Decatur teardown diary

Last October I watched and shot video as a builder demolished a 1,100-square foot house built in 1944 or 1945. It took less than eight hours for the small crew using a track loader to turn the one-story frame house into about seven bins of rubble that were carted away to a nearby landfill.

Over the subsequent four months I documented the transformation of the teardown site into a new 2,772 square-foot two-story single-family home that just went on the market for $589,000.

October 19, 2011.

October 19, 2011.

October 19, 2011.

November 17, 2011.

December 4, 2011.

December 11, 2011.

February 22, 2012.

The Realtor’s website reports that the new home is a “classic two story bungalow [and] is designed to give a nod to historical design.”

Shortly after I published the first post documenting the teardown, I met the owner of the neighboring property to the south. His home was contemporaneous with the October teardown. He moved to the neighborhood after buying the 1,024-square-foot home in 1982. A few years earlier, the home to his south was torn down to make way for a new two-story single-family residence and he admitted that it may be time for him to do the same, i.e., tear down his home for a new, larger one.

As work was being completed on the October teardown site, signs appeared at the neighbor’s property announcing impending new construction. The electricity was disconnected and the house was cleared out. The day that the October teardown property was completed, signs with architectural renderings appeared at the neighboring property announcing the construction of a new home. County real estate records show that the owner sold it in December 2011 to the same builder who developed the adjacent property.

East Lake Drive streetscape. 916 East Lake is shown recently completed; 922 East Lake (center) is being prepared for demolition; and, an earlier teardown site is at the right. February 2012.

According to the Realtor’s website, the new home will be an “instant classic – based on designs and plans from historic Decatur bungalows, the finishes and design elements will be period inspired.”

922 East Lake Drive. The property is being prepared for teardown. February 22, 2012.

922 East Lake Drive, new home rendering. Cedit:

922 East Lake Drive. August 5, 2012.

Teardowns in Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood are contagious. Properties adjacent to teardowns are themselves subsequently torn down or have large additions constructed to screen their smaller homes from adjacent McMansions that loom above them.

Construction begins on the rear of a home behind which a large new home constructed on a teardown site was completed in October 2011. Photo: February 2012.

I recently walked through the Oakhurst neighborhood doing an informal survey of teardown sites. I counted 155 teardowns with new single-family homes, many of which easily may be described as McMansions. There are about 1,200 single-family properties in the neighborhood. My informal survey suggests that more than 10% of the historic housing stock has been demolished. Beyond the loss of historic residential properties, a historic school was demolished to make way for a new school building that recapitulates many of the out-of-scale architectural elements that characterize the new McMansions sprouting up in the neighborhood.

4/5 Academy. 2011 photo by author.

Additional houses have undergone mansionization through the construction of pop-top second stories and large additions. Add to these numbers new infill housing and the likelihood of the neighborhood ever being designated historic diminishes dramatically. As I recently wrote, this is what many of my neighbors want, i.e., no historic district.

Informal and partial neighborhood survey of teardown sites, many with McMansions built on them. The teardown trend in Oakhurst began in the late 1990s and has accelerated since 2007 when local efforts to create a historic district were defeated.

If the city doesn’t act to revisit the historic preservation issues, including a thorough analysis of an incomplete 2009 citywide historic resources survey, a point of no return will be reached and no amount of nostalgia or second guessing of past planning decisions will restore the community’s patrimony. It’s not just a historic preservation issue; it’s a larger economic and environmental issue that revolves around what happens when the community changes are not comprehensively considered.

In the video below, you can watch the transformation of 916 East Lake Drive from a 1940s vernacular house into a pile of rubble and finally into a “classic two-story bungalow.” The demolition footage has been accelerated; the original video is still on YouTube.

© 2012 D.S Rotenstein

4 thoughts on “Decatur teardown diary

  1. You seem to be concerned about teardowns and maybe you have a point. But on the other hand, what is so wrong about the homes in these photos? They look nice to me, look to be above par for new construction in Oakhurst, and would probably even fit in under any sort of historic district standards you could propose and get passed by the City Commission.

