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Fighting a new neighbor who wants to tear down, rebuild, and flip
January 29, 2013 11:12 AM   Subscribe

A couple recently purchased a beautiful Hacienda-style home on my street. They want to tear it down and replace it with a soulless, bland, aggressively imposing mini-McMansion. Luckily, I live in a really special city with an incredibly strict design review committee. What can I do to fight them?

We successfully fought the first iteration of their plans by having a few dozen people speak against various design aspects such as window size, symmetry, lack of distinct style, lack of side-wall articulation, etc. But the new owners have informed us that they plan to be extremely aggressive, and already have three back-up plans ready to go.

A few of my neighbors are pursuing the possibility of attaining historic preservation status. I'm planning to do the following things once we receive the new plans:
- Find homes with a similar silhouette in nearby cities and take photographs to demonstrate that they disrupt the style of a historic neighborhood
- Find proof that similar homes have actually decreased the property value of their neighbors
- Find dissatisfied neighbors of the other houses this couple has flipped
- Find examples of good Italian Renaissance homes in the city to demonstrate that the proposed home does not qualify
- Get signed statements from architecture experts criticizing the design
- Collect more signatures from residents (we already have 100)

What else can I do? The ultimate goal is to oppose the new owners so strongly that they just give up and sell the house.
posted by acidic to Home & Garden (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Unless your municipality's design review committee has rules that allow it to consider things like a petition or signed statements form architects (neither of which would be relevant in most circumstances as they are not subject to cross-examination by the applicant or objectors), you need to put together admissible testimony of either experts or neighbors.
posted by mmf at 11:20 AM on January 29, 2013


Perhaps you should alter your ultimate goal to be less "Fuck these people."

I know, you think they're being worse, but look for the "Win-win" solution -- point out to them that it will take way too much time, effort and money on their part to do what they want to do, versus just selling the damn thing now for a smaller but more immediate profit. That's what they're looking for, remember -- they don't want to destroy your neighborhood, they want to maximize their profit. Show them a way they can do that, and they'll swan off.

For that matter, what if one of their back-up plans isn't inherently horrible? If you just don't want anything that's not that particular beautiful Hacienda-style home on your street, it will eventually start to look like you just want to gainsay anything these two come up with.
posted by Etrigan at 11:24 AM on January 29, 2013 [16 favorites]


They allow anything. There's no cross-examination procedure. Last time the new owners brought in someone who testified that the architect (recently deceased) was a great, well-intentioned person.

It is abundantly clear to all parties that they could sell right now for a good profit. They bought the house after it had been on the market for three hours after winning a bidding war by agreeing to pay $1.7m cash.
posted by acidic at 11:24 AM on January 29, 2013


Honestly? You should get a local lawyer who is familiar with the zoning and design review processes in your city, and have them do the fighting for you. They'll know the ins and outs of the system and what is likely to work and what won't. Also, I think you'll be less likely to come off as a cranky-neighbor-with-a-grudge if a lawyer is representing you, or better yet if they're representing some sort of neighborhood association that you put together for the purpose.

Ten angry people are a mob, and likely to get treated as one; ten people with a charter and bylaws are a grassroots organization. And if everyone chips in some money and you hire a lawyer, one that will likely as not be taken seriously.

I've followed efforts in my city to oppose shitty development (generally larger-scale than just one McMansion; typically hundreds of them on greenfields sites) and the success stories seem to have one thing in common: organization. Either an existing neighborhood org / civic association, or one created for the purpose ("Friends of [neighborhood name]" is popular), followed by fund-raising. And from there it's a lot easier to have actual influence, because you can do everything from buying signage to direct mailings to hiring hydrologists or engineers to review documents for violations.

Off the top of my head, the one development that was scuttled was because the adjacent neighborhood association paid for a (costly) environmental review and found that their plans were out of compliance in some way, and they would have had to do enough abatement to make it unprofitable. I think the developer eventually just sold the property to an open space trust for a tax writeoff.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:27 AM on January 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


I know that, in the suburban neighborhood where I grew up (and my parents still live), several small houses on large-ish plots got torn down and McMansion-type houses went up, and years later most of the newly built houses haven't sold. There are a couple of houses that have literally been empty for years.

