The Case Against TeardownsBy
The National Trust for Historic Preservation defines teardowns as “the practice of purchasing a home on a lot, demolishing it, and building a new, larger house in its place.” Teardowns can have adverse effects not only on a neighborhood’s historic character, but also on public infrastructure, the environment, and the availability of affordable housing.
When older, often smaller homes are demolished to make way for large new homes, historic neighborhoods lose the identities that attracted residents to them in the first place. Redeveloping a neighborhood by demolishing a large number of older houses will not likely be a successful strategy for drawing new residents. People want to live in distinctive communities and places with historic character. When redevelopment and new construction are necessary for the revitalization of a neighborhood, buildings designed with respect to the historic context of the area are more likely to both attract new residents and gain the approval of existing residents.
Teardowns can reduce a neighborhood’s tree canopy, eliminate backyards and block sunlight with large new houses built up to their property lines. This makes neighborhoods less livable, but it can also have more serious environmental consequences. Teardowns and subsequent construction can cause more water runoff, affect water usage, sewage systems, roads and the power grid, not to mention the implications demolition and construction waste has for landfills.
But the demolition of older housing stock and the construction of new, larger homes affects people as well. Community economic and social diversity can suffer when smaller, more affordable homes are replaced with over-scaled new construction. A neighborhood experiencing teardowns often loses its ability to have a range of housing prices.
Proponents of teardowns might argue that their strategy promotes smart growth by increasing density and directing growth to already developed areas. However, teardowns often mean the demolition of a smaller house to make way for a larger house–this does not necessarily increase population density. The negative environmental and social effects of teardowns make it clear that they do not encourage smart growth.
Another argument in favor of teardowns says restricting infringes on private property rights and reduces financial returns on the sale of existing houses. But communities regularly create land use policies and make investments that affect property rights and change property values for the greater good of the community. Regulation of teardowns are valid based on the same principle because they have such far-reaching impacts on the community at large. It is important to remember, for instance, that teardowns affect not only those who wish to demolish or sell existing houses, but also the neighbors who are forced to live with the results.
The best use of land for the greatest good of the community does not always mean the most profitable one.
We can manage teardowns by making changes to zoning regulations that limit the square footage of buildings in order to reduce the economic pressure for teardowns, or by advocating for the implementation of construction standards, design review procedures, special neighborhood districts, financial incentives, and education programs, all of which can encourage compatible design. While not every house can or should be saved, we can advocate for policies that encourage appropriate new construction and maintain the character and diversity of neighborhoods.
View our previous post “What is Wrong With Teardowns? An Introduction” HERE.
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