Sunday, November 30, 2008

Selling out

Warning: Here I go about teardowns again. This seems to be a recurring theme/obsession of late.

(FYI: some of my posts on this topic are now appearing on another blog, The Teardown Post).

I just happened across this article, and it echoed so much of my own experience with the teardown phenomenon. My parents' neighbors are having to make the same choice: Live with an outdated kitchen, or renovate in the knowledge that the investment will end up in a landfill. It's a curious and unsettling feeling to realize that something you've put years of investment and maintenance into is something that apparently nobody else would want.

Even my own house, however charming, is woefully inadequate in the eyes of today's real estate market. This kind of house would need a new owner who doesn't just want a house, but an old house, warts and all. People like us who can live with its quirks, fix its unusual problems, and aren't lamenting the lack of certain features that seem to be standard on all new homes these days, at least around here. Granted, there are things that could be done to make it more marketable, like adding a second bathroom upstairs, which we probably will do at some point. But its essential character is old, crooked, set in its ways.

The average homebuyer isn't into quirks though. The average homeowner expects their new investment to be much lower-maintenance than ours, and include today's most-desired features. At bare minimum, these seem to include a multi-car garage, a master suite with a bathroom, at least one two-story interior room or foyer, and a big kitchen with an island and adjoining "great room." My house has none of these things. Your average pre-1980s house doesn't have those things either. With good reason, the former owner of our house was petrified that someone would buy the place, dismiss it as hopeless, and knock it down (although with 2-foot-thick stone walls, that would take some doing).

On a side note, I wonder how many of the current "living standards" in new construction are based on what buyers want, or on what builders and realtors are trying to sell. I'm sure there are surveys out there about what people are looking for in a new home, and builders then respond. But with teardowns, who exactly is doing the dismissing of an older house as useless? Is it the buyers who bypass the possibilities of older houses? Or are there others in the supply chain who make assumptions about what these buyers want? Is it the realtors who cultivate relationships with (and slant their sales tactics toward) builders who will pay top dollar and increase their commission? Is it the builders who want to "improve the neighborhood" with their latest masterpiece and see dollar signs sprouting from the front lawn?

This article and another article that recently appeared in the Times discussed the nature of objections to teardowns. The first objection is emotional and nostalgic about erasing the history of a particular house, homeowners, or neighborhood, and concerned about the impact of these losses on the community. The second objection is to what fills in the empty space, and how offensive or intrusive the infill might be.

I'm not sure which aspect troubles me more, because both in my mind are pretty offensive. I probably wouldn't object quite so strenuously if new construction blended in instead of looming over the neighborhood, and if buyers and developers weren't so quick to dismiss something as unusable. I wish that people could look at an older house in a more creative way. While there are some houses that are essentially un-adaptable for today's standards, most could be adequate or even really nice if people are willing to do some remodeling and live in less-capacious quarters.

Perhaps we could remind them that a century ago, even one bathroom was a luxury out of reach to most middle-class Americans. Do we all really need a bathroom the size of a bedroom, and a master bedroom the size of a small gymnasium? I'm hoping the price of heating fuel might discourage the popularity of the double-height window-lined family room (I know several owners of such rooms and nearly all of them complain about how hard it is to heat and keep warm). But I wouldn't bet the farm on it.

Finally, for educational entertainment, Westport Now offers an interactive map and "Teardown of the Day," a regular feature chronicling the frequent teardowns in that town (home to Martha Stewart and other wealthy and famous citizens). Sad, but fascinating. I'm amazed that anyone would want to knock down something dating from the 1760s - clearly generations of people have found that house adequate for their needs, at the very least. Go pick on the dilapidated 1960s raised ranch next door.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A question of value

I received the following comment from a Connecticut reader pertaining to the Grumman-St. John House situation. However, it goes right to the heart of that uneasy argument between the preservationists and the property-rights people.

I'll keep this short: The value of a historic building is what someone is willing to pay to possess it.

The current owner placed a value on the property and *PAID* for it. He is now free to do with that property what he pleases to do (as long as it's otherwise legal). If that means tearing it down, so be it. You could have bid against him, you can still make him an offer to purchase it...

What I oppose is you using the power of the state to take the property he bought, or restrict his rights to enjoy the property he purchased. **EVEN IF THAT MEANS BURNING IT TO THE GROUND**

I'd hope you would have the courage and faith in your convictions to post both comments and let the public decide who is correct.

So, I ask you, the public: What do you think? What is the worth of someone else's historic building? What rights do others have to decide what happens to it?

Discuss. Commenters, fire away.

My response:

Yes, the owner bought the property and paid good money for it. Yes, he has the right to make decisions about how to use it, and to determine the highest and best return for his investment. I can see why the outcry by non-owners over his plans would be most unwelcome. I can see why he might neglect the place, considering he wants it gone, although willfully allowing vandalism is not going to help build his credibility or his case.

1. Was the house ever on the market independently, or only as part of a larger commercial property? i.e., was it available to someone who is not a wealthy business owner/investor with a huge line of credit? The house by itself might have been affordable, but as part of the Norwalk Inn property? Mmmm, probably not.

2. When furor erupted over the owner's plans, did he then offer to sell off the house (either onsite or as a moveable entity) so that someone who wanted to save it could obtain it? Would he even be willing to sell it at a fair price?

If not, you really can't argue that someone who cares about it should have bought it. I don't see any evidence that history-minded individuals or associations had or have a fair opportunity to buy it.

A few other economic considerations.

