property tract highlighted.

Maps published in the mid-20th century show the suburbanization of Four Corners with the appearance of subdivisions like Northwood Park (1936), Indian Spring View (1937), Fairway (1934), and Woodmoor (1937).

North Four Corners subdivisions and dates. Adapted from plats
on file with the Maryland State Archives and Google Maps.

By the early 1940s, the subdivisions off of Colesville Road and Bladensburg Road (now University Blvd.) were well established. Transportation and public utilities infrastructure dissected the former agricultural landscape. Sales within the early subdivisions were so successful that developers added adjacent tracts for more homes. This was the case with Northwood Park's Garden Homes.

Typical 1930s Cape Cod in Northwood Park subdivision. Photo by the author.
The earliest homes in the 1930s subdivisions were modest 1-1/2 and 2-story revivals (Colonial Revival, Cape Cod, and Tudor) popular throughout the United States. These homes were targeted to young professionals with families. House sizes and prices were geared towards middle-income, first-time buyers.

1950s Northwood Park cooperative house. Photo by the author.
Later homes, built in the 1950s and 1960s, were one-story ranches and ramblers. Streetscapes in the Four Corners subdivisions still reflect the modest building scales and styles that developers and builders were marketing to young professionals looking for first homes financed by mortgages backed by Federal Housing Administration.

According to Maryland state property tax records, the lot at the corner of University and Dennis was assessed in 2008 at $386,430. Typical of all teardowns, the land ($293,230) was worth far more than the building ($93,200) on it.

After the 1951 subdivision, the property at the corner of Dennis and University was sold in April 1952 to Benson Investment Company, Inc., along with nine adjacent lots in the Northwood Knolls subdivision. Owned by Morris Benson, the Benson Investment Company paid for the lots with a $7,500 mortgage and it borrowed an additional $9,700 for development.

Northwood Knolls plat with McMansion site highlighted.
Original plat in the Maryland State Archives.

After building five homes along Dennis and University, in 1953, Benson sold five of the undeveloped lots along Dennis Avenue to Rosewood Homes, Inc. Rosewood had bought many of the other Northwood Knolls lots from the Clements family at the same time that Benson bought its lots.

Rosewood built brick ranch houses it called "Belvedere" ramblers on its lots along Dennis Avenue (then it was known as Belvedere Avenue). Advertisements for the new homes touted them as houses "with all the extras, located in a fine luxury neighborhood, in close-in Silver Spring." Selling points were proximity to schools, retail, and public transportation. The streetscape the company created in 1952-53 remains intact.

1950s Rosewood Homes houses along Dennis Avenue. Photo by the author.

1952 Washington Post ad.
The Benson Investment Company homes built what it called "Northwood Ranchers." A 1952 Washington Post ad shows the company's model home: the house at 415 University Blvd. West.

Benson described its homes as "3 bedroom contemporary homes" with "advance design, combined with thoughtful site planning." In addition to three bedrooms, each home had a fireplace and a dining ell, finished basement, tiled bath and a kitchen outfitted with the latest appliances, including a garbage disposal. Benson was selling its houses starting at $15,950.

Many of the Benson houses stayed on the market for more than two years. The first house sold in 1954 and it was on Dennis Avenue, one lot in from University Blvd. The house at what later became 415 University didn't sell until October 1955.

The teardown house's first owners were Lawrence and Zelma Lee Sweeney. They financed the house through a mortgage that was not filed with the Montgomery County Recorder of Deeds. Lawrence died in 1961 and his widow sold the property.

Between 1955 and 2009, the property had six owners. The last owner to live in the house at 415 University defaulted on the mortgage and the property was foreclosed. In 2010 the Bank of New York sold the property to United Investments, LLC, for $209,000.

Residents of the North Four Corners neighborhood recall the teardown house as an unremarkable building. Several people who responded to an email query sent to the neighborhood association's listserv described the 1950s house as nondescript. Others commented on the appearance in the mid-2000s of a masonry and metal fence with gates that one writer described as "quite ugly and incompatible with the neighborhood."

University and Dennis intersection showing teardown. Image adapted from Bing Maps.

Most of the people who responded to my email query were satisfied with the scale and style of the new Cliffs Notes home. Several people wrote that the new home, with its architectural embellishments, would be an improvement to the neighborhood. One person wrote about the porch columns, "The new columns in front of the house are distracting as they don't look like anything I've ever seen."

Teardown house (left) and new McMansion (right). Teardown house photo from Google Streets.

Another person, who declined to be quoted by name, wrote about the new house:

It's not a bad house in and of itself… And compared to other fill-ins I've seen… the monster with the turret on University just down from Woodmoor … but then that Victorian door…. With that vaguely Craftsman look—they're trying. However IMHO the house is just too large in proportion to the yard. Frankly, I wouldn't want to be virtually sitting in the intersection. It kind of looms, especially since the surrounding houses are those low profile houses.
My reading of the new Cliffs Notes house is that it looms over the existing homes built after the creation of the Northwood Knolls subdivision and that its architectural bricolage—side-gabled roof, atypical Craftsman porch posts, massive shed dormer, false queen post trusses in gable ends, and mixed window types—securely qualifies it as a McMansion.

