MONTAGE: Teardowns: cleaning out the residential wardrobe.  

A topic as prominent as teardowns deserves a vigorous analysis, which I’m prepared to offer at some point in the near future. In the meantime, I hope to whet the appetite through this brief montage, to help familiarize those who otherwise don’t understand the context for this relatively recent phenomenon.

But what is a teardown, and why not just use the word “demolition”? Without a series of photos taken at regular intervals over the course of a year or two, it’s impossible to depict a teardown in action. But usually it’s easy to tell, simply from the aftermath. The image below perfectly captures a teardown in its last stage before completion—the regeneration.IMG_3107Nice-looking place, right? That’s typically the case with teardowns: a newer home in an otherwise older, established neighborhood. Typically the buyer replaces the old home with a new one because the old home lacks a certain je ne sais quoi: perhaps it was missing so many contemporary amenities that it would be more cost effective to start over; the house’s position on its lot may be disadvantageous; or (most likely) the homebuyer simply wants something bigger.

But why demolish a house and build anew, when it’s perfectly easy to buy a new plot of land and start from scratch? Again, the explanations vary: the buyers could prefer an older neighborhood with an established tree canopy, surrounded by homes with a certain patina; the location could be ideal for their work commute; or (most likely) the municipality is particularly desirable due to a high-performing school district, combined with a relative scarcity of undeveloped land.

The teardown phenomenon began, not surprisingly, in higher-cost, larger, mature cities. Usually it takes place in what one might call “second generation suburbs”—not the ones that directly abut the inner city (those suburbs are often struggling), nor the distant exurbs (there’s still plenty of cheaper vacant land). Instead, we witness teardowns in the suburbs that emerged long after the earliest decentralization initiatives: middle-class areas built in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s that have either remained middle-class or even become more affluent over time.   Hemmed in on all sides, and with strict zoning regulations prohibiting much upward expansion, these suburbs manifest their high demand through the teardown.

Chicago’s northern suburbs offer numerous examples. Here’s a streetscape in the suburb of Glenview, with a population around 45,000, a location 18 miles from the downtown Loop, and a median household income that hovers around $100,000.IMG_3077_editsAt first blush, nothing seems too striking about the neighborhood. But look further at individual houses, and the variety in size, age and architectural styles among the homes becomes much more obvious.IMG_3079Take these two, for example: the modest bungalow on the left, and the much larger hybrid of federal/Georgian architecture to the right. What are the odds that the developer who conceived this subdivision had intended for two adjacent homes to look so radically different? Slim to none.IMG_3080Even if this mature neighborhood consisted of custom-designed homes, it’s unlikely that the original builders would choose such divergent designs and sizes. The home on the right is likely more than twice the size of the one on the left. The most plausible outcome here is that the right-hand home is a teardown, with a much larger structure replacing the original—and the long-demolished predecessor looking much more akin to the yellow home on the left. In fact, it appears that the bigger home might comprise both a teardown and a further extension, judging from the wooden protrusion in the back.IMG_3081But, since these homes sit on very modest lots (my guess about one-sixth of an acre), the teardowns don’t have much room to grow on the sides, resulting in small front yards, tiny back yards, and, in this case, nothing more than a carport instead of a garage.IMG_3082_edits

These landscapes abound in Glenview. Just a bit further on the same street, we see less subtle evidence of teardowns.IMG_3083The home on the right is unambiguously new construction. Just look at it.IMG_3087The prominent central gable, the keystones over the windows—the architectural language here dates from the 1980s at the oldest, and probably more recently. This street features so many teardowns, in fact, that the new construction is no longer a visual anomaly. With this many design/age/size aberrations, there is no true “typical home”, so nothing feels out of place.IMG_3084The mature trees and nearly identical lot sizes help instill a certain visual consistency that might otherwise be absent amidst such heavy redevelopment.

I concede that I have some advantage in my ability to judge this neighborhood, since I know some of the homeowners. And my inside scoop has revealed that probably around half of the homes are teardowns, while another quarter have undergone such significant alterations over the years (mostly expansions) that they are unrecognizable from the original form. The one-story yellow house featured previously and this bungalow may come closest to the original spirit of the housing style:IMG_3085_editsAnd here’s another:IMG_3078Many of the original homes were simple two-bedroom cottages with a single bathroom, which would be rare to find in any new construction of single-family detached housing in the Midwest. Households today simple want bigger homes, usually with—at a minimum—three bedrooms or two beds and a flex room, along with at least one and a half baths.

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, the teardowns are again more obvious, because the scale and features contrast so sharply with the neighbors.IMG_3088Again, the home above clearly dates from the last twenty years, while the tri-levels just a bit further down the street bear the unmistakable mark of the 1960s and 70s.IMG_3089Some of the teardowns may actually be quite old themselves, doubling the size of the original homes, but with aesthetics more characteristic of the 70s and early 80s than something more contemporary.IMG_3090And a more modest, comparatively “untouched” design comprises about every third home.IMG_3091_editsBut my favorites are what my friends have labeled the “Frankenstein homes”—those consisting of multiple expansions over various time periods, like this one:IMG_3094Look at the first floor, and then compare the fenestration and design to its immediate neighbor to the left.IMG_3093IMG_3092My guess is the entire second floor was a later expansion.