I'd suggest you look into how sales are going for that type of house and, if they're slow to sell, you could make an argument about houses sitting vacant being bad for the neighborhood.
posted by Meg_Murry at 11:43 AM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Seconding neighborhood association.

You might want to consider not directly opposing their plans, but demanding instead that they put the money to rebuild into escrow before they start tearing anything down. If anything should happen, the last thing your neighborhood or your municipality wants is a giant pit where a perfectly serviceable house once stood.

Given that they intend to flip this house, much of their financing is probably contingent on being able to proceed with construction, so such a demand could be a poison pill that might derail the entire project.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 11:47 AM on January 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


I guess I should have been a little more clear in my question. The design review committee, at this stage in the process, is concerned exclusively with making sure that the proposed home is "architecturally compatible with the neighborhood", has "character and identity", and is "beautiful and elegant". It is very, very serious about visual appeal and character, which of course is subjective. We are located a couple blocks away from this place. It is a beauty-obsessed city.

We aren't concerned with code violations or lawyers at this point-- that's way down the line. The committee specifically wants neighbors to participate, and they've been totally pleased and impressed by our efforts so far. I don't know what more I can do to explain that my city is totally unlike most others, and I really just need concrete strategies to argue that the proposed house lacks character, beauty, compatibility, etc.
posted by acidic at 12:03 PM on January 29, 2013


The ultimate goal is to oppose the new owners so strongly that they just give up and sell the house.

And what if their return fuck you is to sell it to someone with even more determination and resources to fight you on this and build a McMansion there?

So they want to tear the house down, build a new one and flip it. But it sounds like they are not super attached to what the new house will end up being, as they already have 3 backup plans. Why can't you ask them to build an hacienda style house instead? I mean if the main thing they are concerned about is that they want to build something big, it's quite possible to build a house that is discreetly big.
posted by cairdeas at 12:04 PM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Degustibus non disputandem est. In other words you cannot legislate good taste. What you can do is legislate heights, setbacks, and density. So your statement "We aren't concerned with code violations or lawyers at this point-- that's way down the line." is a bit premature. Zoning may be all you have to fight with. Go to the planning committee if there is one and ask about proper zoning in the area. You may be able to petition to have the zoning changed to limit the density (sq. feet of building on lot size) so that a McMansion can't be built.
posted by Gungho at 12:17 PM on January 29, 2013


I assume you've looked at your city's design guidelines? I looked at them and they touch on lots of specific characteristics. You could compile a table of how setbacks, roofs, building height, orientation, etc are represented on your street. If you think it is "aggressively imposing" maybe it is not in line with the rooflines commonly seen in your neighborhood? Keep in mind there is also a specific and narrow definition of "neighborhood" in the guidelines, so probably only a dozen or so houses count.

That said, the flippers have surely also reviewed the guidelines so keep in mind that if your mission is just to preserve the existing house, you might be out of luck, since they will eventually come up with an unobjectionable design. They're probably pissed at you already so they might fight it out just based on spite.
posted by ghharr at 12:23 PM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


What you can do is legislate heights, setbacks, and density. So your statement "We aren't concerned with code violations or lawyers at this point-- that's way down the line." is a bit premature. Zoning may be all you have to fight with.

Seconding this - there's the building code, which generally governs building safety, and then there's the municipal code, which will deal with the stuff Gungho mentions, among other things. Beating them up with the municipal building/zoning regulations is your primary weapon at this point. Of course, the people wanting to build this project most likely already have an architecture firm and other consultants who are well-versed in the municipal code regulations, so there's probably not too much to do there unless they've really dropped the ball - if the architect or whoever has worked in your area previously, that's not too likely, but if they've hired an outsider and tried to get things through on the cheap it's totally possible.

If you are determined to fight this, then you need to stick concrete points that can be factually argued. Zoning regulations and the like.

