Karen Kodzik first noticed when a one-story home in her St. Paul neighborhood of bungalows and ramblers had suddenly grown a second story.
Then four small houses went down on her Highland Park street, making way for identical two-story homes. Suburban-style houses soon replaced two other homes nearby.
The new homes, she said, are "crazy, dwarfing all those little bitty houses. It's gone from something sad, in terms of changing the face of Highland Park, to a pain in the neck, to wondering at the end of the day — is this a good thing?"
The teardown phenomenon — razing small houses to build larger ones — for years has been an issue largely centered in southwest Minneapolis and several west metro suburbs. Now it has crossed the river to St. Paul and penetrated the popular housing district of Highland Park.
The trend is nowhere near as advanced in St. Paul as it is in Edina, where 105 teardown permits were issued in 2013, or in Minneapolis, where the City Council imposed this month a one-year moratorium on home teardowns.
By comparison, St. Paul permit records for last year suggest that 25 homes were torn down and replaced with single-family homes. However, more than three in five new single-family homes in St. Paul since 2010 have been built on property for which demolition permits also were pulled. For the six previous years, it was only one in five.
And the annual average number of combined building/demolition permits in St. Paul in the past three years is 22.3, more than twice as many as the annual average of 10.3 from 2008 to 2010.
It's hard to know how many houses that were torn down were vacant or rundown, and how many were razed for bigger homes. But Custom Renovations & Builders, a St. Paul contractor, estimates that it's done 20 to 30 teardown projects in Highland Park over the past three years.
Craig Peterson, co-owner of Custom Renovations, said that families want to move to Highland Park because it's walkable, close to downtown jobs and packed with good schools and parks. The problem, he said, is that families often can't find a house with the amenities they want or the space they need.
"The two-bedroom, one-bath style of one-level ramblers that were thrown up in Highland in the '40s, '50s and '60s boom are not meeting the needs of home buyers nowadays," Peterson said. "They want new, they want fresh.
"There's a demand for it and we're trying to supply it."
The perfect formula
In many ways, Highland Park offers the perfect formula for teardown territory: a convenient area in the heart of the metro with strong property values and pockets of pricier homes, but also a good supply of aging smaller houses not considered historically or architecturally significant.
The teardown activity spirals out around the area of Hamline and Scheffer Avenues, not far from the Highland National Golf Course. Several nearby blocks, notably along Eleanor Avenue, have new homes or houses in progress.
St. Paul City Council Member Chris Tolbert said that he's been watching the trend in his ward for several months. He met last summer with an Edina official to learn more about teardowns, and earlier this year he asked the city's Business Review Council to recommend how regulations and oversight might be tightened to ease neighborhood concerns. The council may take up the issue at its meeting next month.
Ricardo Cervantes, St. Paul's safety and inspection director, also recently toured the area.
"It's finding that right balance," Tolbert said. "You don't want to prohibit people from investing in properties and homes. It raises property values, keeps families that want to grow in the neighborhoods, and attracts new families.
"But it's very disruptive — the dumpsters, the debris, the lack of notice to neighbors on what they're doing, where the buck stops for the contractor. We've had to call [city inspectors] to go out there to shovel, move the port-a-potties off the sidewalk."
Peterson said that his workers pass out business cards to neighbors and encourage them to call about problems. Dumpsters are parked in front of the work site, not a neighbor's house, he said.
"We're homebuilders, not home wreckers," he said. "Our goal is to get the property completed as quickly as we can."
'Too big, too tall, too wide'
Custom Renovations builds on property already purchased by clients or investors, Peterson said. Up to a third of its housing projects are presold, he said, while the balance are built on spec for investors. The houses adhere to St. Paul's single-family house standards, which limit heights to 30 feet and the house footprint to 35 percent of the lot.
Tolbert said the houses going up in Highland Park are "bigger, but a large portion aren't McMansions. They're not hanging over lots."
However, the one next door to Jane Weis blocks the afternoon sun, which is important to her. She's a painter. "We're looking at a wall," she said. "It's too big, too tall and too wide."
Weis, who lives in a "Victorian farmhouse" near Eleanor Avenue and Syndicate Street, said she'd like to see St. Paul declare a teardown moratorium similar to Minneapolis'.
"People come to these neighborhoods to live in smaller homes," she said. "If we don't stop doing this, there won't be any left."
Mary Klauda, a consultant, said her next-door neighbor's house was torn down in November after he sold it for $239,000. It was replaced by a new house twice as big and listed at $539,000, she said. She thinks a limit should be placed on the number of houses that can be torn down per block — perhaps no more than three out of 20.
Alongside "the mansion next to me," she said, "my house looks like the gardener's house. Like the hired man lives there."