Infill Stirs Neighborhood Passion

The trend of tearing down older homes to replace them with larger ones continues to divide Tulsa neighborhoods.
For builders and developers, the opportunity to exploit the hot residential real estate market has been a lure that is just too strong.
“Builders see the demand and they just build, build, build,” said Bob David, president of Leadership Properties, 2431 E. 51st St.
A property owner is entitled to use the lot as they wish, David said.
“I am a property rights guy,” he said. “You should be able to utilize the property to the full extent.”
Chuck Patterson agreed.
“Infill development is a better use of the land,” said the chairman and CEO of Patterson Realtors. “I understand the homeowners who want to fight it, but no one is willing to buy a property if there is no economic life left in it.”
Even an expert in neighborhood preservation admits the market drives the trend.
“If the real estate works, anything is a tear down,” said Jim Lindberg, director of Preservation Initiatives.
Lindberg is based in the Denver office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and has written numerous articles and co-authored three books on historic preservation. He addressed about 75 people on protecting historic neighborhoods last month in a presentation at Harwelden Mansion, 2210 S. Main.
Using examples from across the country, Lindberg described the scope and impact of the teardown trend. “Teardown” is the term used to describe the practice of purchasing an older home, demolishing it then replacing it with a new house — unusually larger than the original.
Another term, “McMansion,” describes an oversized or super-sized home built out of proportion to the lot. “Snout House” refers to the garages that jut toward the street and are out of character with the rest of the block. It can also refer to homes substantially out of line with neighborhood setbacks.
“Changes in the architectural style and character alters a neighborhood,” Lindberg said.
Barbara VanHanken agreed.
“When these newer homes are built and they do not maintain the same scale nor match the style, then you no longer have an attractive neighborhood,” she said. “It changes it forever.”
VanHanken, Patty Southmayd and their neighbors, alarmed by homes being bought, razed and replaced by larger houses, formed PreserveMidtown.com. It is their grassroots attempt to slow or even stop the proliferation of what they considered houses that were out-of-scale and out-of-character to the existing neighborhoods.
The majority of homes in Midtown are zoned Residential Single Family 2, or, RS2. Lots must be a minimum of 75 feet and the front of the home must be at least 32 feet from the curb. Some of the larger lots in Midtown cover 150 feet of land, making it easy for developers to legally split lots and increase density on a formerly roomy piece of land.
But VanHanken, Southmayd and others viewed these newer houses simply as poor infill projects. Infill describes houses built to fill in a piece of property that has been cleared for redevelopment.
The trend impacts more than 400 communities in 40 states across the U.S.
The phenomenon affects older suburbs on commuter rail lines in large cities like Boston or Chicago. In cities like Tulsa, Dallas and Denver, older neighborhoods located close the city’s core business district are targeted, Lindberg said.
“Whether it is a college town or a resort community, all are affected,” he said.
However, on the other side are the homeowners who feel threatened by the development.
It is difficult to understand the logic behind destroying the beauty of older neighborhoods with inappropriate infill development when it is precisely that beauty that attracted the developer to the neighborhood in the first place, VanHanken said.
“Our older neighborhoods are a finite resource and an important part of Tulsa’s past and future,” she said. “Our older neighborhoods deserve to be valued for more than their development potential.”
Preservationists are not opposed to infill construction; nor are they anti-development. They want it done in a manner that keeps the new structure within a neighborhood’s character.
“These older homes can be a good option for remodeling and/or adding on to,” VanHanken said. “Other cities have adopted neighborhood conservation districts, historic neighborhood designation, reviewed development standards, and given incentives to build homes that fit the neighborhood.”
David agreed up to a point.
“There is an era of Tulsa real estate that is lost when those buildings are torn down. But what do you do with them? It does not make economic sense to keep them,” he said. “It is the same with these homes. It does no good to keep them. They cost more to tear down than what the ground is worth.”
Lindberg proposed creating a conservation district, which could be adopted by an organized neighborhood to be enforceable. The idea is that a neighborhood would decide on the characteristics they would like to maintain. A conservation district ordinance could be a tool that neighborhoods elect to use, but the city does not force neighborhoods to become a conservation district.
“A conservation district allows a group to set limits on issues like setbacks, structure heights and open space requirements that are compatible with the existing homes in that neighborhood,” Lindberg said.
A conservation district does not regulate aesthetics of homes.
Patterson said the rules would be too restrictive.
“When does the rulemaking stop?” he asked.
Many newer homes are oriented around the automobile, Lindburg said.
“Many of these older neighborhoods were built when the auto was not in existence or just coming into the mainstream,” he said. “Older neighborhoods have a much more pedestrian orientation.”
The homes replacing the demolished structures bring a suburban format, or design, which puts the car front and center.
“Slowly the neighborhood begins to change and is forgotten,” Lindberg said. He suggested neighborhoods and communities foster sustainable growth without sacrificing historic character.
There is a way to balance market demand of developers with preserving historic neighborhoods, VanHanken said.
“The developers should respect the height, scale and mass of the existing neighborhoods and try to blend into them,” she said.
A source of the controversy is the zoning code, Southmayd said.
“The 1970 zoning code was overlaid on the city and didn’t fit some neighborhoods,” Southmayd said.
Builders agreed.
The answer, VanHanken said, is that the city must catch a vision.
“Don’t just look at one property, but the entire fabric of the neighborhood,” she said.
Many neighborhoods have covenants, but these are private. They often fail to prevent developers from leveling homes because they are a civil contract and not enforced by the city of Tulsa.
“It is up to the individual homeowner to enforce their covenants if they are challenged by a developer,” VanHanken said. “This can be very costly and stressful for homeowners.”
VanHanken and Southmayd said a zoning designation must be crafted that allows development while protecting the characteristics that made the neighborhood attractive in the first place.
The Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission has discussed proposals, but they are limited in scope.
Homeowners opposed to what’s happening can work to change the rules, David said.
“If you want to go and change those things, then you should do it by ordinance,” he said. “But to blanket an entire neighborhood after the fact is not fair.”
Historic preservation can be an economic generator — from jobs, household income, heritage tourism, small business incubation, neighborhood stability and neighborhood diversity.
Today homeowners feel they are fighting an uphill battle against developers,
“We hope that Tulsa’s new comprehensive plan will listen to resident property owners who value the older neighborhoods,” VanHanken said.
There are so many parts of Tulsa that are looking for new development, Southmayd said.
“We hope the comprehensive plan focuses on directing development to parts of Tulsa that truly want it,” she said.
Builders ought to redirect their energy to those areas that need redevelopment, VanHanken said.
“The Pearl District, Brady Heights, Greenwood. Then start moving west,” she said. “Do it where people want the development.”
There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution or “magic bullet” that will stop teardowns, Lindberg said.
“Communities should expect to use a combination of tools.”



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