McMansions and community character in Montgomery County (Updated)

[See below for updates to this post]

Teardowns and mansionization are a nationwide problem and Montgomery County has few regulatory controls to prevent property owners from demolishing older homes and building new houses that are out of scale and character with neighboring buildings.

Although Montgomery County has a historic preservation ordinance, not all old homes are historic and there are few tools currently available to residents to prevent speculators from building McMansions like the one under construction in my Silver Spring neighborhood.

Teardowns definition from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Teardowns Glossary.”

Starting in 2006, the National Trust for Historic Preservation began promoting a toolkit on teardowns and mansionization. Among the references are some visual guides. There are  several terms applied to houses identified as “McMansions” in the Trust’s “Teardowns Glossary“: faux chateaux, starter castle, and big box Victorian. None of these terms truly captures the bricolage of stylistic elements attached to the surfaces of these buildings so I began calling them Cliffs Notes houses.

Cliffs Notes houses are buildings that are out-of-scale and character of the settings where they are built. They draw from a wide array of architectural vocabularies and present them in greatly abbreviated expressions: Revival styles (Colonial, Tudor, Mediterranean), Craftsman/Bungalow, Victorian, and even modernist styles. Elements are sampled from these historical sources and are reconfigured in the exteriors of single homes. For example, a single Cliffs Notes home may have a Queen Anne tower attached to a main block that features a clipped gable roof with false half-timbering details, quoining, Italianate window surrounds, Palladian windows, and a Greek Revival full-height front porch.

Woodmoor McMansion (right) juxtaposed with a 1930s house (left). Photos by author.

Teardowns and McMansions of all shapes and sizes are common throughout Montgomery County’s affluent neighborhoods like Chevy Chase and Potomac. But as a 2006 Montgomery County Planning Department report shows, teardowns are becoming widespread throughout all of Montgomery County’s southern suburbs.

2006 Montgomery County Planning Department map of existing residential teardowns.

Since last September, workers have been transforming a lot at the corner of Dennis Avenue and University Boulevard West in Silver Spring into a new Cliffs Notes home. Up until then, the 7,636-square-foot lot had been occupied by a 936-foot one-story frame house built in 1952.

1952 home. Photo Captured by Google Streets.

Located in Silver Spring’s Four Corners area, the lot was part of a farm owned by Charles and Virginia Clements. In 1951, the property was carved up to create the Northwood Knolls subdivision. Maps published in the mid-20th century show the suburbanization of Four Corners with the appearance of subdivisions like Northwood Park (1936), Indian Spring View (1937), Fairway (1934), and Woodmoor (1937).

1948 Montgomery County Real Estate Atlas. Original property tract highlighted.

By the early 1940s, the subdivisions off of Colesville and Bladensburg (now University Blvd.) roads were well established. Transportation and public utilities infrastructure dissected the former agricultural landscape and sales within the early subdivisions were so successful that developers, like Northwood Park’s Garden Homes, added adjacent tracts for more homes.

Typical 1930s Cape Cod in Northwood Park subdivision. Photo by author.

The earliest homes in the 1930s subdivisions were modest 1-1/2 and 2-story revivals (Colonial Revival, Cape Cod, and Tudor) popular throughout the United States. These homes were built with young professionals with families as targeted homebuyers. House sizes and prices were geared towards middle-income first-time buyers.

Later homes, built in the 1950s and 1960s, were one-story ranches and ramblers. Streetscapes in the Four Corners subdivisions still reflect the modest building scales and styles that developers and builders were marketing to young professionals looking for first homes financed by mortgages backed by Federal Housing Administration.

1950s Northwood Park cooperative house. Photo by author.

According to Maryland state property tax records, the lot at the corner of University and Dennis was assessed in 2008 at $386,430. Typical of all teardowns, the land ($293,230) was worth far more than the building ($93,200) on it.

After the 1951 subdivision, the property at the corner of Dennis and University was sold in April 1952 to Benson Investment Company, Inc., along with nine adjacent lots in the Northwood Knolls subdivision. Owned by Morris Benson, the Benson Investment Company paid for the lots with a $7,500 mortgage and it borrowed an additional $9,700 for development.