It really kind of depends. That's probably how you'll get the best results, but some areas have really subjective review processes for certain things. In my area, alterations to a historical building can be nixed by a design review committee if they don't feel the alterations respect the historical aspects of the building enough - there's no way that type of review can be completely objective.

If the building can be historically designated, or if your city has some sort of auto-historic designation that kicks in (e.g. San Diego will review alterations for any building over 45 years old for potential historic resource designation), that'll be a great help. If the existing building is just something in a faux style that was thrown up in the 70s, that'll be a harder case to make unless the designer or original owner was somebody significant.
posted by LionIndex at 1:13 PM on January 29, 2013


Do their architectural renderings show the house in context of the neighboring structures? If not, can you get an artist to do renderings (similar to those shown in the design guidelines) demonstrating what that house will look like in context? This is like your idea of taking photos of similar houses, but might be even more powerful.
posted by katemonster at 1:35 PM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also, the design guidelines give weight to concerns of sustainability. In particular, "Recycle, repair and maintain well-built existing structures to the fullest extent possible". If the existing house is in good condition, it's hard to justify tearing it down and rebuilding in the face of those requirements.
posted by katemonster at 1:41 PM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


How old are most of the homes in your neighbourhood? I wonder if, with or without historic status, you could argue that new homes in general are out of keeping with the character of the neighbourhood?

Modern building techniques are about speed and efficiency rather than craftsmanship, so details of windows, masonry, woodwork etc tend to be left out/ overlooked in new homes slapped together with concrete and fake-brick facade. I'd collect a list and images of specific features like these that houses built after certain time periods do not have, and use those to demonstrate how this new place will be bland and lacking character. I'd also try to collect as much information as possible about lovely details that the existing house has that will be lost if it's demolished.
posted by windykites at 1:43 PM on January 29, 2013


If you're in Pasadena or San Marino, you need to get the existing house declared a landmark or historic. It's not enough that it's pretty and Spanish Colonial. You can try Pasadena Heritage, but they don't always have great luck, and if the new owners are from an ethnic minority who want to house their multi-generational family, (common in San Marino) you will not prevail. If you're in shouting distance of the Huntington, I doubt that these new owners are going to slap up some cheaply built big thing--the property taxes are pretty high.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:19 PM on January 29, 2013


Oh and-- The ultimate goal is to oppose the new owners so strongly that they just give up and sell the house.

Think long and hard about this, especially if the new owners are of a different ethnicity than yours or other neighbors. Pasadena has had plenty of battles about "those people" moving in over the years, and the LAT is always glad of a story that makes Pasadena look white bread, insular and bigoted.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:21 PM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


If you are determined to fight this, then you need to stick concrete points that can be factually argued. Zoning regulations and the like.

Wow, then I must have been dreaming when the committee rejected the first proposal for a host of completely subjective aesthetic reasons that had nothing to do with regulations! The terms "aggressively imposing" and "soulless" were direct quotes from committee members. The new owners are closely following all the objective regulations, and they fit the neighborhood in terms of basic things like height and setback. I'm lucky therefore that the city's design review process has a highly subjective component, but I'm not confident of my ability to argue why something just doesn't look right.

Think long and hard about this, especially if the new owners are of a different ethnicity than yours or other neighbors.

San Marino, and nope. Chinese people buying property in San Marino is nothing new, but tearing down perfectly good houses is.
posted by acidic at 2:35 PM on January 29, 2013


Maybe if they comply with all the completely subjective aesthetic reasons that the committee set out, pull their fingers out, brief an architect properly and understand how much time, effort and money good design and high quality craftsmanship costs, the end result will be a net improvement? Not all tear-downs are a terrible loss to a neighbourhood; sometimes it's more economical to start again and sometimes the new is better than the old.
posted by jonathanbell at 2:56 PM on January 29, 2013


I'm lucky therefore that the city's design review process has a highly subjective component, but I'm not confident of my ability to argue why something just doesn't look right.

