Older neighborhoods are being seen as prime places for development of stately town homes, McMansions, and other high-end housing. Tear down the old and up with the new. In the past, I’ve written that close-in neighborhoods ought to get over their fear of this trend and embrace their inevitable high-density future. Not surprisingly, that pissed off some neighborhood groups. As a former resident of older Midwestern cities, I love urban neighborhoods where the housing goes up, not out in sprawl, allowing retail developments on the bottom floors so that stores, clubs, and restaurants are all within walking distance. To put it another way, my idea of hell is a gated community in Aledo.
But now I am seeing my old Monticello neighborhood being transformed, and I have to admit, the redevelopers are causing some problems. The old houses had front porches and yards, and neighbors got to know one another in many respects. So maybe they didn’t all bake cookies or invite you over for beers, but at least you knew the faces of the folks who lived around you.
The new town homes cover most of the lots with buildings, deleting the front and back yards where neighborly interactions used to occur. Car access is in back, so no one even sees you getting home. Fewer front porches – and maybe that’s because new owners want it that way. Maybe they feel safer in walled-in compounds.
I’ve had to move twice in the past year, both times from rental properties that were turned into town homes. The last place I lived had a front porch, and I got to know the kid across the street who liked skateboarding. I used to talk to his grandfather as well about all sorts of things. But that friendly old house has now been leveled, replaced by four new town homes, and all I see are the walls being built to keep the new folks’ privacy intact.
I understand the economics. These older homes were built before central air-conditioning, so they are mostly one-story structures. And the lots were of a good size, because the older homes went out instead of up. Developers have figured out that, with existing zoning, in most cases, they can now throw up a couple of three-story structures on one lot and double their money.
But I also understand more about the concerns of long-term residents who wonder what their streets are being turned into. These folks want to preserve their neighborhoods’ character, but they can’t override the right of those property owners who want to sell to the town home developers for a higher price. I still can’t figure out how you balance those two interests.
From my perspective, the selling point of this high-density development has been creating neighborhoods where people have close access to work and retail. In my mind, that meant that people would use their cars less, walk more, and might actually get to know each other a little more. But the reality is just the opposite. When Village Homes built a number of town homes at Sixth and Arch Adams streets a few years ago, many of us in the neighborhood thought these expensive town homes were a good fit. They were being marketed as close to shopping and clubs and downtown.
One night not long after the first owners of the town homes moved in, I was sitting in the Wreck Room on West Seventh Street having a few beers with friends when the police came in. They were investigating a noise complaint.
Seems the new neighbors hadn’t realized they had bought an expensive home across the street from a music club. They didn’t like the fact that the Wreck Room’s parking area had young people coming and going at 1 a.m. They didn’t come over themselves to check out the place and lodge their complaint; they just called the cops.
The officers realized there was nothing they could do, and everyone in the bar had a good laugh over that one. Now, three years later, the Wreck Room is closing, making way for another housing development. We all know who has the last laugh on that.
Bottom line is, I’m coming around to another way of thinking on this issue. In essence, as the old houses are being razed, this nice old neighborhood is turning into a vertical gated community. The turning point may have come last year when the police came by while I was walking on the sidewalk around midnight.
The officers told me they’d stopped me because I was “walking.” I lived three blocks from the 7-Eleven store and walked there frequently. On this night, the police arrived as I was passing those town homes occupied by the folks who disliked the Wreck Room noise. The officers asked me why I was out so late. They told me one of the townhouse dwellers thought I was “suspicious.”
The police apologized, and I went on my way. But that little event crystallized the issue for me. Before the town homes were built, I would say hi to neighbors out in the yard or on their porch as I walked by. Now I was considered suspicious.
And maybe that’s why the neighborhood associations, in turn, are so suspicious of all this new development. They have good reason to be.