Northwood Knolls plat with McMansion site highlighted. Original plat in the Maryland State Archives.

North Four Corners subdivisions and dates. Adapted from plats on file with the Maryland State Archives and Google Maps.

After building five homes along Dennis and University, in 1953, Benson sold five of the undeveloped lots along Dennis Avenue to Rosewood Homes, Inc. Rosewood had bought many of the other Northwood Knolls lots from the Clements family at the same time that Benson bought its lots.

1950s Rosewood Homes houses along Dennis Avenue. Photo by author.

Rosewood built one-story brick houses it called “Belvedere” ramblers on its lots along Dennis Avenue (then it was known as Belvedere Boulevard). Advertisements for the new homes touted them as houses “with all the extras, located in a fine luxury neighborhood, in close-in Silver Spring.” Selling points were proximity to schools, retail, and public transportation. The streetscape the company created in 1952-53 remains intact.

1952 Washington Post ad.

The Benson Investment Company homes built what it called “Northwood Ranchers.” A 1952 Washington Post ad shows the company’s model home: the house at 415 University Blvd. West. Benson described its homes as “3 bedroom contemporary homes” with “advance design, combined with thoughtful site planning.” In addition to three bedrooms, each home had a fireplace and a dining ell, finished basement, tiled bath and a kitchen outfitted with the latest appliances, including a garbage disposal. Benson was selling its houses starting at $15,950.

Many of the Benson houses stayed on the market for more than two years. The first house sold in 1954 and it was on Dennis Avenue, one lot in from University Blvd. The house at what later became 415 University didn’t sell until October 1955.

The teardown house’s first owners were Lawrence and Zelma Lee Sweeney. They financed the house through a mortgage that was not filed with the Montgomery County Recorder of Deeds. Lawrence died in 1961 and his widow sold the property. Between 1955 and 2009, the property had six owners. The last owner to live in the house at 415 University defaulted on the mortgage and the property was foreclosed. In 2010 the Bank of New York sold the property to United Investments, LLC, for $209,000.

Residents of the North Four Corners neighborhood recall the teardown house as an unremarkable building. Several people who responded to an email query sent to the neighborhood association’s listserv described the 1950s house as non-descript. Several commented on the appearance in the mid-2000s of a masonry and metal fence with gates that one writer described as “quite ugly and incompatible with the neighborhood.”

University and Dennis intersection showing teardown. Image adapted from Bing Maps.

Most of the people who responded to my email query were satisfied with the scale and style of the new Cliffs Notes home. Several people wrote that the new home, with its architectural embellishments, would be an improvement to the neighborhood. One person wrote about the porch columns, “The new columns in front of the house are distracting as they don’t look like anything I’ve ever seen.”

Another person, who declined to be quoted by name, wrote about the new house:

It’s not a bad house in and of itself… And compared to other fill-ins I’ve seen… the monster with the turret on University just down from Woodmoor … but then that Victorian door…. With that vaguely Craftsman look–they’re trying. However IMHO the house is just too large in proportion to the yard. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be virtually sitting in the intersection. It kind of looms, especially since the surrounding houses are those low profile houses.

My reading of the new Cliffs Notes house is that it looms over the existing homes built after the creation of the Northwood Knolls subdivision and that its architectural bricolage — side-gabled roof, atypical Craftsman porch posts, massive shed dormer, false queen post trusses in gable ends, and mixed window types — securely qualifies it as a McMansion.

Teardown house (left) and new McMansion (right). Teardown house photo from Google Streets.

New McMansion, University Blvd. (front) facade. Photo by author.

View towards University along Dennis Avenue. Photo in the left is from Google Streets and was taken prior to the teardown. The photo on the right was taken in December 2010.

According to a spokesperson for builder Stony Creek Homes, the new house’s style is unique. In a telephone interview, he explained how his company decided to finish the house in what he described as a “cross between craftsman and bungalow” styles. The spokesperson explained that the teardown was necessary because of termite damage to the older house.