You know what they call people who rely on luck? Losers. DWRoelands's points are good, and you shouldn't be dismissive. The design review committee might change its mind (or change its makeup). Your new neighbors might sue and get a judge who doesn't like busybodies cluttering up his nice, clean, elegant laws with their subjective design hullabaloo.

Maximum heights and setbacks and environmental impacts, on the other hand, have to be actively changed, and it's hard to change them quickly -- it only takes one design review board meeting to give your new neighbors the go-ahead. Don't give them that chance if you don't have to.
posted by Etrigan at 3:03 PM on January 29, 2013


If I bought a house assuming I could do as I wish given existing land use regulations and some nosy busibody came along trying to stop me I'd be pretty darned pissed off. Golden Rule and all that.

Honestly, a thorough review of existing land use regulations would entail researching the review processes required for construction on that property, like HOAs and CC&Rs.

Your new neighbors might sue and get a judge who doesn't like busybodies cluttering up his nice, clean, elegant laws with their subjective design hullabaloo.

Even if both sides hire lawyers at this point, it'll probably go through a whole lengthy chain of appeals processes before it'll ever get to a court. In court, the only real question will most likely be whether the processes were followed correctly. So first, there's this design review board - if the board has any teeth and isn't just an "advisory" board, then their decision can probably be appealed to a higher authority, like a Planning Commission for the entire city (probably filled by appointment). Above that, they may be able to take it to city council.

As far as angering the neighbors, I used to work for architecture firms that did a ton of work in La Jolla, CA, where there's really nothing but rich folks with nothing to do but hire attorneys and architects to protect their property values, and I've been on both sides of disputes like this all over that area. If a neighborhood has any sort of reputation as having a tough design review process with people throwing a lot of money around to build things, it probably won't be any different, so this isn't going to be some groundbreaking event in negative neighbor relations.
posted by LionIndex at 3:23 PM on January 29, 2013


If they like the neighbourhood, why would they try to change it? They don't care about the neighbourhood. They're not building a family home.

According to the OP's post, these folks are planning to sell the house after building, not live there. They care about profits.

OP, it probably can't hurt you to look at as much of this regulatory stuff as the aesthetic stuff, just in case. The more different strategies you have available to you, the better your chances of winning.
posted by windykites at 3:57 PM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I really just need concrete strategies to argue that the proposed house lacks character, beauty, compatibility, etc.
Then you need to come prepared with visuals. You need to come prepared with poster-board sized displays of the current details, comparatively, of all of the houses in the neighborhood and how they fit together. You'll need to study schools of architecture and figure out which houses in the neighborhood have which styles and which ones have other styles; and be able to present those items eloquently and in detail. You'll need to be able to study how the buildings that exist in the neighborhood sit in their lots and contrast it to any new people.

What I can't figure out is the details of your objection. You got a "soulless" design rejected. That's fine. If they keep bringing soulless buildings in front of the design committee, they may or may not continue to get them rejected...

What if they bring a design that fits the neighborhood style, but is large? How will you fight that one? The problem is that you, right now, are just coming off as a pissed off old person yelling at the kids to get off their lawn.
posted by SpecialK at 4:23 PM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


acidic - I think part of the difficulty of the question you are asking is that you are wanting people to give you an argument for why a proposed design is ugly on aesthetic grounds, but no one can see an image - either of your neighborhood or of the proposed house.

As I understand your argument, you are saying :

1) A previous design committee rejected this party's plans based on aesthetics.

2) The party has new plans.

3) You want to make sure the design committee continues to reject these plans, so that they don't tear down the house.

I teach graphic design. I imagine I have enough visual and linguistic tools in my toolbox that I could describe, in a compelling way, why one architectural plan might be uglier than another. That's all any of us on AskMefi could do - look at the plans, and use any training or experience we might have to craft a compelling argument for or against them. But again, none of us could see these plans.

I think if you disregard the advice given so far to also try to thwart these plans based on environmental or regulatory grounds, the best plan would be to hire an architect, perhaps even one from a local university, who could put together a compelling argument against the proposed designs.

