Southwest Super-sized

Several new homes rising on teardown sites

An increasing number of Southwest homes are in the path of bulldozers as property owners look to replace aging properties with larger, suburban-style homes.

Property owners involved in teardown projects say some of the older homes, despite their historic charms, are in such bad shape they’re not even worth saving.

The teardown trend has concerned some community leaders who say the new homes, often dubbed McMansions, don’t blend in with the character of neighboring properties. Some span entire lots, dwarfing their neighboring structures.

Fulton resident Lynn Steele who lives near several new constructions said the new properties would fit better in the suburbs.

“It’s just a shame that they’re slapping these things up and have no regard for the seal of the neighborhood,” she said. “Even the way sit on the property is too high. They look like they should be in Apple Valley or Woodbury.”

The Fulton Neighborhood Association (FNA) weighed in on the debate during an April board meeting and passed a resolution calling for the city to weigh in on the aesthetics of the new homes.

The resolution stated: “FNA requests that the city of Minneapolis adopt zoning codes to make newly constructed homes and remodeled homes, more closely match the surrounding properties, in style, in the amount of lot consumed by the home and in height.”

The city doesn’t have data on how many homes have been torn down to make way for new houses. It counts the number of wrecking permits pulled, but not how many homes are almost completely demolished but don’t require wrecking permits. It also doesn’t consider how many demolished houses are replaced by new homes, although it does issue building and remodeling permits.

Fulton appears to be one of the epicenters in the city for teardowns. The redevelopment projects dot almost every block.

The trend is also on the rise in Linden Hills, Lynnhurst, Lake of the Isles, Lowry Hill, Kenwood, East Isles, Bryn Mawr, Cedar-Isles-Dean, Nokomis and North Minneapolis.

Southwest is a popular, lucrative target for those hoping to cash in on teardowns and buildups.

Real estate agent Mark Funk says a homeowner stands the best chance to see appreciation in their home values if they buy a moderately priced home and replace it with higher priced homes near other upscale properties.

He said it’s typical to build a replacement home for $550,000 to $650,000 alongside existing homes priced around $250,000. “A new house can say people invested time and money in the neighborhood. It’s a nice selling point for the area,” Funk said.

Houses are becoming investments owners hope will pay off in the future. The idea is to buy a house cheaply and rebuild as big as possible since houses sell by the square foot, said FNA President John Finlayson, a home appraiser who also chairs the city’s Board of Adjustment.

For example, a house at 49th Street and Newton Avenue South went from a 1.5-story bungalow to a 3-story Tudor mini-mansion. It sold for $325,000, according to the Hennepin County property tax records.

At 38th Street and Washburn Avenue South, a home purchased for $325,000 in 2004 was replaced with a buildup worth $1,150,000, according to tax records. Similarly, houses on the 4800 block of East Harriet Avenue South, 4800 block of Irving Avenue South and 4900 block of Morgan Avenue gave way to much larger, more expensive homes.

Land has become so valuable in pockets of Southwest that several houses near the Edgewater Condos for sale from the same broker aren’t even being advertised as homes but as lots. A promotional leaflet touted the lots priced at $2,399,000 each, “Prime for development near the new Edgewater condominium project, or simply as a pristine three-lot location to build one’s dream estate!”

The teardown trend began with the razing of “alley houses,” or small, quickly built homes originally intended to be temporary, noted a 2002 publication from the National Trust for Historic Preservation call “Taming the Teardown Trend.” Next to go under are single-level and 1.5-story homes, as in Fulton. Trailing behind are condemned houses, or those beyond repair.

An issue of taste

Finlayson said community objections center on the design of the new homes, which many consider out of character with the older neighborhood homes.

Finlayson said he doesn’t want to make it difficult to rehab houses or improve an area.

“It’s important that Minneapolis not dilute its high-quality housing with inferior infill,” he said. “It’s an issue of how do you balance private property rights against the historic character of the neighborhood?”

Even though some mega-homes are designed to fit into the neighborhood, more modern constructions give the urban area a radical makeover.

Some neighbors say they favor the “before picture,” which they fear is being snuffed out overnight.

Aesthetics aside (see sidebar), for homes overshadowed by McMansions, there are additional issues. Jen and Rolf Pederson own a 1945 rambler beside three newly constructed homes at 49th Street and Abbott Avenue South. Throughout several years of construction, they’ve endured the constant drone of machinery, construction workers’ music blaring while their young children nap, and the flurry of dust and nails.

Other issues are drainage problems, obstructed views and hiked property taxes.