New McMansion, University Blvd. (front) facade. Photo by the author.

New McMansion looms over neighboring 1950s homes. Photo by the author.

According to a spokesperson for builder Stony Creek Homes, the new house's style is unique. In a telephone interview, he explained how his company decided to finish the house in what he described as a "cross between craftsman and bungalow" styles. Stony Creek's spokesperson explained that the teardown was necessary because of termite damage to the older house.

Besides the issue of the new Cliffs Notes home's architectural incompatibility with the surrounding neighborhood, there are environmental and economic issues raised by the new out-of-scale house. I have identified four major issues:

  1. Embodied energy waste. The 1952 home had embodied energy. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, this is "the energy required to extract, process, manufacture, transport, and install building materials." The total embodied energy for the new Cliffs Notes house includes the resources expended to demolish the teardown, remove the waste, and construct the new house.

    Preservation architect Carl Elefante, a Montgomery County resident who serves on the county's Zoning Advisory Panel, is a nationally recognized expert on embodied energy. He coined the now popular phrase, "The greenest building is ... one that is already built."

  2. Larger homes have greater energy requirements. Although the new 1076 square-foot Cliffs Notes home is being built roughly in the same footprint of the earlier house, it has greater floor space than the teardown and there are more rooms to heat and cool. The new building may use some energy efficient appliances and construction techniques, but I doubt the house being built conforms to LEED Platinum standards.
  3. Artificially inflated property values. The new home at 415 University Blvd. West will go on the market in early 2011 with a price tag in the upper 500 thousands to the mid-$600 thousand range, according to Stony Creek Homes. If the property sells for $575 thousand, that is nearly $200 thousand more than its last assessed value.

    Adjacent lots with 1950s homes may be more vulnerable to teardown pressures after the new Cliffs Notes home sells in the estimated price range. As the number of moderately priced homes diminishes, Montgomery County faces further erosion of its middle class.

    Professionals like public safety employees, teachers, and government employees who might be able to afford a $390,000 home would be left looking elsewhere if more Northwood Knolls homes were to become teardowns. Also, more homes with higher values mean higher property taxes. This could displace existing residents unable to afford the higher taxes.

  4. Barriers to aging in place. Montgomery County, like the rest of the region and nation, has an aging population. Cohousing in residential communities and institutions has become less desirable and Montgomery County recently has begun looking at how to make its communities more conducive to aging in place.

    The older one and 1.5-story houses are more architecturally compatible with an aging population that larger two or 2.5-story houses. Also, seniors on fixed incomes would be faced with economic challenges paying taxes and for maintenance on a house like the new Cliffs Notes home.

The Cliffs Notes home under construction in my neighborhood does not appear to be a concern to current residents. Attitudes may change, however, if more of the older building stock is torn down to make way for additional McMansions.

Infill McMansion under construction elsewhere in North Four Corners. Photo by the author.

Although there are many old homes in the neighborhood, there is not sufficient integrity for a large historic district that would provide some aesthetic and environmental protections for the existing building stock and landscapes.

Besides historic preservation, other tools identified in the 2006 Montgomery County Planning Department report on teardowns and mansionization include building height amendments to the zoning ordinance; neighborhood conservation district legislation; proposed stormwater management amendments; and, the creation of overlay zones.

Neighborhood conservation districts may hold the key to stemming the tide of Montgomery County teardowns. According to a 2003 National Trust for Historic Preservation Preservation Law Reporter article, conservation districts are created in neighborhoods "with a distinct physical character that have preservation or conservation as the primary goal." The article continues,

Although these neighborhoods tend not to merit designation as a historic district, they warrant special land use attention due to their distinctive character and importance as viable, contributing areas to the community at large. Accomplished through the adoption of a zoning overlay or independent zoning district, neighborhood conservation districts provide a means to protect character-defining streetscapes in older areas threatened by new development or governmental policies that undermine rather than encourage neighborhood preservation.
Sometime down the road, my neighbors may elect to explore creating a conservation district to protect the community's character: the features of the neighborhood that drew its initial owners and occupants to own property and live there.

Fortunately, a modest historical record survives that documents how the North Four Corners subdivisions were created, to whom they were marketed, and who has lived in neighborhood for more than 75 years.

What attracted owners and occupants historically are the same amenities that continue to draw residents to North Four Corners: affordability, access to schools, retail, transportation, and well-built homes with character and stories to tell if anyone is listening.

The subdivision where I live, Northwood Park, is the largest and oldest in the community. Platted in 1936 by Garden Homes, Inc., it is full of ordinary homes in an ordinary twentieth century suburb. Some notable exceptions, however, include the only licensed 1939 World's Fair Town of Tomorrow home.