    Is 2,700 square feet too large? Is $589,000 too expensive? Maybe for most people, but these homes are not any larger or less expensive than homes in the MAK Historic District. Probably the opposite. And in any event, who am I the one who should make that judgement for another person as far as how large or how much they should spend on a home.

    Unless, you want to heavily restrict property rights and prohibit all teardowns – even on outdated 800-1100 square foot homes in Oakhurst – which is just not practical – what is your solution? How would a prohibition on tear downs and large additions impact the neighborhood and all of our property interests? Are some of these homes really worth “saving?” Do we really want to freeze the neighborhood in time or do we want it to continue to evolve just like it has for the past 100 years? Who wants to hand over design choices on their own home to an unelected committee of 5 people you probably don’t even know?

    You were not here during the historic district debate a few years ago – but those were some of the major problems and unanswered questions. It wasn’t just about neighbors vs. developers as you have said. In fact, one of the leaders of the pro-historic district side had even doubled the size of her bungalow with a second story addition a couple of years prior to proposing the district – an addition that probably would have been prohibited under the standards that she proposed. These things didn’t sit well with a lot of people.

    And, by the way, I live in a smallish 100 year old intact bungalow and dislike most, but not all, of the new construction in Oakhurst.

    • As a former HPC chair I can confidently say that most of Oakhurst’s new construction does not conform to the Secretary of the Interior’s rehabilitation standards and would not be approvable by any HPC required to regulate using those standards. Yes, many of the buildings would be great in a non-historic community. Simply saying that Oakhurst or any other place isn’t historic because someone says so doesn’t make it so. Perhaps it is time to admit that Oakhurst doesn’t retain sufficient integrity to be legally designated historic. That is fine but unless you are willing and able to redact the entire historical record to erase the neighborhood’s past, it is just an exercise in semantics.

  2. My point wasn’t about most of new construction in Oakhurst or about the Sec of the Interior’s standards – it was simply about the two new construction homes on East Lake photographed in your blog post and about the local historic district guidelines established in Decatur in other neighborhoods (and those that were proposed for Oakhurst a few years ago) and knowledge of homes that have been approved in Decatur’s local historic districts.

    I support historic preservation. But I think we can both agree that because of the way the effort was handled a few years ago, that battle has been lost and there is about a 0 chance of Oakhurst becoming a historic district anytime in the foreseeable future.

    Instead of re-fighting that battle again over a lost cause, and again tearing our neighborhood apart pitting neighbors against neighbors, why don’t we focus instead on helping those who do want to preserve Oakhurst do it?

    Our code calls for individual buildings to be protected under the ordinance and this has been used for the Old Scottish Rite Hospital property and the Old Courthouse. It could also be used for certain individual homes worthy of protection that individual homeowners may want to apply for. A block of homeowners on a certain street may also wish to band together to nominated themselves – this happened with Ponce Court downtown. Some of our local churches and our historic commercial buildings in the Village may be good targets for protection under the ordinance.

    One of the main reasons some homes get torn down is because the property has been neglected for many years. How about the City help homeowners who want to maintain their older homes through tax credits and such? Let’s provide incentives for people to renovate rather than build new. Let’s face it – homes that are worth $200,000 or more are not getting torn down unless they are on an unusually large lot. Most homes in Oakhurst that are well maintained and/or renovated are worth more than $200,000.

    There are many things we can do without a heavy handed approach.

  3. I lived at 162 Mead Rd from 5/1/60 until spring of 1968. I took my first steps in that house, broke my arm on the side walk in front of it in 1966 learning to ride my bicycle, went to the Big School across the street, I could go on & on. I’d visit the neighborhood when I was in the area for years, but in 2010 I drove by & was in total shock when I saw the house had been replaced. I still can’t grasp the thought. WHY???

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