Besides the issue of the new Cliffs Notes home’s architectural incompatibility with the surrounding neighborhood, there are environmental and economic issues raised by the new out-of-scale house. These issues relate to energy, affordability, and aging in place:

    1. Embodied energy waste. The 1952 home had embodied energy. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, this is “the energy required to extract, process, manufacture, transport, and install building materials.” The total embodied energy for the new Cliffs Notes house includes the resources expended to demolish the teardown, remove the waste, and construct the new house. Preservation architect Carl Elefante, a Montgomery County resident who serves on the county’s Zoning Advisory Panel, is a nationally recognized expert on embodied energy. He coined the now popular phrase, “The greenest building is … one that is already built.”

 

    1. Larger homes have greater energy requirements. Although the new 1076 square-foot Cliffs Notes home is being built roughly in the same footprint of the earlier house, it has greater floor space than the teardown and there are more rooms to heat and cool. The new building may use some energy efficient appliances and construction techniques, but I doubt the house being built conforms to LEED Platinum standards.

 

    1. Artificially inflated property values. The new home at 415 University Blvd. West will go on the market in early 2011 with a price tag in the upper 500 thousands to the mid-$600 thousand range, according to Stony Creek Homes. If the property sells for $575 thousand, that is nearly $200 thousand more than its last assessed value. Adjacent lots with 1950s homes may be more vulnerable to teardown pressures after the new Cliffs Notes home sells in the estimated price range. As the number of moderately priced homes diminishes, Montgomery County faces further erosion of its middle class. Professionals like public safety employees, teachers, and government employees who might be able to afford a $390,000 home would be left looking elsewhere if more Northwood Knolls homes were to become teardowns.Also, more homes with higher values mean higher property taxes. This could displace existing residents unable to afford the higher taxes.

 

    1. Barriers to aging in place. Montgomery County, like the rest of the region and nation, has an aging population. Cohousing in residential communities and institutions has become less desirable and Montgomery County recently has begun looking at how to make its communities more conducive to aging in place. The older one and 1.5-story houses are more architecturally compatible with an aging population that larger two or 2.5-story houses. Also, seniors on fixed incomes would be faced with economic challenges paying taxes and for maintenance on a house like the new Cliffs Notes home.

 

Based on the replies I received from the informal email query sent to the neighborhood listserv, the Cliffs Notes home under construction at the University and Dennis intersection does not appear to be a concern to current residents. Attitudes may change, however, if more of the older building stock is torn down to make way for additional McMansions or if more incompatible infill houses are built.

Infill McMansion under construction elsewhere in North Four Corners. Photo by author, December 2010.

Although there are many old homes in the neighborhood, there is not sufficient integrity for a large historic district that would provide some aesthetic and environmental protections for the existing building stock and landscapes. Besides historic preservation, other tools identified in the 2006 Montgomery County Planning Department report on teardowns and mansionization include building height amendments to the zoning ordinance; neighborhood conservation district legislation; proposed stormwater management amendments; and, the creation of overlay zones.

Neighborhood conservation districts may hold the key to stemming the tide of Montgomery County teardowns. According to a 2003 National Trust for Historic Preservation Preservation Law Reporter article, conservation districts are created in neighborhoods “with a distinct physical character that have preservation or conservation as the primary goal.” The article continues,

Although these neighborhoods tend not to merit designation as a historic district, they warrant special land use attention due to their distinctive character and importance as viable, contributing areas to the community at large. Accomplished through the adoption of a zoning overlay or independent zoning district, neighborhood conservation districts provide a means to protect character-defining streetscapes in older areas threatened by new development or governmental policies that undermine rather than encourage neighborhood preservation.[1]

Sometime down the road, my neighbors may elect to explore creating a conservation district to protect the community’s character: the features of the neighborhood that drew its initial owners and occupants to own property and live there. Fortunately, a modest historical record survives that documents how the North Four Corners subdivisions were created, to whom they were marketed, and who has lived in neighborhood for more than 75 years. What attracted owners and occupants historically are the same amenities that continue to draw residents to North Four Corners: affordability, access to schools, retail, transportation, and well-built homes with character and stories to tell if anyone is listening.

The subdivision where I live, Northwood Park, is the largest and oldest in the community. Platted in 1936 by Garden Homes, Inc., it is full of ordinary homes in a common twentieth century suburb. Some notable exceptions, however, include the only licensed 1939 World’s Fair Town of Tomorrow home. A neighboring 1950s subdivision is one of only two single-family housing cooperatives built in Maryland under 1950 amendments to the federal Housing Act. We have a neighborhood association that has been active for more than half a century and our buildings, streets, and open spaces provide the occupants and owners who have moved here, been born here, and died here with the raw materials for community building.

