How widespread is the Californication phenomenon in the Mac-Groveland neighborhood of St. Paul? Here’s a quick survey.
I use the term Californication for the practice of tearing down an older, smaller house and erecting a larger, modern one that often clashes visually with the rest of the houses on the street. See this posting from July for an introduction to the subject.
I drove all the streets and avenues in an area of four super-blocks in Mac-Groveland (the same area surveyed in August for the locations of Little Free Libraries). I was expecting to find perhaps a dozen or fewer Californications in this 1.44-sq.-mi. area. It turns out there are 23, with 3 more imminent.
On the map the red bullets represent houses that were apparently erected after an older one was torn down; open squares represent construction sites where a house has been torn down but a new one not put up yet. In all but a few cases these Californications stand out visually on the street. To my eye they don’t “fit” there. (Many agree with this aesthetic judgement, but not everyone does, or considers it as important as other factors such as landowner rights.)
Along with the Californications I saw many apparently remodeled older houses. With few exceptions, homeowners who elect to remodel hew closer to the neighborhood’s prevailing aesthetic than Californicating builders do. Perhaps that is because the former have lived for a time in the neighborhood and intend to stay on for a while; they are motivated to get along with the neighbors. Spec builders are often from out of town. It would be a safe bet that few or none of them live on the block on which they are tearing down an existing house.
Here are some of the factors common to many of the Californications to which neighbors object. Compared to other houses on a block, they may be:
- Larger in square footage
- Wider on the lot
- Deeper on the lot
- Presenting a plain, blunt face to the street
- Casting a neighboring house or yard into shadow
- Overlooking a neighbor’s house or yard, impacting privacy
- Having a deep basement, resulting in increased elevation
- Built with straight, unrelieved front-to-back walls
- More expensive, raising others’ property taxes while depressing the resale value of their homes by making the block less desirable
I would like to turn this list into a comprehensive one, and then make a quantifiable metric of it.
Here is an example: given plans for a teardown and new construction, rank each factor above on a scale of 0 to 3 compared to other houses on the same side of its block. 0 means the plans are in keeping with the street on that factor. 1 means slightly out of line, 2 means noticeably excessive, and 3 means that factor is extremely out of sync with the neighbors.
With the above list, we would have a 0-30 scale to rank proposed construction projects. If the city of St. Paul is indeed committed to fostering preservation, how about adopting a city-wide ordnance allowing each block to choose to declare (or not) that any construction following a teardown must score below 12? (Or any other score that their consensus dictates.)
This step alone would likely stop the teardown phenomenon in its tracks. If a new house were required to fit into its neighborhood in this way, it couldn’t be strikingly larger than its neighbors. So it wouldn’t command an outsized price. So a developer wouldn’t make any profit building it. Why spend $275,000 to tear down a small house only to erect another that sells for perhaps $300,000?
Putting a wet finger in the air, I guesstimate that if the 23 Californications on the map were ranked by such a scheme, most of them would come out in the high teens to low 20s. Most of them are visually jarring on their blocks to a lesser or greater extent.
Better yet, restrict teardowns in the first instance.
This post mainly addresses one facet of the teardown phenomenon, the aesthetic one. For a more comprehensive look at the issues, follow Save Our St. Paul Neighborhoods on Facebook and see this op-ed by some of its members that ran last spring in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
I’m so grateful that you are proactively taking a stance against Californication. It’s amazing what can be lost (in long past, streetcars) or won (recently, no parking meters on Grand) when the community stands together and insists on being heard. Thank you for your good work. I am mildly concerned by recent attempts to rezone MacGroveland for mixed housing units in certain areas. If there is no vigilance over these proposals at the outset, they can come back to haunt in the worst ways when they are made manifest further down the line.
Thanks, Michelle. I hope the vigilance of citizens will suffice to save our residential neighborhoods from the current blight.
I was recently walking on Sargent down by the river, and there is one block with a teardown completed and construction in progress; and on that block ten or a dozen other houses featured “Save Our Neighborhoods” yard signs. I haven’t seen as high a density of the signs anywhere else. It could not be any more clear that the locals hate what is happening, but it doesn’t look like their animus has deterred a grave offense against aesthetics being perpetrated on their block.
I think we are going to need help from new ordnances. Law and court precedent are all on the side of property owners at present, and neighbors really have little say about what happens on any nearby lot.
AND you didn’t even get down to Woodlawn and the Mississipi River Blvd.
Susan, I just went down and drove Woodlawn from Randolph north to Goodrich. I only saw one house I would flag as a Californication — on the river side near Jefferson. If it were a trailer it would have to be called a double-wide. It took up a good deal of the lot’s frontage. Was there something else you meant to point out on Woodlawn?
As far as the River Drive — yes, a similar phenomenon is in play, but on a wholly different scale. I heard someone say a builder had purchased two adjacent houses there for $3.7 million and either has or was about to tear them down to erect a real monster. I haven’t seen this work in progress. But what is going on with homes costing $1M-$2M currently represents such a rarified slice of the market that I can’t get all that exercised about it. Besides, Mississippi River Blvd. would have a much better shot at designation as a historic district, if they chose to go that way, than more ordinary St. Paul residential neighborhoods would.
Oh I couldn’t be happier that this is becoming a dialogue! Our home is a beautiful example of a Praire construction. I believe that we are stewards of this lovely style of home. We are to care for these as you would a work of art! I wouldn’t dream of altering its footprint or its architectural expression. That would be so disrespectful.
My friend across the street no longer has any sun coming into her kitchen. Her neighbor next door constructed a very high addition in the back of their house, so she has no sunlight nor can she see the sky from her kitchen window!
You might be interested in this book I saw reviewed on MinnPost today. Larry Millett has been photographing midcentury architecture around the Cities and across the state since the 1960s, and seems to have been one of the driving forces behind the growing awareness in these parts of the need for preservation.