Dynamist Blog

Neighborhood Effects

In chapter five of The Substance of Style (excerpted here), I grappled with a fundamental problem of urban living: the conflict between establishing or preserving a neighborhood's look and feel and allowing individual homeowners to build to suit their own desires. There is no completely satisfactory solution. This Dallas Morning News article demonstrates the particular difficulties posed by trying to establish new rules, even in the best-case scenario where they're fairly general.

The signs, pro and con, have come down, and neighbors who didn't speak for months are reaching out to one another, trying to put the warfare over building restrictions behind them. Still, there are lingering bad feelings, tension as people pass each other on the sidewalks, and a question from both sides about whether the struggle was worth it.

"The ugliest McMansion in the world could be built, and it wouldn't rip neighborhoods apart like this process does," said Josh Doherty, who with his wife, Dawn, and others successfully fought the so-called Maplewood overlay.

Overlay is shorthand for what the city has officially dubbed a "neighborhood stabilization overlay," a zoning device that planners hoped would end unrest over new construction in established neighborhoods.

Instead of peace, overlays in many areas have sparked neighborhood civil wars.

Conceived in 2005, the idea was to give older, established neighborhoods a way to preserve their scale in places where lots have become more valuable than homes and giant new houses have sprouted up, dwarfing their neighbors.

But what resulted in many cases are knock-down, drag-out fights that land before the City Council with the nasty thud of neighbors at each other's throats. [Thanks to reader Tom McKendree for the tip.]

Meanwhile, in my own neighborhood, the folks who lobbied to have the duplexes across the street declared landmarks (discussed in this Atlantic column) are fighting to stop the owner of one of the buildings from adding on two new apartments. While the original plan to tear down three buildings and replace them with new condos did not require a zoning variance to alter setbacks--hence the resort to landmarking--this more-modest plan would. All my neighbors are signing petitions against the change and there's no argument I can make that would convince them the change is in their interest, because it isn't. Forbid any new construction and we preserve our nice view and keep the housing stock tight and our condo values inflated. But, of course, if the same rules and attitudes had prevailed in 1974, we'd have no condos to begin with.

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