A neighboring 1950s subdivision is one of only two single-family housing cooperatives built in Maryland under 1950 amendments to the federal Housing Act.

We have a neighborhood association that has been active for more than half a century and our buildings, streets, and open spaces provide the occupants and owners who have moved here, been born here, died here, and who have moved away with the raw materials for community building.

Efforts to preserve community character in Montgomery County may be assisted by a Planning Department with new development and review standards rooted in a new form-based zoning code. As the region's economy bounces back from the recession, it is impossible to speculate what teardowns lie ahead and what the community and planners' responses may be.

David Rotenstein is the proprietor of a historical research consulting service based in Silver Spring and blogs about history and culture in the Greater Washington region and beyond. 


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While the author makes a lot of great points, I wish the existing neighborhood had some redeeming aesthetic value. In part, the teardown phenomenon is how cities grow up, so there's little one can do to prevent "organic" growth. The only sensible mechanisms people can have to protect their neighborhoods from loosing their character (assuming there's any) is through historic preservation and zoning. Preservation is self explanatory, while zoning would impose scale ratios to de-incentivise the over building of lots. Good luck to the person who's tasked with coming up with those guide lines.

As for the mishmash of styles found on these buildings, there where identical criticisms of the original victorian period. For better or worse, that genie's out of the bottle. Unless we go back to a James Kunstler vision of a pre-industrial existance, we will always have a heterogeneous aesthetic environment. Personally, I'm happy to put up with experimentation that might grate the nerves to allow some freedom of choice, but for those who don't, there are options like historic districts or super strict HOA neighborhoods.

by Thayer-D on Jan 6, 2011 4:21 pm • linkreport

I disagree. Who cares if someone replaces a car-dependent suburban house from a previous decade with a new one?

Outside of historically designated buildings, who cares what someone else does with land that they purchased legally? We must resist our control-freak tendencies on this one. Telling someone what to do with their land as long as they follow applicable zoning and building codes would make us no better than a NIMBY.

by Cavan on Jan 6, 2011 4:27 pm • linkreport

I am not sure the featured neighborhood is worthy of historic designation. I am not a big fan of McMansions either, but if the property owners are conforming to the existing zoning laws, there are limited options.

by William on Jan 6, 2011 4:36 pm • linkreport

#4 isn't a valid point, the county has senior tax exemptions, and well, many people believe stairs help them stay in shape longer. If you really want people to be able to age in place, build public transit with the new property tax revenue raised from the teardowns.

by Alex on Jan 6, 2011 4:36 pm • linkreport

To echo Thayer's point, I'm not convinced that teardowns are bad in and of themselves - this is part of the natural evolution of a city. Cities are dynamic places, lots change hands, buildings are built, demolished, etc.

Likewise, I don't see the rationale for claiming these teardowns and new houses encourage "artificial" inflation of property values. If the house sells on the open market at a higher price, what's artificial about that? That's the entire reason the teardown occurred in the first place - the existing land uses were undervalued.

Now, dealing with the costs associated with this kind of change is a valid question, but I'm not sure that the fact change is happening is noteworthy at all.

by Alex B. on Jan 6, 2011 4:45 pm • linkreport

It's not limited to MoCo in MD, it's slowly creeping over the county border into Prince George's as well. It's hard to get a good streetview of this home vs. the surrounding, but check out the home at 6308 Ager Rd., Hyattsville. I can't tell if they build around the original 1,138 home or tore down and rebuilt with a new home that's 3-4x larger.

The property values in this part of the county are less than half of those a mile or so down Rt. 410 in Silver Spring so it makes even less sense to build this monstrosity. It stands out horribly with its surrounding neighbors.

by Scott on Jan 6, 2011 4:47 pm • linkreport

The affordability issue is genuine. The solution is to allow construction of a two-family house on this lot. A two-family house provides more affordable housing for the owner (rent helps pay the mortgage) as well as the tenant. Two family houses also are much more energy-efficient.

This is an ideal location for such a house - it is as transit-accessible as a house can possibly be in Montgomery County, located at a busy intersection on one of the best-served bus corridors in the county. Under some versions of the proposed zoning code rewrite now being developed by the Planning Board, this site would be among the transit-accessible locations where two-family houses could be built of right.

by tt on Jan 6, 2011 4:50 pm • linkreport

A lovely post that reminds us that a good amount of "historic preservation" is about control over people's choices and eradication of private property rights.

by Fritz on Jan 6, 2011 4:54 pm • linkreport

The new house seems pretty ordinary, if a bit tacky. The repeated use of the term "McMansion" to describe an ordinary two-story home with a few tacky features, seems hyperbolic.

