Teardown Issues: Why It’s Critical to Change Our Approach

There are numerous negative impacts resulting from teardowns, and issues related to them, which have farther-reaching, longer-term effects for residents and neighborhoods.

Integrity of Neighborhoods

Most people who live in St. Paul—rather than in the surrounding suburbs and exurban areas—chose to do so for reasons that extend well beyond factors such as proximity to where they work. They appreciate and value the charm, heritage and diversity of its many neighborhoods, each of which possesses a unique character and cohesiveness that can’t be found in newer suburban subdivisions.

Accommodating diversity and stability

Residents appreciate their stability and sense of continuity, as well as the wide range of housing styles and home prices across the city that accommodate different family sizes, life styles and life stages—and make St. Paul especially accessible and livable.

However, when a house is torn down in one of these neighborhoods, it is now often replaced with a house that is jarringly out of character with the remaining houses—in style, size, massing and other design components. For examples, look at our Gallery.

In the case of lot splits, one house is replaced by two houses, increasing density that negatively impacts parking, traffic and the character of the neighborhood. It erodes the very fabric of our neighborhoods.

Property Values and Taxation

When a teardown occurs, the existing house is often replaced by one which is larger and more expensive—and taxed at a higher rate compared to the other houses in the neighborhood. This establishes a new base rate that will ultimately inflate the assessed value of the other, smaller houses.

Irretrievably Damaged

Perversely, it doesn’t mean the value of the established houses is actually higher. In fact, they may lose value in terms of resale prices, both because the design of the new house has decreased the livability of the older house, but also because the disruption in the character of the neighborhood makes it less desirable to anyone other than predatory developers.   As more development occurs, and established houses are replaced with suburban-style houses, the character and integrity of the neighborhood is irretrievably damaged.

Quality of Life and Livability

Most often, established homes that are torn down are replaced with houses which are much larger and of a style that differs significantly from that of the remaining houses in the neighborhood.

They tower over surrounding houses.  This and the absence of the articulation and other architectural details that are key elements of most of the older houses make the new houses look massive—some have been described as “shoe boxes” or “railroad cars” in neighborhoods with mixtures of charming bungalows, colonials and craftsman-style homes.

Aside from aesthetic factors which can be visually jarring, these new houses can negatively impact the quality of life and livability of neighboring houses:

  • Many are taller than the surrounding houses.  As a result, they block the sunlight that the established houses get, both inside houses and in yards.
  • Many have footprints that are larger than the surrounding houses.  Absent front and side set-back variances, this means they extend further into back yards, blocking light and eliminating the sight lines across yards which normally add to the sense of community and livability which are so appealing to residents of older neighborhoods.
  • Those same larger footprints often result in impaired drainage that can result in damage to both the new house and neighboring houses.
  • Given the size of most city lots, the smaller setbacks mean that the larger new houses can also create noise and light pollution.  Mechanical systems such as air conditioner compressors can be sited uncomfortably close to a neighbor’s window. A new two-story house in a neighborhood of one-story houses means that noise and light emanating from the second story can travel across many lots.  Shoddy or cheap construction means that noise escapes the house to a greater degree than it does in older, more solidly-constructed nearby houses.

Sustainability and Environmental Impacts

Teardowns by their very nature have significant net negative environmental impacts.  The torn-down houses are almost universally demolished vs. “deconstructed” and as a result:

  • The demolished house takes up increasingly scarce space in landfills.
  • Currently, little if any of the razed house is required to be recycled or reused.
  • In the case of historic homes, irreplaceable architectural elements which could be harvested and reused are destroyed.

No requirements for quality and environmental sustainability

For the houses that are built in their places, sustainable design and construction are far from the norm.  There is nothing currently in place in the St. Paul building code that addresses this.  As a result, many of the new homes being built are of shoddy construction that will negatively affect the homeowners—and the surrounding neighbors who have to witness the premature deterioration—years after the developer has made their money and any means of recourse is lost.

Accessibility

St. Paul is a city where it’s not unusual to find people who have lived here their entire lives—as have their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and beyond.  There are houses that have been passed down from one generation to the next and have stayed in the family for decades.

Who can stay and who can’t afford to move in?

However, teardowns are already taking their toll on the ability of people to remain in St. Paul through the various stages of their lives.  As smaller homes are demolished and replaced with houses which are often much more expensive and having a ripple effect on surrounding home prices, it’s harder for those buying their first houses to find homes that are affordable in the established neighborhoods they find attractive. And, for empty-nesters and others who want to down-size as they get older, the removal of smaller, single-level houses from the inventory of housing stock means remaining in the city they love becomes less affordable or achievable.

Limiting diversity

The end result is that not only is St. Paul becoming less accessible to residents of all income levels, but also limits the diversity within neighborhoods. Where it’s currently the norm for a given block to have a healthy blend of retirees, families with kids, and those who just purchased their first house, the demographic mix will become narrower as the types and prices of available housing options narrow.

Historic Preservation

St. Paul is known for its many historic neighborhoods such as Dayton’s Bluff, Ramsey Hill and Summit Hill, and historic Hamline Village.  Historic tourism is a large part of St. Paul’s economy due to its unique charm, and thriving commercial districts have followed when historic residences are preserved.

No recourse to protect the historic character of most neighborhoods

However, aside from a few designated local historic districts, there is little recourse currently for protecting and preserving historic neighborhoods, and teardowns have already taken houses which could never be recreated.  What goes up in their place can be especially disruptive from a design and style standpoint.

Intrinsic value and integrity of urban neighborhoods

Even for neighborhoods which aren’t technically historic—yet—most residents value the integrity and consistency of style and design that are emblematic of an established urban neighborhood.  The vulnerability to teardowns of a neighborhood dating from the 1930s or 1940s is just as important to those homeowners as it is to neighborhoods that are decades older.

Absence of Transparency and Neighborhood Input

No Notification

Teardowns and related development activities are currently occurring with no required notification to anyone—immediate neighbors, surrounding neighborhoods, even St. Paul’s District Councils.  As things currently stand, neighbors are more likely to know more about an addition to a house next door or a new garage, because they are major variances, than if an entire house is going to be completely or substantially demolished.

No Avenue for Concerns

Along with the lack of notification, residents also have no way to provide input or express their concerns about something which can literally change their quality of life overnight. Yet, the city currently requires that neighbors within 350 feet of a requested major variance, such as an addition or a setback or height variance, be notified at least 30 days in advance.  There is also an established appeals process in place for variances which are initially approved by city staff, but don’t address neighbors’ concerns.

Scrape-offs

Then, there is the issue of things like “scrape-offs” which are, for all intents and purposes, demolitions since well over 50% of the existing home is razed and replaced, often with a much larger structure.  It’s a way of skirting both the property tax laws and variance laws and requirements, and often appears to occur without city staff knowledge that a previously-approved site plan is in violation.  Enforcement and monitoring is lacking, as is recourse on the part of neighbors when they suspect a violation.

Insufficient Guidelines or Ordinances

Finally, there are insufficient guidelines or ordinances around what can and cannot be demolished.  In addition, there are no disincentives or costs beyond some minor permit fees for developers or homeowners who want to demolish a well-maintained, functional house, or adequate guidelines and ordinances around what can be built in place of a demolished house. This means that even when there is a house that neighbors or the city would like to see demolished due to extensive dilapidation or deterioration, there is no voice on the part of neighbors on what will take its place.