As teardowns mount around the Twin Cities — with smaller older homes being replaced by bigger new ones — there's lots of talk about the impact on neighborhoods.
Dan Shuster lives that impact every day.
On each side of his 1950s Linden Hills rambler loom large new houses more than twice its size. On the other side of those houses loom two more — leaving Shuster's house a tiny island in a sea of pricey real estate.
"It's very claustrophobic," he said.
When he and his wife bought their house in the late 1970s, most of the houses in the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis looked like theirs: modest-sized homes with generous yards. "Now, I'm the only cottage on the block — a little house tucked between towers," he said.
His once-prolific garden no longer gets enough sun to produce many vegetables. His kitchen window, which once offered a vista across several backyards, now looks directly into his neighbor's house, just a few feet away. Shuster rarely uses his deck on the other side of the house because it abuts a big new house — and its noisy air conditioner.
"We can't hear birds or crickets anymore," he said. "The whole neighborhood is gentrified. People with money are putting in the biggest houses with hardly any backyard. It's like living in New York City."
Teardowns have become a hot — and divisive — topic in many coveted locations in the Twin Cities, including Edina, Lake Minnetonka and Highland Park in St. Paul. But Linden Hills, with its proximity to city lakes, shops and trendy restaurants, is arguably ground zero. The neighborhood's modest vintage cottages, bungalows and ramblers are increasingly being replaced by million-dollar homes with all the amenities that today's upscale buyers want.
On the plus side, new development brings vitality and rising property values, but some longtime residents lament the loss of Linden Hills as it used to be.
And while Shuster feels the impact of the transformation more than most, he's not the only one concerned about how rapidly it's happening.
Some homeowners say they live in fear of a "monster house" going up next door. The Linden Hills Neighborhood Council organized a "Linden Hills Little Homes Tour" this summer to present "creative alternatives" to teardowns. Owners of small homes opened their doors to show off their remodeling solutions within modest footprints.
"You can really do a lot within 2,000 square feet," said Becky Allen, a council board member. The council seeks to walk a fine line, encouraging alternatives to teardowns without disparaging big new houses. "The neighborhood is split on that," she said. "Our neighbors live in those homes, and many are wonderful homes."
Shuster says he has no animosity toward the owners of the big new houses all around him. "I don't want to embarrass anybody or make this personal," he said. His new neighbors, for the most part, have tried to be considerate, he added. But he does wish that the city would conduct an impact study before approving a teardown.
Minneapolis does not do impact studies before approving teardowns, but it has taken action to address teardowns in red-hot neighborhoods. In 2014, the city briefly declared a moratorium on teardowns in Linden Hills and four other southwest Minneapolis neighborhoods.
The controversial and short-lived moratorium was canceled after objections from builders and prospective homeowners. It was replaced by a construction management plan with detailed rules that cap house height and square footage, based on the size of the lot. The city also requires builders to invite all property owners within 350 feet of the construction to a neighborhood informational meeting.
The rate of teardowns has slowed a bit since 2014, when there were 39 applications for completely new houses or tearing down 60 percent or more of the original house, even with the moratorium. Teardowns are continuing at a steady pace, with 37 applications during 2015 and so far this year (30 have been approved and six are still under review).
The lure of the new
Many of today's Linden Hills home buyers want the spaces and amenities that only new construction can provide, according to real estate agents. "People buying these homes are families and couples," said Ben Ganje, Ben Ganje Partners, Lakes Sotheby's. "Not everybody can live in a two-bedroom house."
Ganje recently listed a modern, LEED-certified house in the neighborhood, with solar panels, geothermal heat and "a ton of glass," designed by award-winning architect Christian Dean, for $1.59 million. "That's what people want," Ganje said. The new house replaced a two-bedroom structure, built in 1905, that "needed to come down."
Anyone who wanted to save that house had the opportunity, he noted. "It sat on the market a couple of weeks but nobody bought it."
Architect Daryl Hansen, a longtime resident of Linden Hills, doesn't like what he sees happening in his neighborhood.
"We're losing the individual character of all different styles by taking out these nice little houses," he said. "A lot of the new ones don't fit the vocabulary of the neighborhood."
He has no objection to modern-style houses, he added, but he does object to scale that overwhelms neighboring homes — and the tree loss that comes with it.
Over the 40-plus years that Hansen and his wife have owned their home, they've "touched every inch," he said, more than doubling their finished square footage without significantly increasing their home's footprint. They remodeled the kitchen, finished the attic and added a small passive-solar addition at the back, which "turned an unusable basement into a really nice space," he said. It never occurred to him 20 years ago, when he designed the passive-solar addition, that a big neighboring house could block their sunlight.
"We're scared to death somebody is going to do one of those monster houses next to us," he said.
Carrie Bassett, a 20-year resident of Linden Hills, also opened up her 1,200-square-foot Arts & Crafts bungalow with its remodeled kitchen for the "Little House" tour.
She loves Linden Hills, but it's changing rapidly, she said. "It's become really popular — and expensive. All these teardowns! I like the old homes. The newer ones are too big. The character and sense of coziness and community is melting away."
Shuster knows his house is a hot commodity — to people who want to build something bigger on his lot. "I've been pestered for at least three years," he said, by letters and people knocking on his door.
So far, he's resisted. But he and his wife have started looking for another house in the Longfellow neighborhood. "We never dreamed we'd have to move," he said. "We've loved living here. But it's not a comfortable place anymore."