If the land is worth $300k and you're building a house to sell for $600k, there's not really a budget for an architectural masterpiece.

by David desJardins on Jan 6, 2011 4:56 pm • linkreport

I must take issue with your four major issues:
1-Embodied energy: while its correct that the greenest building is one that is already built, an existing building that is infested with termites at best requires remediation and rehab and at worst is structurally deficient. An existing building that is unusable without extensive repairs has lost its embodied energy and stands in the way of the highest and best use of that land because it isn't being used. I would argue that use is better than disuse in the urban environment.
2-Larger houses require more energy: True, but the change from 936 feet to 1076 is hardly enough to get excited about. Especially when one considers the efficiencies gained in heating and cooling of late. Plus the added efficiencies of modern windows, doors and insulation. With a programmable t-stat, I would not be surprised if the new house uses less energy day to day than the one it replaced.
3-Inflated property values: If building one McMansion forces the neighbors out of their homes, then they were living too close to the edge. I can't argue this point too much, but if you have no room in your budget for unexpected expenses then you bought too much house. Plus everyone knows that taxes are pegged to appraised values and you have to know they change. I feel like its on you to buy what you can afford. As for gradual appreciation in value: isn't that what every homeowner hopes for?
4-Barriers to aging in place: If you're aging in place, you're staying in the home you already own, not buying a new McMansion. The upkeep and taxes on a new house are therefore moot.

I do agree with you that the new house is pretty awful looking. That's unfortunate, but its a slippery slope to dictate what types of houses can be built in an area. When I was shopping for a house I consciously avoided neighborhoods with HOAs. IMHO its my house and I'll do as I damn well please within the law.

I think the bigger problem is that no one wants to live in a 1000sft house that is dwarfed by a neighboring McMansion at 2,500sft as I have seen in Arlington and Falls Church. In that case your energy concerns would be warranted as well.

This has got to be my longest comment ever.

by dano on Jan 6, 2011 4:56 pm • linkreport

Correction - as transit-accessible as a house not near Metrorail can possibly be...

by tt on Jan 6, 2011 4:57 pm • linkreport

This article is nicely detailed and I agree that I don't like the way some of these so called McMansions look. However, it is ridiculous to complain if they meet the zoning requirements at the time of purchase and construction. I don't like the look of the other houses that existed before the "McMansion" either, thankfully those people don't have to worry about me deciding how their house should look.

The authors well intentioned concern over the size of our homes is not really the issue here. Go protest any of the millions of large (2000sqft+) new or existing suburban homes. Infill versions of the same only indicate the value that person puts on a shorter less, consuming commute.

The comments from the neighboor who can't quite come up with a problem other than its to big and I don't want it here is typical. He even says "Frankly, I wouldn't want to be virtually sitting in the intersection.". Well the previous house was there and it was OK.

RE the four points
These are good points until you try to apply them. The main point being don't dispose of anything unless I say its OK. They require forcing others to do things your way with their property. If you like the old home that was there. Buy it. Otherwise, others will and do with it what they legally can.

The part about rising property values is applicable to almost every urban gentrifier reading this article.

The article seems like preaching to the choir. I don't think it convinces anyone who wants to build such a house. It also depends on subjective taste and sets a tone of condescension with the term "Cliff Notes" home.

by leeindc on Jan 6, 2011 4:59 pm • linkreport

I've witnessed a lot of tear downs along Arlington Ridge road over the past 15 years. For the most part, the houses that were put up replaced some pretty run-down oddballs and low-quality tract style houses. However the lots are big and the setbacks large, so with a few exceptions, the larger houses work out ok. I wasn't bothered by the trend too much, however one of my favorite remaining oddballs (a well-maintained shed style modern house nestled and hidden by huge trees) was taken down to be replaced by one of the works of Arlington's lesser tear-down home builders, *cough* *troutman builds* *cough cough*, in the typical McMansion Mishmash style.

by spookiness on Jan 6, 2011 5:02 pm • linkreport

I agree that tear-downs (especially in bland neighborhoods like North Four Courners) are a natural progression in city building. I might propose a different approach be taken, however, to preserve affordable housing, energy waste, and tax inflation: Make it denser.

What if two or three townhouses had gone up in its stead? They could be designed in a complimentary manner to the rest of the neighborhood, rear parking off Dennis Avenue, and perhaps even help define the intersection a little better. It would generate more tax revenue, but each unit would remain affordable and tax-friendly. A little added density at the intersection isn't such a bad thing, considering the nearby retail, the ample bus service, and parks and other walking destinations in North Four Corners.

Anyone else for townhouses on tear-downs?

by Dave Murphy on Jan 6, 2011 5:02 pm • linkreport

I don't know what the size of the new house in the picture would be, but it has to be more than 1076 sf. Maybe 1076 sf is the footprint, but the floor area (including the second floor) could be 1800 sf.

by David desJardins on Jan 6, 2011 5:04 pm • linkreport

@Dave Murphy

More density. Absolutely.

