Trouble in the House of Tudor

A nasty neighborhood battle is brewing between McMansion-dwellers and self-righteous homeowners in the M Streets


Jennifer Barnes won't use the word "hurt" to describe her feelings about the battle against homes like hers, which was recently built at the edge of the proposed Belmont Addition conservation district. That neighborhood, which is dominated by small, wood-framed homes, many of them postwar "GI" houses that have been turned into rental properties, lies between the M Streets and Lakewood Heights.

"'Hurt' is the wrong word, but it has bothered me in that I am seen as a capitalist imperialist," Barnes says. "We have furniture from Target in this house."

Barnes and her husband, Jason, exemplify the type of young, white-collar professionals who have been flocking into the city's urban neighborhoods. Both attorneys, the Barneses chose the neighborhood because its close proximity to downtown allows them to avoid a lengthy commute. They also liked the area's older houses, which remind them of the East Coast neighborhoods they grew up in. In fact, Barnes wanted to buy an old Tudor that was for sale in the M Streets, but in the end, the couple decided the asking price was ridiculous.

If the Tudor Rebellion is successful, houses like Arthur Eisenberg's will soon be outlawed.
Mark Graham
If the Tudor Rebellion is successful, houses like Arthur Eisenberg's will soon be outlawed.
Custom builder Terry Gaston says he'd rather build smaller houses, but the skyrocketing cost of lots precludes that.
Mark Graham
Custom builder Terry Gaston says he'd rather build smaller houses, but the skyrocketing cost of lots precludes that.

"Why would I pay $300,000 to live in 1,900 square feet when I can pay $400,000 for 3,000 square feet?" Barnes says. "I loved the style. I begged [Jason] to live there, but economically we just couldn't risk it. We were worried the bottom would drop out."

The local real-estate market has, until recently, sent property values soaring. In the Tudor-dominated M Streets, the values of the homes have gone up along with land values. But that hasn't been the case everywhere. In neighborhoods like Belmont Addition and Lakewood Heights, the housing stock is deteriorating to the point where the lots are now worth more than the structures. As a result, more homes are being razed.

Barnes says this trend should be welcomed, not thwarted. As an example, she points to the house next door. Now a rent house, its wooden frame is rotting, while its unkempt lot has become a nesting ground for snakes and rats.

"We call it the shithole," Barnes says. "This is what they're trying to preserve? They should be thanking us."

Manson Jones, the president of JMJ Custom Homes who built Barnes' house, echoed his clients' comments while standing in front of another house he's building "on spec" in Lakewood Heights. A nearby house, which has been red-tagged by city inspectors, is much like the one Jones says he razed to make way for this project, which will sell for more than $400,000 when it's finished.

"I walked into it and it was covered in urine and trash. When the bulldozer came, I just shut the door behind me and let 'em go," says Jones, who adds that every house he's torn down has been in the same condition. Why anyone would want to preserve them is beyond him. "If this was the North Church in Boston where Paul Revere saw the lights, I could see it. But some of these houses were built 40 years ago."

Jones argues that the same economic forces that protect the old Tudors from being razed also explain why the new homes are as big as they are: Escalating lot values mean builders have to build houses that are at least 3,000 square feet in order to recoup their costs and realize a profit.

Jones isn't kidding. In the last five years, lot prices in the M Streets have doubled to about $90,000 for the average 50-by-150-foot lot. In the neighborhoods to the east, where more new homes have been built, lot values have more than tripled. Barnes' lot, for example, has gone from an appraised value of $20,000 in 1997 to $87,500 today. Other similar-sized lots are worth more than $100,000.

"I would much rather build smaller houses, but the cost of the lot precludes that," Jones says, echoing the comments of other builders in the area. "You have to get the costs back, and that's where you get the size."

Unlike Greenland Hills, where the vast majority of homes are Tudor, the proposed Belmont Addition district has everything from early 1900s Prairie- and Craftsman-style homes to postwar ranch houses and other structures that don't have an identifiable style. As a result, the process of figuring out which ones should be preserved has been more difficult. One thing's for sure: A goal of the district will be to require that any new homes built there replicate one of the existing architectural styles. Beyond that, Philip Kingston says, the district's organizers don't want to be overly restrictive.

"No neighborhood was ever perfect. There are houses that are old and conforming to the neighborhood that are ugly. But that's my opinion, and I can have the opinion that one house is better than the other, but that's not going to be reflected in the ordinance--other than in broad strokes," Kingston says. "We hope to draft a document where later we don't end up with a newcomer problem."

Kingston and his wife, Melissa, became active with the district shortly after the couple moved in two years ago. To a reporter, Melissa will only reluctantly admit that new homes like the Barnes' are the motivation behind the effort.

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