The Tear Down Conundrum
Newton, MA. Realtor Sotheby’s Newton, MA July 28, 2014
Last week I had the unfortunate experience of attending a Newton Historic meeting. 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 really work. The bedrooms and baths are very small and closet space is lacking. The kitchen is a small box with the 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 and the contractor said it would actually cost more money to renovate and expand than tear the house down and build new. The couple was undecided if they wanted to tackle a new house design and build but decided we should start the process in case that was the route they wanted to take.
We asked the seller to apply for a demolition permit to speed the process along. Any structure that is more than 50 years old requires a historic review. Often times this is just a formality. The staff member pulls the building jacket and digs around to find the history of the house and the neighborhood. The applicant must bring pictures of the exterior of the house from all angles and the surrounding properties. After reviewing the pictures, considering the findings presented and listening to the 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. Not preferably 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 one year, the owner can tear the house down at will! As far as I can tell most people in the audience were not aware that once the owner waited out the year they could build ANYTHING as long as it met with zoning guidelines.
Personally, I am not advocating for more or less leniency regarding teardowns. I was appalled at the rudeness and lack of respect 2 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. I am sickened by some of the ugly cookie cutter homes that builders put up with no thought to the lot or neighborhood. Nevertheless, people do buy these homes and I do not think we should be legislating taste.
I am in complete agreement with the zoning changes implemented in 2011 to prevent monstrosities from being built on tiny lots. I am perplexed why some permits are granted and some are not. I get the feeling neighbors get upset that their neighborhood is changing and go to these meeting to fight for the status quo. I understand they are afraid that the new owner will build a hideous house and cause a disruption on their street. What I would like to see more of, is neighbors working with neighbors to create a home that brings a 21st century vibe while the new construction improves the whole neighborhood instead of sticking out like a sore thumb.
There was one particular case at last week’s meeting. A home was purchased in April and some serious problems came to light, the owners thought it was more prudent to build new than fix the many structural problems they encountered. The owners 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 his “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. My answer to that is time does not stand still. 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!
I am 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 here. Areas that were once inhabited by working class immigrant families are being scooped up by upwardly mobile yuppies and new immigrants. Will this change the fabric of Newton? It already has, in ways good and not so good. 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 teardowns are occurring and the feel of the neighborhood is changing? Remember after waiting one year the owner has the right to tear down his 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. Humans don’t like change but 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 witness incredible change, some I like and some I don’t. The most valuable thing I have learned in the past 19 years 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.