There are two separate issues here - the decision to tear down, and the decision on what replaces it.

by Alex B. on Jan 6, 2011 5:06 pm • linkreport

This article is nicely detailed and I agree that I don't like the way some of these so called McMansions look. However, it is ridiculous to complain if they meet the zoning requirements at the time of purchase and construction.

I live in California where we have design review. Every new house has to have its appearance approved by the planning commission, who have essentially arbitrary power (you can appeal to the city council). This does have the downside of elevating their own inflated notion of their own taste. But their taste is certainly better, on average, than what you get from spec builders.

That said, we're also used to spending $300/sf for construction, which dramatically increases the budget for purely aesthetic features.

by David desJardins on Jan 6, 2011 5:06 pm • linkreport

Stop trying to curtail private property rights. If someone wants to have a better quality of life by getting a bigger, modern home don't stop them because you're jealous of their financial success. Go out and get a real job (try starting a business) instead of working for the government like you probably do. The bottom line is Americans like "McMansions" or they wouldn't buy them. But let me guess, you think we should live in human filing cabinets near train tracks or something?

by Emil on Jan 6, 2011 7:35 pm • linkreport

i hope posts like this aren't an indication of what we will see on this blog in 2011.

by deaf90 on Jan 6, 2011 7:51 pm • linkreport

I can understand the logic as far as energy conservation. However, I think it gives a neighborhood character when you have lots different looking houses of different sizes and styles. Maybe some are going to be not to your taste or won't "fit in" but it's an improvement over everyone having an identical cookie cutter house. Plus it leeds to having more economically diverse communities as you can have people living in a $700,000 mansion living next to people in a $250,000 ranch house. That's actually a good thing.

Also, screw old people if you are retired and don't have a job gtfo to the countryside. You don't need to be within a mile of Metro or 495 to sit around in your pajamas and watch matlock all day. "Aging in place" is a direct cause of the suburban sprawl that people are always complaining about.

by Doug on Jan 6, 2011 8:04 pm • linkreport

The only bitching about complaining about teardowns and mcmansions in older suburbs are the people who can't afford them in the neighborhoods and r stuck with their old sh&tty homes. Would they rather these homes be built out on farmland in exurbs on a 2 acre lot or revitalize an aging or decaying inner suburb neighborhood? Which one sounds more like smart growth.

by mark on Jan 6, 2011 8:08 pm • linkreport

I don't think this is a big deal. McMansions are over their top.

First of all, because less and less people are gonna get mortgages that will allow them to build one.

Secondly, the general economic misery will push builders to go back to smaller houses.

Furthermore, I think McMansions on "new" ground as much worse. If you want to see ugly McMansions, drive up US-15 in Loudoun County towards MD. Beautiful hills with pastures dotted with ghastly McMansions. Yuk. I much prefer them replacing older houses that are at the end of their lives.

Finally, having McMansions spread through other neighborhoods prevents them from clustering and taking over entire neighborhoods/suburbs/cul-de-sacs. Personally, one of the saddest urban sights is a bunch of very similar McMansions close together. The sadness of lack of creativity is beyond words. There's a bunch being built on Hooes Road between Silverbrook and 123, accros from the Lauren Hill Golf Club. Brrrr...

by Jasper on Jan 6, 2011 9:15 pm • linkreport

I didn't want to breech the topic but Doug @8:04 sort of "went there" regarding my feelings about seniors and housing. I won't say that seniors should be kicked out of their houses, but I think that in many communities it would be more beneficial not only to neighborhood vitality, but from a fiscal perspective, and utilization of existing resources and infrastructure (i.e. schools mostly). This is moreso an issue in suburbs of a certain age, and in certain places, where people of all the same age and class moved in at the same time. I guess the larger issue is about the housing market and the forces keep people (besides sentiment) in homes that really may not suit their needs anymore. This is one of the reasons why I think that a mix of housing types (and prices) in a neighborhood is good, as you will get more organic "churn" over time.

by spookiness on Jan 6, 2011 10:58 pm • linkreport

It's only "out of scale" if it's the first. A few years later, when another home is redone, it's no longer out of scale because half the street is larger.

It's like arguing that a 19 story building is out of scale in a neighborhood with 10 story buildings. Um, wasnt the first 10 story building out of scale with the (at the time) 4 story neighborhood....?

And beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If this is a custom home, don't you think the owner is pretty fond of the design? Why else would they ask for that? I find some of those ranch homes to be very ugly from the outside, although I am a fan of the ranch house plan.

My one major complaint about the modern home is that the garage is front and center. In fact, it's the centerpeice. Want to walk to the front door? It's hiding behind the garage area, and you need to walk on the driveway to get there....impossible if someone is parked.

Meanwhile, old homes had the garage off to the side, with the front door in the middle.

As for the author, I feel like he'd have a heart attack if he visited key biscayne florida.

You might want to sit down for this.