The prevalence of teardowns is a testament to Glenview’s enduring desirability as a bedroom community. Whether it’s the convenient location in the middle of northern Chicagoland, the top-ranked school system, the diversity of housing types, a reasonably walkable environment with a discernible downtown, commuter rail access…you name it. Glenview has enough to recommend it that people with considerable economic means have decided not to push further outward. Instead, they build their dreamhomes right there in Glenview—after they’ve bulldozed the one that stood there previously, even though the former home was probably in perfectly livable condition. Whatever one thinks of the ecological underpinnings of this real estate decision, it serves as one of the most unambiguous indicators of a community’s attractiveness. We could easily carp on the aesthetics when a single teardown deviates sharply from everything around it, but teardowns rarely occur in isolation. And, as the evidence in these Glenview subdivisions confirm, over time it’s not much different than the incremental replacement of a wardrobe in a closet. Let’s just hope the replacement clothes aren’t getting continuously bigger and bulkier…though—let’s face it—in this country, they often are.

12 thoughts on “MONTAGE: Teardowns: cleaning out the residential wardrobe.  

  1. Jeffrey Jakucyk

    Suburban gentrification basically. The sad part is that with all of this construction comes no change in population, it’s just shifting the demographics from middle-class to upper-middle-class or beyond. So former residents, or at least the former demographic, gets pushed out to somewhere else, exacerbating sprawl.

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  2. AmericanDirt Post author

    You’re definitely onto something, Jeffrey. And you’re right that this housing transformation isn’t really adding population, though at least Glenview still seems to be growing at a moderate clip.

    But do you really think the former residents–those lower middle class folk who built these houses–really got pushed out? Bear in mind that they may simply have sold their homes, not knowing that the next buyer was so well-heeled that he/she could purchase, demolish, then rebuild a much bigger home on the same parcel. This contrasts sharply from the usual inner-city gentrification, where the shifting demographics genuinely could displace people who are often renters and on public assistance. While what’s happening in Glenview is gentrification to a degree, I’m not sure there’s overt displacement, unless people are leaving because they can’t afford the escalating property taxes. And that would be a defeatist situation if there ever was one: the property tax burden is greater than the benefit of rising home equity, trapping the cash-poor homeowner who has sufficient assets to pay those hefty taxes but lacks the liquidity. Hopefully the sort of middle class people who bought into Glenview also demonstrated enough good financial planning to reap the benefit of rising home values without being driven out by escalating taxes.

    That said, I generally recognize that teardowns can also help to keep a certain aspect of suburban sprawl in check. After all, what would happen if a municipality prohibited teardowns? Those wealthy people who tear down homes in Glenview could just as easily have built on a greenfield site 10 miles to the north, eventually shifting the wealth balance, and the retail, and the office parks, all further away from Chicago, leaving Glenview a tired, declining suburb with aging infrastructure and unappealingly small homes. While teardowns may be unattractive, our urban landscapes are facing far more damaging problems.

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  3. Nicole

    Welcome to my neighborhood (and almost every oceanfront neighborhood in America). PS, I live across the street in the mid-c ranch

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  4. Kristy F

    Wilmette was the same way when I worked there. The city insisted that homes stay within their original footprint, so they would go up.

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    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Interesting. Wilmette has always been a prestigious suburb, so I’d imagine those original footprints were generally still pretty big. But not big enough, apparently.

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  5. Jeffrey Jakucyk

    I think the property tax situation is legitimate, it’s what motivated Proposition 13 in California. You’re right though that it’s not gentrification in the same vein as more urban neighborhoods where there’s a concern about actual people being displaced. In this case it’s more of a demographic that’s being displaced. The neighborhood goes decidedly up-market compared to what it was, so it becomes out-of-reach to those who might have moved there before. It’s that supply/demand problem (or more specifically the constrained supply problem) which causes this that bothers me.

    I’m from Highland Park originally, so I saw this happening first-hand when I was a kid in the 90s. The interesting thing is that HP also allowed a decent amount of new condo development near its downtown and Metra station, something which has not happened in all the other North Shore suburbs except for Evanston. Nevertheless, even in HP it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of sprawl and the demand to live in these neighborhoods, and nothing of note has been built around the Ravinia or Braeside stations as far as I can see either.

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  6. AmericanDirt Post author

    Jeffrey, thanks for substantiating for me what I had already heard: that, aside from Evanston, Highland Park is really the only North Shore Chicago suburb with much socioeconomic variety. I guess you could count Highwood as being comparatively blue-collar, and then of course there’s Waukegan, which was a freestanding city before the suburbs grew out to meet it. But that still leaves dozens of northern Cook County and Lake County suburbs that are part of this colossal belt of affluence.

    Lacking the time (and, I’ll admit, the will and the ability) to perform a cost/benefit analysis on home appreciation versus tax burden for suburbs like Glenview, I’ll have to continue to speculate that the changes are still less radical than what might have prompted Proposition 13 in CA. (After all, was it Los Angeles/San Francisco that led the charge in CA, or was it Orange/Marin counties?) The per-square-foot costs in Glenview are probably fairly steep, but the mid-century yellow cottages would still be considerably more affordable to middle-class newcomers than the 10-year-old teardowns nearby. And, since the logical alternative would be for the wealthy rich Chicagoans to simply build further out into rural Lake or McHenry County, spurring even greater decentralization and eventually leaving Glenview to become a tired, unappealing, declining suburb, I still think the teardown may prove the less damaging avenue. All the more power to Highland Park and Evanston for accommodating moderate-income people in their city limits, however paltry those accommodations may be.

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