Please try to keep in mind that, from my point of view, you are asking me to give you a University-level education in design or aesthetics, or at the very least, a semester's worth of 2-D Foundations, in one AskMefi answer.

I do wish you luck, by the way! We definitely grind up too much of our history needlessly.
posted by Slothrop at 4:24 PM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Can you research whether there have been similar efforts in your city in the last 5-10 years and then talk to whomever organized those? They'd probably have the best advice for you.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 4:37 PM on January 29, 2013


What else can I do? The ultimate goal is to oppose the new owners so strongly that they just give up and sell the house.

Then form a community preservation organization, solicit donations and make an offer on the property.

Yeah, you can continue making objections before the review committee, but at some point, someone is going to get sick of it and a compromise will be forced. The best results you can get is to hire some kind of respected architect or city planner to draw up some counter-plans that will show what would and would not work in the neighborhood.

If it was a good house that was worth saving, the flippers wouldn't have been able to buy it so easily.
posted by gjc at 4:58 PM on January 29, 2013


This happened all the time in the neighborhood I used to live in (Lakeview in New Orleans). The problem is a classical slippery slope deal. The reason the neighborhood is charming and attractive and valuable is all the quaint little old houses there. One big modern dwelling in the middle of it is then a great value. Then a second property owner copies, and a third, and before you know it in a few years all the ugly McMansions have utterly destroyed the charm that made the block so attractive to begin with and everybody with the means and choice wants out.

I don't believe there is any solution to this problem but I agree with the answerers that building code contests are easy and heritage preservation contests are very very hard. It is definitely worth it if you are a property owner to investigate your neighbors' plans though. Careless builders and bribeable officials and greedy flippers and any unfortunate combination can get a three story monster up in your face pretty fast if you are too blissfully ignorant of what's going down.
posted by bukvich at 9:15 PM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wow, then I must have been dreaming when the committee rejected the first proposal for a host of completely subjective aesthetic reasons that had nothing to do with regulations!

Design review committees are notoriously subjective. If the city wanted a "by right" permitting approach where someone automatically gets a permit if they meet a specific set of objective rules, they wouldn't HAVE a design review committee.

The developers must have known they'd have to go through design review when they bought the place. Savvy investors know neighborhood opposition is a risk.

Your list is good, though the first three sound quite hard. You've gotten other good suggestions:
- use anything you can find in the design guidelines
- hire an architect to serve as your expert witness
- learn from people involved in past committee battles

I'll add:
-get planning staff on your side by meeting with them or having your architectural consultant do so
- research past committee decisions and why the committee voted against the project
- research the committee members individually and the reasoning they've shown in past votes. Identify your most likely "no" votes and figure out what would persuade each.
- meet with the city council member from this geography, not by yourself, but with a few diplomatic and ideally well-connected people. Present the petition and ask for their help.
posted by slidell at 12:24 AM on January 30, 2013


[A few comments deleted. The question is specific; please just answer the question. This isn't about how you would feel if you were the buyers, or a request to talk the OP out of their plan.]
posted by taz at 2:17 AM on January 30, 2013


As touched upon earlier in the thread, there's probably some leverage to be had re: teardown. My town recently allowed a developer to tear down a home only on condition that he make an honest effort of finding a buyer for the house and that he accommodate that buyer's relocation of the house to a different plot of land. The town argued that with affordable housing being scarce, they couldn't allow a perfectly decent home to be demolished simply because someone wanted to put something less affordable there.

Again, this isn't something that would directly oppose your neighbor's plans, but it might frustrate them considerably and jeopardize their plans by drawing out the time it would take to flip the property. It's also not a sure thing--after a few additional months, the property in my town was eventually demolished because the developer couldn't find anyone who wanted to buy, dismantle, and reconstruct a house.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 3:44 AM on January 30, 2013


In addition to Pasadena Heritage, there's also San Marino Heritage.

You might also be able to gather some historical information about the builders and former residents at archive.org and Chronicling America.
posted by kristi at 9:29 AM on January 31, 2013


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