Did the owner investigate the landmark status of this building, or other special considerations, prior to purchase? Did he consider that there might be these or other obstacles to his plans?

Has he given fair consideration to reusing the house as part of his business? What would this do for his economic situation? What is the cost of renovation of the existing structure to fulfill some of his business needs vs. the cost of demolition then construction of a large new building? Has he considered alternate construction plans that either incorporate or spare the house?

As for the unfairness of government control, let's remember that the government already has some control over use of the property. The property is, after all, subject to property tax assessments and local zoning designations and ordinances. New construction on the property would be subject to building code inspections and government safety regulations. Does the owner have an objection to this type of control?

Government interference could also be much worse than a dispute about a building. There are countless examples of government seizure of private property in the past, such as condemnation of thousands of private properties by eminent domain to create today's military bases, railroads, highways, airports, and national parks. Often these properties were seized with very little notice (i.e. telling farmers they had two weeks to get themselves and their families and animals off property that had been in their families for generations). Often the buyouts were way below fair market value. More recently, the seizure of an entire neighborhood in New London by eminent domain made news. And who paid for all of this? We did.

Is government seizure and control of private property the right thing to do? Not necessarily. In fact, it was often blatantly unfair and took advantage of disenfranchised citizens with deep roots. But my point is that government seizure of these properties was intended to fulfill a public need, be it for military or transportation or recreation use, or economic stabilization. Think about it: Every time you drive on an interstate highway or swim in a scenic reservoir or touch down on a runway, you are benefiting from the government's decision to take someone's property.

Compared to this type of government control, the owners of the Grumman-St. John property are actually getting off easy. You really can't complain about Connecticut tax dollars being spent on a court case over this house. Billions have been spent to assume control of other people's property in a much more drastic manner. And frankly, nobody is going to like everything their tax money is being spent on. I can name plenty of places my tax money is going that I wish weren't benefiting from my largesse.

So, everyone else, I'll let you take over now.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Grumman-St. John update

The owners of the Grumman-St. John house admitted they're letting the place be vandalized. And they want sympathy because people expect them to follow state law?

What cracks me up is that their lawyer is quoted saying the house is "of very little historic value." Tell that to the National Park Service and the National Register of Historic Places. If it was of so little value, believe me, the state and the preservation interests would have let the matter drop years ago. They aren't just doing this for fun or to ruin your business.

Another entertaining aspect is that the building the owners want to keep and expand, the main Inn building, is this sprawling, soulless modern motel/banquet hall complex with zero character. Pretty landscaping, but.... Even a sucker like me sees no redeeming qualities there. Interestingly, there are virtually no photos of the exterior on the inn website.

The house even in its deteriorated state is way more commanding and of far superior construction. It could really add some authentic historic charm to what is a functional but uninspiring inn property, creating a link between the inn and the Green. They could make it sort of a boutique luxury component of the inn property, or convert it to large suites. A little imagination would uncover a ton of hidden potential, and a little design creativity could allow both the inn to expand and the house to be retained. But the owners would rather fight to the death to knock the house down, rather than making a design compromise that could make everyone happy and end this costly and bitter battle very quickly.

Yep, it's just another old wooden building.

Confidential to CTYANKEE

I'll mind my own business if you stop buying properties with valuable historic buildings on them.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Grumman-St. John House, Norwalk, CT

Time for a little hometown controversy:

In a nutshell, the Grumman-St. John house in Norwalk, CT is currently falling apart as its owners seek to bulldoze it and the local preservation trust is fighting to save it. Luckily the trust has Connecticut's Attorney General Richard Blumenthal on its side. But it's an ugly fight, and it ain't over yet. Props to the trust and the attorney general for fighting to save this important piece of Norwalk history.

I had the pleasure of meeting the director of the Norwalk Preservation Trust while helping out with a historic house tour last month. I grew up in the next town and my parents now reside in Norwalk. In another odd twist, my husband is a descendant of the Norwalk St. John family. Given these connections, I've been tracking the story from afar. We discussed the issue and he said that to these owners, this valuable and irreplaceable house is "just an old wooden building."

Call me a bleeding-heart preservationist, but I can't look at any crummy old building without appreciating it in some way. Even some rickety old shed behind a remuddled bungalow gets a drop of my interest and compassion. Perhaps this is because I get paid to spot and survey anything that appears to be over 50 years old. Perhaps all this surveying, and my lifelong fascination with architectural detail, makes it inevitable that I can't just ignore buildings. Even as I write some of the built environment off as too new to survey, or too altered or insignificant to be NR-eligible, I still see potential in things most people would not appreciate. I still see a story there, even if it's not a very important or interesting one.

Sometimes I wish that I could take a would-be demolisher on a tour through the building they want to knock down to build their McMansion or chain store. I'd point out the details, the hand-hewn beams, the delicate molding profiles, the soft wear on the stair treads, the honey of the floors in the afternoon sun. The hand-built china cabinets and homely old mantels. The sturdy construction under the cracking paint and crumbling plaster. I'd point out the beauties and irreplaceabilities of even the ugliest ugly-duckling building, share my vision of what it could be. I'd also point out that they'd engender a lot of community goodwill if they kept it and revived it. Is knocking down history and pissing off the neighbors really a good way to promote a business?

Would they listen to me? Probably not. Would they still think their convenience store is a better use for the site? Probably so. But if just one developer could be taught to appreciate the history and potential of a venerable old building, or how it might fit in with their plans after all, maybe they'd reconsider the next time they come across a property for sale that contains some old white elephant that would need to be torn down. And that would be a good thing.