Owners of buildups say they hope the sacrifices are worthwhile. The Pedersons’ neighbor to the south, Tom Miller and his wife, April, like their new home because it’s maintenance-free. They moved here from Blaine but lived in Minneapolis before.

Tom said their Blaine home was nice but didn’t have the perks of an urban area or a neighborhood feel. “Where you live is so important. We like Fulton for its people, parks, restaurants and shopping,” he said.

Fulton resident Rik Pohlman is also proud of his newly built house, especially since the earlier house was in such disrepair. Built in a rambler style, with a stony façade, it’s a nice addition to the block because it emulates the area’s traditional design, he said.

City requirements

There’s little in the way of developers who want to build on city lots, according to Steve Poor, planning supervisor of development services for the city’s Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED) department. Developers can tear down homes freely (except those recognized as historic). Zoning code requires houses to be set back on a lawn by 20 feet from the front and five feet on both sides throughout most of the city. Buildings may tower up to three stories or 35 feet.

Although it’s possible to acquire variances that allow homeowners to exceed zoning codes, the Board of Adjustment rarely grants them to single-family homes, Finlayson said.

The city recently developed a point system requiring builders to earn 15 points for style and content of their site plans, as a way to address some new construction on Minneapolis’ North Side that lacked craftsmanship. The system awards points to developers for having high-quality siding or including a basement in their site plans, for instance.

Developers must score 15 points or better to move forward with construction plans. The system has had little effect on developers who build in Southwest, however, because their development plans typically score well above 15 points. The points don’t address fundamental design characteristics, however.

Last year, there were 180 residential demolitions – up from 125 in 2004 and 85 in 2003. Demolitions, however, are way down from 713 in 1999, according to data compiled by the city’s Inspections Division.

One problem with trying to analyze those numbers is that wrecking permits don’t differentiate between homes that are partially torn down and those that are wholly deconstructed – so there’s no way to determine how many homes have been completely torn down and replaced.

For example, East Isles residents Colin and Wendy Smith accomplished a full-scale remodel of their original 1906 house, which they took down to one wall, without a wrecking permit or any variances. Neighborhood activists were upset that they weren’t part of any approval process because they considered the old house a landmark. But others praised the new house for keeping with the neighborhood’s style.

City Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) said the city is in the process of establishing an intermediary permit that would clarify the extent to which a building is demolished.

But, even then, there’s no way to prevent homeowners from tearing down and rebuilding on private property, she said.

Full disclosure about projects should be required, but those without a financial interest in a property shouldn’t be able to dictate what happens to a property, she said.

Southwest City Councilmember Betsy Hodges (13th Ward) said she’s not opposed to teardowns and buildups. But, she added, she’s heard many rumblings about them from her constituents. She said that she and her colleagues are looking at how other cities cope with the issue as options for Minneapolis.

A suburban trend making its way to the city

Some say the teardown trend is creeping in from Edina, which has been grappling with the phenomenon for several years.

It’s still growing. Last year, there were 37 buildups; two years ago, there were 20; and three years ago, five replacement homes rose. Many affordable homes have been lost to the pricier buildups.

City Planner Joyce Repya said that raises additional concerns. “Does that mean we’re going to become an enclave of big homes where you need a lot of money to live here?” Repya posed.

One safeguard though, is a building-to-lot ratio. Under Edina’s zoning code, a structure’s footprint may only cover up to 25 percent of a lot. Minneapolis has no such law.

Some Minneapolis communities, such as Cedar-Isles-Dean, have tried to implement design/development guidelines but they are nonbinding.

In its guidelines, the Cedar-Isles-Dean Neighborhood Association (CIDNA) addresses issues of aesthetics, zoning, sound, traffic, parking and environment, among others. Lowry Hill Residents Inc. (LHRI) and East Isles Residents Association (EIRA) are currently involved in a joint historic-context study to take an inventory of what kinds of historic resources the neighborhoods have.

Former Historic Preservation Commissioner (HPC) Bob Glancy, a Lowry Hill resident, spearheaded an unsuccessful effort to designate his neighborhood as historic within the past couple years. Only two nominations were approved for historic designation during his five years on the HPC. Districts are designated based upon strict criteria.

“Historic neighborhoods are designated because they’re a good example of their time, because of their architectural style, original style and consistent streetscape,” he said.

A Planning Commission team is reviewing one-to four-unit site plans.

“I don’t anticipate any rapid action,” Finlayson said. “This isn’t something that should be done hastily, not when it’s this important.”

Anna Pratt can be reached at [email protected] and 436-4391.