Look who's at the end of the block,-95.677068&sspn=33.626896,69.873047&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Key+Biscayne,+Florida+33149&ll=25.686687,-80.175487&spn=0.004709,0.008529&z=17&layer=c&cbll=25.686642,-80.175418&panoid=lkIZF9xG9rMOmY1aesilQw&cbp=12,277.8,,0,12.58

New neighbor,-95.677068&sspn=33.626896,69.873047&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Key+Biscayne,+Florida+33149&ll=25.686542,-80.171249&spn=0.00467,0.008529&z=17&layer=c&cbll=25.686754,-80.171415&panoid=U7yVGZPPykTfXUx9NfV5Bw&cbp=12,60.42,,0,8.7

Turn around to look who is across the street.,-95.677068&sspn=33.626896,69.873047&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Key+Biscayne,+Florida+33149&ll=25.689197,-80.17269&spn=0.002354,0.004265&z=18&layer=c&cbll=25.689197,-80.17269&panoid=RfsZfMEoE0H6FulZpBttPg&cbp=12,283.77,,0,9.53

Although at $5million+ these aren't mcmansions, theyre the actual thing.

by JJJJJ on Jan 7, 2011 1:00 am • linkreport

What a beautiful home! I'm not sure the old building was a great use of space and two small for more than a couple people.

by Jeff on Jan 7, 2011 1:42 am • linkreport

I disagree with this post. I live in Arlington near an area that has been going through this for years. I have friends that live in the old homes. They have features that turn people off to buying. There is often only one bathroom. The bedrooms are tiny and sometimes do not have closets. The kitchens do not have a dishwasher nor space to add one. The electrical work is built to a long-expired code the does not include grounding or modern safety features like GFI. In short, when these houses go on the market many people pass them up for something newer and further out.

By building a new home on the same lot, we update the housing stock for modern tastes, which include closets, master bathrooms, kitchens with convenient appliances and modern safety codes.

It may cost energy to build a new home, but it costs more to have people move further away and become fully car dependent.

I have seen some really ugly tear downs in my neighborhood and some really great ones.

In the end, its their property, and I don't think the issue of being out of character with the neighborhood is large enough to warrant stepping in with regulations. if there are specific homes that should be preserved like the one for the World Fair, then perhaps that specific house should be preserved, but not the whole neighborhood.

by Michael Perkins on Jan 7, 2011 6:20 am • linkreport

This menace isn't limited to the suburbs, it is happening increasingly in the city in the form of out of proportion "pop-ups" added to rowhouses. I don't know about historic designation, that seems like too blunt an instrument, but I do think zoning laws ought to be changed.

by Sligo on Jan 7, 2011 7:47 am • linkreport

Add me to those who disagree with this post. While I personally wouldn't want that house, I wouldn't want the one the tore down, either. People nowadays want lots of space in their houses. I'd much rather see infill teardowns happen to accommodate that desire than see more McMansions popping up in Frederick or Loudoun counties.

by jcm on Jan 7, 2011 7:49 am • linkreport

Seems to me that this comes down to 'What non-economic requirements should be placed on residences in low-density areas?' Generally, I'd try to encourage higher densities, where appropriate, but that's about it.

In particular, complaints about teardowns and McMansions miss the point-- large investments in low-density areas are problematic, but the answer is to encourage investment in high-density areas.

by MattF on Jan 7, 2011 8:04 am • linkreport

Just a quick note to emphasize what I wrote about the neighborhood not being a potential historic district: "Although there are many old homes in the neighborhood, there is not sufficient integrity for a large historic district that would provide some aesthetic and environmental protections for the existing building stock and landscapes." There are, however, some individually significant buildings and at least one small (44 +/- buildings) potential historic district in the neighborhood.

In answer to the folks who advocate wiping clean the mistakes of 20th century car-dependent suburbanization, there are ways to preserve the scale and character of the North Four Corners subdivisions while achieving more density. If the Planning Board ever goes forward with the temporarily shelved proposed development standards that include tandem houses, cottage courts, etc. proposed during the zoning rewrite process, there will be many opportunities to replace small, older houses with affordable, transit (bus) accessible options that don't completely eradicate the neighborhood's character and inherent values built up over more than 75 years.

by David Rotenstein on Jan 7, 2011 8:09 am • linkreport

I don't totally agree with the article, but some of the replies are really mean-spirited.

by Fred on Jan 7, 2011 8:33 am • linkreport

If you look at all of the houses, even the older ones, you can see the effects of mass builders over the last 70+ years. As a whole, neighborhoods would benefit from some design review, but also have several different designs to choose from, such that there is sufficient choice, but still something that doesn't take away from the neighborhood. Also, do they even build ranches anymore? Maybe that house is the smallest and cheapest thing that family could build.