Efforts to preserve community character in Montgomery County may be assisted by a Planning Department with new development and review standards rooted in a new form-based zoning code. As the region’s economy bounces back from the recession, it is impossible to speculate what teardowns lie ahead and what the community and planners’ responses may be.

Update: Feb. 18, 2011: One of the last photos I took before pulling out of Silver Spring for my move to Atlanta was of the house at Dennis and University. It was sporting a large banner that read: “BUY THIS HOUSE”. A now-former neighbor wrote to me in an email that the house is on the market for $649,000 — along busy University Blvd.; at a bus stop; and, catty corner from a funeral home.

Photo by David Rotenstein. February 18, 2011.

Note
1. Lubens, Rebecca, and Julia Miller. “Protecting Older Neighborhoods Through Conservation District Programs.” Preservation Law Reporter 21 (2002-03): 1001-1043.

[Cross-posted on Greater Greater Washington, Jan. 6, 2011]

8 thoughts on “McMansions and community character in Montgomery County (Updated)

  1. Great piece – the history of Northwood Park is excellent – many thanks.

    I think teardowns are great – they show small investor confidence in the ‘hood, and represent inevitable change.

    They could easily be restricted by zoning overlays, but, as in Bethesda, such efforts will fail because no homeowner wants to put limits on the appreciation of their property. So the neighbors try class war, compatibility (identity) tests, and other feckless arguments including historic preservation.

    These bigger houses should also be permitted as small apartment buildings, adding housing choice at transit served locations like this one. The best neighborhoods have variety and choices in housing, not the production uniformity of postwar subdivisions like Northwood Park – which were designed for production efficiency and profit, not community quality.

  2. Ralph, Northwood Park is not a postwar subdivision. It was platted in 1936 and mostly built out by 1940. And, though the Northwood Park Housing cooperative homes were built in the mid-1950s, it was an intentional community founded to recreate the New York City housing cooperative model here in Silver Spring. Economic realities and limited land quashed their plans.

    I understand your position about accessory and affordable housing, but honestly, what’s affordable about the new McMansions in North Four Corners? The materials used in them are inferior to the older buildings, they are built as single-family homes and I doubt the interior plans are conducive to low-cost conversion, and they do affect the quality of life. The McMansion under construction pictured towards the end of the piece is already causing water problems for a neighboring house, according to one person who emailed me after the article went live.

    And you can’t mean that all of historic preservation is feckless? Sure, it’s an abused regulatory regime (and I’ve written extensively on that here in this blog), but would you abolish it altogether? What about conservation districts? Are they feckless too?

    Every community needs change, but should that change be driven by internal or external forces? Do you really see opportunistic “small investors” feeding off recession roadkill as beneficial to our neighborhood or any neighborhood?

  3. I do not think there is a preservationist who would think that the basic post-war rambler, or rambler communities would warrant historic protection. There were basically cookie-cutter, quickly built homes to meet increasing and rapid demand for suburban housing.

    You wrote a nice history of the neighborhood and provided good documentation, but I do not think it makes a case that this area should be designated or otherwise enjoy protection for demolition.

    Indeed, Chevy Chase and Bethesda have already been decimated by McMansions and the affected communities, such as Edgemoor, has much more historic value than the area discussed in this article.

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. We prefer to look at teardowns in a slightly different way. As we all know, homes and cities themselves have been transformed and redeveloped forever – otherwise America would be farmland with mostly rural communities. Take a look at any cityscape or photo of a currently vibrant village and you’ll see the changes.

    Are all the changes good or in character, no – should they be? In most cases yes, in others – probably not.

    Infill is the proper way to describe the redevelopment of established communities. The real purpose of infill construction is to revitalize neighborhoods and city centers not destroy them or change their character. Unfortunately, during the bubble mistakes were made – hopefully, going forward the push-back for teardowns will be looked at in a more positive light – kinda like a “rebirth” of the nation?

