Janet Per Lee has lived in the same house in Mountain View, CA, for over 40 years. Built in the 1950s, her 1,000-square-foot ranch house is situated on a secluded quarter-acre with trees whose branches hang heavy with apricots, plums, pears, and figs, which she shares with her neighbors. Her three kids grew up playing in that yard, attending top-notch local schools. Although the kids are no longer living at home, Per Lee loves her community and, in a normal world, would never consider moving.
But this is no normal world. In fact, the Google headquarters is located less than a ten-minute drive away.
As this tech titan has grown exponentially, so has the neighborhood's popularity. As houses in the area have gone up for sale, developers have bought them, bulldozed them, erected 4,000-square-foot mansions that are selling for over $3 million. In fact, eight years ago, it happened right next door to Per Lee, who learned the new house would fill the entire lot from front to back and tower over her own.
"It's built so much higher than my house, virtually every window looks out into my backyard," she says. Desperate to protect her privacy, she planted Italian cypress trees as a natural barrier. She tried to reason with the builder, whose unsympathetic response was: "Shouldn't everyone be able to build their dream home?"
Big homes = big problem
What's going on in Mountain View is an extreme version of a problem cropping up all over the country: Huge houses are being built on plots of land originally meant to accommodate smaller dwellings, sparking a heated debate over what's best for the community. Some argue that owners of larger homes pay more taxes, which can benefit all. But if your home happens to have its air and light blocked by a behemoth next door, you would likely be very, very upset -- and can most likely kiss the idea of cashing out on your home sale goodbye.
Those against the lenient building codes that allow for "mansionization" also argue that it negatively affects a community's vibe.
"These houses are often akin to fortress walls on city streets," contends Greg Goldin, curator at the A+D Architecture and Design Museum. "People in big houses tend to lead noncommunitarian, noncivic lives. These homes are the embodiment of their desire to turn their backs on the shared experience and common spaces of real city life. They are anti-city."
That might sound extreme, but it's exactly what Per Lee has experienced as her once-secluded pocket of Mountain View has evolved. Realtors and developers advertise the vibrant community and shady tree-lined streets as a draw, but then chop down those trees to maximize building space on the lots -- and once new owners move in she barely sees them out and about mingling with their neighbors.
Another factor: Homeowners believe they have the right to do as they please with their properties -- especially when they've paid big money for their land.
"If people are paying millions for the dirt on which a teardown sits, they want to be able to make their own decisions regarding the housing," explains Arthur Jeppe, a partner at Read & Jeppe in Newport Beach, CA.
Which is understandable, but shouldn't they at least consider the impact on their immediate neighbors?
'Neighborhoods need to evolve'
In Renton, WA, Robert Walker's 1,000-square-foot bungalow came with a view of downtown Seattle's skyline and Lake Washington. But in 2005, buyers purchased the home across the street from him and built a three-story, 4,000-square-foot house that blocked his whole view. Despite collecting signatures for a petition and arguing his case before Renton's City Council, Walker got nowhere.
"The feeling definitely seemed to be that being a place that's attractive to stable homeowners was more important than regulating what's being built," says Walker.
A similar drama is playing out in Arcadia, CA, where more than 30 homes larger than 5,000 square feet (some as large as 8,000 -- 9,000) have been proposed in the 850-home community over the past six years. In response, a group of longtime residents formed Saving Arcadia, which is currently battling the municipal government and City Council. Its argument: Overly lenient rules for developers have led to the proliferation of McMansions on lots that were zoned back in the 1950s for smaller homes. Plus, these oversize dwellings overburden the city's water, gas, electricity, and other utility services.
Yet not everyone is against mansionization. According to Benjamin Reznik, a Los Angeles -- based lawyer who often represents large-scale developers, neighborhoods evolve -- and need to be allowed to do so. So while he agrees that neighborhoods' historic character needs to be preserved, he thinks NIMBYism (for "not in my back yard") -- where locals oppose almost all new, larger residences simply because they don't want them nearby -- is a mistake.
"City councils need to take a refined, surgical approach to proposed projects rather than just enacting zoning restrictions that don't actually make sense for some of the plots of land being discussed," Reznik contends. In fact he believes the most effective way forward when disputes arise is compromise that includes allowances such as reasonable increases in a residential structure's height if it's set back from the property line.
Another option is finding a creative solution. One example is building downward (if a property is set on a hill) in order to increase square footage while preserving neighboring views, which is increasingly happening in various areas near Newport Beach. So maybe there's hope that we can all play nice after all?
'The neighborhood I loved is gone'
For Per Lee, however, things have already gone too far. She's recently decided to sell her home, even though she knows it will most likely be replaced by the very kind of McMansion she hates. The silver lining: She frequently receives unsolicited offers from builders who want to buy her property, and the prices keep going up.
Per Lee says she'll miss the neighborhood where she's lived for decades, and her fruit trees, but that she's looking forward to relocating to a quieter area that's more in line with her values. After all, she points out, "Bigger isn't always better."
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