A side note on the aging in place. Some of you guys need to ask yourself the same question 30-60 years from now, when you may need to be put in a facility. Unless nursing homes and other senior options improve, why should we deny a person the right to live where they own property until they die. Why not gradually add density and teardown as property becomes vacant. That end of the "health" economy doesn't need any more thousands when we could keep that in the real estate and community amenities economy.

by Kristen on Jan 7, 2011 8:56 am • linkreport

@Kristen: "why should we deny a person the right to live where they own property until they die"

Who is "denying them the right?" Just because they aren't "economically fit" enough to handle rising assessments (even with senior tax credits), doesn't mean they're being denied their "right" to stay.

by ChrisW on Jan 7, 2011 9:24 am • linkreport

I respectfully disagree with this article. We are blessed to live in a metropolitan area where it makes economic sense to do tear-downs and infill construction on aging starter-homes. In so many other parts of the country these inner-beltway starter homes become slums as the construction investment dollars flow to the new outer suburbs. I would much rather see investment here rather than another new home in Frederick

by Mark Washburn on Jan 7, 2011 9:33 am • linkreport

This is tilting at windmills. Tiny ranch houses on relatively large lots in the near suburbs are what is out of place. Sure these bigger houses use more energy, but you can also do a lot more in them (including put more people in them and work from home). In addition, building these things in the near suburbs lowers energy consumption because driving distances are shorter.

My next door neighbor and her next door neighbor are both elderly widows living alone in houses that haven't changed noticeably in decades. What a waste of two nice pieces of property. Eventually they'll move on and I guarantee the new owners will expand if not rebuild the houses which will benefit the neighborhood.

by movement on Jan 7, 2011 9:38 am • linkreport

Actualy tear downs in the area of 4 corners and other inside the beltway zones are a good thing. People who have money want larger houses, who wouldn't.

They have two options. Buy a huge house 20 miles from the city, thus making for a long car driven commute. Or buy something closer tear it down and build new. Even if its in a neighboorhood without good mass transit, its still closer to DC = less driving.

by Matt R on Jan 7, 2011 9:43 am • linkreport

Outside of environmental/drainage concerns, I really don't see the problem with a lot of these teardowns. First of all, those 1950s Rosewood ranch houses are ugly. The examples of "McMansions" like the one on University Blvd isn't even that bad: it's actually nicer than a lot of those ranch houses.

I've seen much uglier McMansions driving down River Rd. on my way to Potomac.

by JustMe on Jan 7, 2011 9:55 am • linkreport

I'm not sure I'd characterize the Silver Spring house singled out in this article as a McMansion.

No, it doesn't fit within the existing architectural vernacular of the neighborhood, but I'm not sure I'd argue that it's overtly offensive in context. It looks like a pretty nice house with a decent design that was built with good quality materials.

It's not even particularly huge, even given the lot size. If anything, those neighboring 1950s homes are unusually tiny, even for their era (although I must say that they also look surprisingly well-maintained compared to most homes from that era. It looks like a nice place to live).

by andrew on Jan 7, 2011 10:14 am • linkreport

Tearing down houses and replacing them with newer houses isn't the problem. A mix of architectural styles is interesting and neighborhoods need changes in housing stock in order to remain vibrant. As others have said, many of these old houses don't fit what people want today - bedrooms are too small, not enough bathrooms, and tiny closets. Personally I think the trend as of late has been that people build too much house, but I think houses will get a little smaller due to the recession and tightening of credit.

That said, these examples are really ugly. The University Blvd. house doesn't look that huge (I wouldn't say it's "looming" over the neighborhood in that picture) but it is pretty ugly. What is it supposed to be architecturally? It's like some neo-craftsman thing, and those columns are hideous. That's my problem with it. The house it replaced was absolutely nothing special - ugly in its own right.

That house you have in the second picture is an absolute monstrosity. Garages FRONT AND CENTER! A mishmash of architectural styles. Ridiculous ugly granite facade. And enormous and out of proportion to the house next to it.

The North Four Corners house you have in that last picture doesn't look too terrible, but it's not the best picture.

by MLD on Jan 7, 2011 10:29 am • linkreport

You wanna see some REAL infill McMansion in Silver Spring, you should come to my neighborhood. Here's an overview of the FIVE new homes built over the last 10 years which completely dwarf the rest of the neighborhood:

The 4 houses in red are new. The house to the left of the blue square was actually MOVED about 40 feet to the west to split his lot in two to make room for a new home, which has now finished construction but isn't in this photo. The cute little Cape Cod at the corner of Forest Glen on Forest Grove Drive just to the west of this picture was also just purchased for a major reno. They tore down the side porch and just built a new addition to the home that is larger than the existing building. It looks a little ridiculous and was not a creative design. Full discloser: my parents tore over half the roof off our 1950s rambler down the street from here to add a second floor and new vestibule out front 10 years ago, but we've received many positive compliments from neighbors over the years at how well-done it is. Considering it makes our home still just under 2,000SF (not including the basement), it still fits in with the neighborhood.

by Eric on Jan 7, 2011 2:52 pm • linkreport

In my haste to write the above comment (during lunch at work), I realize the writing isn't exactly above average.