    Thanks,

    Brian Hickey
    teardowns.com

  5. I have lived in Northwood Park for the past two years and watched the entire progression of the McMansion at the corner of University and Dennis. I think that the home looks appealing, but the location is terrible. Whether you kept the original home, or tore it down to build a new home doesn’t change the fact that the home is practically in the intersection of Dennis and University. Do they honestly think that someone will pay $500-600 for that home? I simply can’t imagine a single family purchasing that residence. Possibly an extended family, but not a single family.

  6. I’m curious about the 1948 Klinge Atlas you photographed. I haven’t been able to find an unaltered 1948 Klinge Atlas. The ones I have found have been updated to 1953 with changes pasted on top of the original 1948 maps. This might be the case with the Atlas you photographed. Some of the areas look a lot lighter than others, e.g. the area around Pierce Drive and Eastmore Drive or the area around Woodmoor Circle and Woodmoor Drive. If it is an unaltered 1948 version, could you let me know who has it so I can photograph some of the pages around Woodside Park. Thanks!

    Bob Oshel, Woodside Park historian

  7. Woah, calm down. This house IS NOT A MCMANSION. A mcmansion is the house on colesville rd next to the CVS in woodmoor shopping center.
    This house in Glenmont just after Shopper is a mcMansion:
    http://s16.photobucket.com/albums/b13/thecourtyard/just%20up%20the%20pike/?action=view&current=Big-AssMcMansionOnRandolph.jpg

    I am GLAD this house was rehabbed bc it was an eyesore.
    I think the $650 k price is too big especially since the house is right on Univ.
    But remembr these neighborhoods were here long before Univ became a 4 lane major highway.
    Im sure someone will buy the house.

  8. I live in Bethesda & have, over the past 8 years, experienced first-hand 5 teardown mcmansions being assembled right around me. I had 1 assembled next to my old backyard & 1 assembled next to my side yard. So I went to sell my house because it was no longer a nice place to live since it was surrounded on two sides with 40 ft high walls of vinyl siding with plastic windows (with fake dividers of course!) aimed at my backyard. The 3 realtors I interviewed to help sell the place uniformly suggested that the house would be difficult to sell to a normal family because of the mcmansions & therefore should be discounted at least 10% & marketed to builders. I agreed, afterall what normal family would want to live next to a mcmansion. So I sold that house for the value of the land & moved.

    However after a few years the speculators started focusing in on my new neighborhood, Huntington Terrace. In the last 3 years I have had to endure 2 teardown mcmansions being assembled directly across the street & 1 behind my backyard. Only those folks who have directly endured mcmansion construction knows how terrible it really is & just how much these things crush property values as the surrounding houses become worthless except for the land they sit on. The problems with these mcmansions are so numerous that one would have to write a book to fit it all in but I will try…

    Loss of tree coverage, loss of value for surrounding houses, drainage issues, increased flooding, shading issues, loss of privacy, destruction of road surface in front of mcmansions (notice there are ALWAYS huge potholes in front of every mcmansion), the obvious long-term problems associated with super-sizing ones carbon footprint, complete lack of oversight from the Dept of Permitting (its too tall…no problem, its too close to the property line…no problem…etc), the Mo Co Dept of Permitting is nothing more than the Mcmansion Chamber of Commerce & I should know as I have dealt with them many, many times. Their job is to ease the way for mcmansion developers & keep those pesky neighbors from interfering. In a nutshell, when a mcmansion is being built near you it is nothing short of a declaration of marshall law! The police will not enforce any noise ordinance, quality of life regs (like public urination) or parking ordinances during construction & the Dept of Permitting is worse than useless. The only people who like these teardown mcmansions are builders, realtors, banks & those individuals with simply no taste whatsoever who are gambling that the next housing bubble is right around the corner. It does not seem to matter which trim package (arts & crafts tudor bungalonial trim pack or mosque trim pack) they glue/staple on to the outsides of these things, they are just simply way too big for the lots. Don’t think of it in square feet you must calculate mcmansions in cubic feet as only then will a real idea of visual heft be realized. By my calculations some of these mcmansions are 10 to 15 times the cubic volume of the houses they replace!! Not green, not green at all. These things ruin neighborhoods & destroy lives.

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