Economics Key In Infill Development

Associate Editor

DWARFING NEIGHBORS: This infill house in mid-town Tulsa is much larger than its neighboring houses, many of which were built more than 70 years ago. A national debate is underway concerning the trend of new development in established neighborhoods in urban areas.

TREY STEWART for GTR Newspapers

More than 200 concerned Tulsa homeowners gathered at Harwelden Mansion in mid-town Tulsa in June to attend a free presentation titled “Protecting America’s Historic Neighborhoods: Taming the Teardown Trend.” The event was sponsored by Preservation Oklahoma, Oklahoma State Historic Preservation Office, Kirkpatrick Foundation, Tulsa Foundation for Architecture and the Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa. The featured speaker was Jim Lindberg, director of Preservation Initiatives in the Mountain/Plains region of the National Trust for Historic Preservation located in Denver.

Lindberg’s presentation addres-sed many of the issues that surround the current trend of infill development from the standpoint of both the homeowner and the developer. This current trend is evident in more than 400 cities across America where communities of varying size are struggling with issues concerning the appropriateness of infill development.

Infill issues also impact smaller communities, such as the older sections of Jenks, Broken Arrow and Owasso.

Economic incentive is the primary driver of this trend and Lindberg pointed to the “rule of three,” where developers seek out older neighborhoods with old zoning regulations that permit large footprint structures, or multiple houses to replace existing smaller houses. This scenario enables a developer to realize three dollars for every one dollar initially invested in the property. The “rule of three” formula provides a healthy profit, even with the cost of demolition and new construction factored in.

According to Lindberg, there is an unintended consequence of the teardown trend for homeowners living in these areas. The value of an existing structure becomes subjugated to the value of the land. This can result in the inability to realize appreciation for improvements done to existing houses.

Another economic factor feeding the teardown trend is the dramatic increase in real estate prices in most communities over the past three decades, making it more profitable to demolish existing housing and replace them with larger, more expensive homes as market demand and expectations for houses with up-to-date amenities continues to grow. Supporting this is the fact that today’s average house of 2,500 square feet compares with a 900 square foot average home of the 1950s. In addition, today’s average family size has decreased by 22 percent since the 1950s. The result being the square foot per person in houses has increased more than three-fold. Finally, rising gasoline prices have added to increased interest in living closer to city centers where older neighborhood communities exist.

Lindberg went on to point out problems often arise because factors driving newer home designs create compatibility issues with traditional neighborhoods, due in part to America’s evolving lifestyles. Although infill construction can and often does blend well with surrounding existing structures, all too often visual and style compatibility is ignored, creating contrasting eyesores. Houses built in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s were designed around neighborhood life. Sidewalks, front porches or stoops and detached single car garages in the back and out of sight were part of a lifestyle that included evenings sitting on the front porch before homes were air conditioned or a walk to the neighbors or the corner grocery. Connectivity was paramount. The neighborhood was seen as a smaller unit to the overall community. Most families were single-income with stay at home moms and only one car. As cities grew out to the suburbs and as the American family model changed from primarily a one-income to a two-income household, the need for mobility grew. So much so that mobility replaced connectivity in importance and homes began to reflect that change. Single car garages, front porches and sidewalks made way for attached, multiple car garages jutting forth from the front of the house and connected to the street by large driveways. Front porches and stoops were either discarded or relegated to back yard patios surrounded by privacy fences. Residential developers responded to the aforementioned market demand for bigger homes by building taller two story houses. Today community connectivity is sometimes addressed through development of gated communities where strict structural style continuity is maintained down to the color of shingles on every roof in the enclosed community.

Another issue addressed by the presentation was the contention that new homes are more energy efficient and therefore “greener” than older homes. According to Lindberg this contention fails to account for the resources lost in a teardown compared to the energy and resources needed to build a new structure. With all costs factored in, the timeline for recovering the owner’s investment made in a more energy efficient home through energy cost savings will span decades depending on the size and cost of the house. In the case of larger new houses, the initial investment is often never recovered. Because newer houses are bigger by comparison and consume more energy, they don’t compete well with renovated or retrofitted older houses when it comes to energy savings.

The conflict between homeowners and infill developers is made more difficult because subjective opinions and self-interest drive both sides of the argument. Lindberg sited various approaches used by many of the more than 400 cities dealing with teardown issues to help find common ground between homeowners and residential developers. Regulatory tools such as conservation districts, development standards, down zoning, and floor area ratio (F.A.R.) ordinances are a few of the approaches mentioned. Where preservation of historic structures is concerned, demolition delay ordinances and demolition moratoriums have been employed to provide waiting periods for communities to consider alternatives to the destruction of significant landmark buildings and homes.

In conclusion, Lindberg congratulated Tulsa on hosting the upcoming 2008 National Preservation Conference put on annually by the National Trust for Historic Preservation (See: He went on to praise the city’s ongoing efforts to preserve its rich architectural heritage.

Updated 06-30-2008

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