I meant "Full disclosure" not discloser.

by Eric on Jan 7, 2011 3:16 pm • linkreport

Fascinating history of the Four Corners area. In the 1990s I rented a room in a house that was built in 1959, so it's in a group that was built a little after the subdivisions listed on your map.

Even if some houses are structurally deficient enough to be torn down, though, why do they have to be replaced with houses with so many levels and steps? The more two- and three-story mansions, townhouses, etc. we build today, the more elderly people we're going to have incapacitated for falls and broken hips in the next couple of decades.

One of my Massachusetts cousins and his wife had the right idea, I think. Once their younger kid got married, they sold the two-story house they raised their family in and had a one-story home built in a new development. Most of the other houses in the development are big two-story suckers, but my relatives put their foot down and got what they wanted. It's a lovely, energy-efficient home and they should be able to live in it -- without falling down the stairs -- long after they retire.

by Greenbelt Gal on Jan 7, 2011 3:42 pm • linkreport

I resided from 1960 to 1985 in the area labeled as Dawn Village on the 1948 Montgomery County Real Estate Atlas shown above, and am quite familiar with this location.

Tear-downs are a fact of life, and many of these postwar homes (the one I lived in was built in 1948) are in need of replacement, which implies a tear-down and construction of a new home.

I cannot agree with the complaints raised in this article. As long as the new structure complied with setback requirements for this zone, and was otherwise built to the relevant building code, I do not see what the issue is here.

by C. P. Zilliacus on Jan 9, 2011 10:14 pm • linkreport

In my eyes, you have no moral right to a particular "Community Character", and only in some cases have a limited legal right. Strict regulation of the sort that the writer would support is far more often a problem for smart development than a benefit. Nitpicking about whether the building size or purely stylistic architectural elements in a monoculture suburban residential subdivision are "acceptable" is the height of petty power tripping, the sort that makes it difficult for people to push functional urban planning. Is there anything else to say?

by Squalish on Jan 9, 2011 11:51 pm • linkreport

@Squalish: Nitpicking about whether the building size or purely stylistic architectural elements in a monoculture suburban residential subdivision are "acceptable" is the height of petty power tripping, the sort that makes it difficult for people to push functional urban planning.

What is your evidence for that? I live in a community with design review for new homes, it has some annoying effects and some beneficial effects, but it doesn't really affect urban planning at all.

by David desJardins on Jan 10, 2011 12:15 am • linkreport

Also interesting on the 1948 Montgomery County Real Estate Atlas image are the words "MD-VA Highway," roughly where present-day Dennis Avenue and Eastwood Avenue intersect today.

That implies that planners in the 1940's were already considering the alignment of the road which was later to become the Capital Beltway - and had this route been followed, there would not have been the extensive tear-downs of homes in Fairway area of South Four Corners that came in the late 1950's, when an early segment of the Circumferential Highway (as it was called before it got the name "Beltway") was constructed through Fairway, the Indian Spring Country Club (site of Blair High School and the Silver Spring YMCA today) and the Sligo Creek Golf Course.

by C. P. Zilliacus on Jan 10, 2011 11:31 am • linkreport

im sorry but that house in the pic is a really good improvement in that block.
the one that was there before was REALLY UGLY n was falling apart like the ones next to it.
a lot of the houses in that area need a lot of repair anyways
so new better looking house is a much need improvement

by D on Jan 11, 2011 8:11 am • linkreport

You know, I'm considered a progressive liberal democrat by most standards and I sympathize with many of the points brought up here. However, where do property owners' rights come into this equation? I'm sorry but people should be allowed to build on their property. This whole "neighborhood character" argument, putting endless regulations and rules on everything a property owner can or can't do on their own property is antithetical to most Americans' values. It is articles like this that make this blog sometimes read like a precious little New Urbanist nerd blog out of touch with the larger American population.

by Mike on Jan 11, 2011 8:44 am • linkreport

I drive past this every day, and I have to say, aside from the awkward looking columns, it's a huge improvement. Who cares about the character of a neighborhood when it's a bunch of crappy mid-century cookie cutter houses? Not everything old is worthy of preservation.

That said, what person that could afford this house would want to live on this incredibly busy, noisy road? If you can afford $600,000 wouldn't you either opt for an area with more amenities or one that's quieter? Why live in this awful no-man's land on a six-lane road?

by Chris on Jan 11, 2011 9:40 am • linkreport

well said "Chris" I agree completely

by Mike on Jan 20, 2011 12:13 pm • linkreport

One of the last things I photographed on my way out of Silver Spring during my move to Atlanta was the house featured in this article. The house is on the market for $649,000 and it was sporting a banner: BUY THIS HOUSE.

by David Rotenstein on Feb 23, 2011 11:49 am • linkreport

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