As we all watch and wait to see how the slumping economy and struggling housing sector either rebounds or continues to fall, one has to question if teardowns – the demolition of houses for larger replacement homes, often referred to as McMansions -- are likely to continue or even make economic sense in the near future. While the demolition of perfectly good houses doesn’t meet our sustainability goals, the practice has developed a strong foothold in many communities around the country, and in Canada and Australia. As I’ve watched this trend grow into a profitable niche market and, most recently, have seen it slowdown in the last year, I’m not convinced teardowns are finished. If anything, teardowns are likely just on a hiatus and, in many places, continue full steam ahead despite the gloomy national economic outlook.
What this current economy does offer us though is a cooling off period to get a handle on this issue and be proactive before teardowns start up full force again. The ways in which communities are responding to teardowns are diverse in approach and overall effectiveness. So in places like Downers Grove, IL, the community is trying to balance the needs of newcomers while also addressing a reduction in affordable “starter” housing, storm water drainage impacts caused in part due to teardowns, and the overall loss of original community character. In Westport, CT, community leaders are responding to teardowns by increasing the period for a demolition delay from 90 to 180 days. Sometimes efforts are being done on a house-by-house basis, such as in Seattle, where a resident is currently making a last ditch effort to save an intact 1908 Craftsman-style home by moving it out of harms way. And in Raleigh, an organization called Community Scale has formed to advocate for approaches that guide infill construction while also preserving the integrity and diversity of the city’s older neighborhoods.
There’s no single tool out there to solve the problem but rather a combination of strategies works best. Recognizing that most people don’t know where to start or go for best practices, a new online tool has been developed called Teardown Tools on the Web. Created as part of the Teardowns Initiative of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, this tool is intended as an easy-to-share, user-friendly, one-stop-shop highlighting approximately 30 tools and more than 300 examples of best practices being used around the country. Check it out at http://www.preservationnation.org/issues/teardowns/
-Adrian Fine, Director Northeast Field Office, National Trust for Historic Preservation