What's Wrong with Teardowns? Boon to Neighborhoods Doesn't Make Up for Loss of Aesthetics, Some Say

By Toomey, Shamus | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), September 21, 2002 | Go to article overview

What's Wrong with Teardowns? Boon to Neighborhoods Doesn't Make Up for Loss of Aesthetics, Some Say


Toomey, Shamus, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Shamus Toomey Daily Herald Staff Writer

They're often huge, and maybe even a bit out of context with their surroundings. They supplant old, familiar homes and bring construction dust and other headaches to communities seemingly completed years ago.

There are scores of names attached to post-teardown homes, mostly derisive. They're called McMansions, Monster Homes, Bash & Builds, Bigfoots, Trophy Homes and Starter Castles.

But are "teardowns" the problem that some preservation groups and vocal neighbors say they are? Or is the expanding trend of tearing down older homes to build larger ones a clear boon to communities because of the new housing stock, new designs, new tax dollars and new residents brought in?

The answer, according to those on both sides of the issue, is there are no easy answers. It often comes down to the scruples of a builder, the thoughtfulness of village officials who craft restrictions and a case-by-case analysis of the homes torn down and built in their place.

"You have to look at the overall picture: what is a neighborhood? It's people walking around, having a sense of belonging," says Ellen Shubart of the Campaign for Sensible Growth.

"If someone is putting in this large home that has a completely different aspect to it, it may ruin that feeling, make people feel there's not a neighborhood character," she said. "Not to mention that the larger houses often overwhelm the houses next to them and block out light. Or sometimes these buildings leave (neighbors) faced with a blank wall."

Proponents of the trend acknowledge there are builders who don't do enough to respect the neighbors and who shoehorn in homes that just don't fit. But there are plenty of architects and builders who work overtime trying to make neighbors and the village happy because the new residents, after all, have to live alongside their neighbors, local builders say.

The Washington, D.C.-based National Trust for Historic Preservation released a report in July that labeled the teardown trend "an alarming epidemic" that can leave a neighborhood with "a hodgepodge of boxy new mansions and forlorn-looking older homes."

The trust's efforts to tame the trend are focused on preserving homes in historic areas, such as Chicago's North Shore. But the report's co-author, Jim Lindberg, said just because homes in suburbs north and west of Chicago typically aren't as old as those on the North Shore doesn't mean they are not worth saving.

"There are some post-war neighborhoods that are starting to be recognized as historic and that's going to continue," Lindberg said.

And if it's not historic yet, some day it could be, such as the 1950s ranch-home subdivisions. "I think we also have to think ... what part of that area are we going to save so that in year 2070, you can look back and say, 'That was an interesting piece of architecture, and people are still living there,' " Shubart said.

Builders in the area insist the majority of homes being torn down in the suburbs would be saved if they were worth saving. Both Shubart and Lindberg acknowledge some teardowns are acceptable and worthwhile.

"In any neighborhood, there will be properties that are not well-maintained, and the best use of the property would be a new home," Lindberg said.

The teardown trend is nothing new, but it has picked up steam in the past 10 years as incomes have swelled and commutes have worsened. So-called "in-fill" development of interior suburbs, proponents argue, allows people to build their dream homes in established neighborhoods with mature trees, good schools, nearby downtowns and commutes far shorter than those in outer, developing communities.

Hinsdale is seen as the local capital of suburban teardown construction. And towns such as Naperville, Glen Ellyn, Geneva, Batavia, Wheaton, Barrington, Hoffman Estates, Arlington Heights and Schaumburg all have grappled with the issue. …

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