Other metro cities would love to have Edina’s problems. The affluent suburb’s latest scourge is teardowns. People with money want so badly to build new homes amid Edina’s mature trees, good schools and upscale shopping districts that they’re willing to pay extra for an old house on a nice lot, plus pay the cost of tearing down the old house and replacing it with a larger new one.
Teardowns have become a craze across the country, particularly in prosperous close-in suburbs like Needham, Mass., and Chevy Chase, Md., or leafy college towns like Palo Alto, Calif., and Chapel Hill, N.C. For multiple reasons, the big house way out on the prairie has lost its appeal in recent years. Realtors report that buyers want shorter commutes, easier access to city centers and the “walkability” and “authenticity” the older neighborhoods offer.
But still they want big houses with big garages, and that’s where the trouble starts.
Neighbors quickly resent the new monsters crouching along their streets. Often the new houses are taller, broader and out of character with the rest of the streetscape. They cast new shadows. They flood neighboring yards with extra runoff. And, as they accumulate, they run up property values (and taxes), spreading another layer of acrimony.
Teardowns pose a dilemma for public officials and city planners. “It’s a bittersweet thing,” said Edina Mayor Jim Hovland. “You love that people want to invest in your town, and that they want to repurpose worn-out housing for the way people want to live in 2013. But the flip side is that if it’s not done right it can change the character of a neighborhood by destroying what made it great in the first place.”
Even during the steep housing slide of 2008-12, Edina permitted 195 teardowns, adding a whopping $130 million to its tax base (more value than Southdale mall). This year the town is on a pace to exceed 100 additional teardowns, many of them in Morningside, where small lots, cozy streets and proximity to the Minneapolis lakes are considered a plus.
While some builders masterfully fit new homes into these older settings, others, using the same guidelines, fail miserably. The contrast illustrates how hard it is to legislate good design. “A few bad builders are ruining it for everyone,” Hovland said.
Complaints from residents have led Edina officials to consider additional steps. Hiring a full-time coordinator to oversee residential teardowns may improve enforcement and consistency. It’s a good move. But the town should be cautious in tweaking its current regulations, which seem to be working on most projects. The aim should be to improve consistency, not drive away investment. Another avenue might involve reaching out to builders proactively, letting them know graphically what the community expects, showing them the projects that have worked over the past five years and the ones that have not.
Some neighbors will always oppose change, but successful cities are in a constant state of renewal. The trick is to insist on the highest standards and to make sure that new homes, while they may be a bit larger, don’t detract from the character of the existing community.