Fighting "McMansions" and other elusive beasts

I have become increasingly disillusioned with Neighborhood Conservation Districts, Chapel Hill's attempt to manage change in our delicate, older neighborhoods. I have always seen them as way to protect the character of neighborhoods as they evolve over time. I'm afraid they are being used more as a tool to stop any change or growth in the areas entirely. In my opinion, this is neither healthy nor fair.

So I was intrigued to learn that Carrboro has taken a different approach to this problem:

The Board of Aldermen sat down Tuesday in another bid to hash out its architectural standards. But there was little agreement other than the idea that they must preserve the town's individual character without allowing in mega-developments with McMansions.
- Carrboro building standards elusive

Chapel Hill's NCDs also include design standards, but only as an afterthought and with no real enforceability. I wonder if this would be a better approach to identifying and preserving the character that we all value while making room for the inevitable tide of new Chapel Hillians.


Ruby, I too am concerned about the neighborhood conservation districts. It seems that many of them have been developed, not to preserve the character of the neighborhood but to prevent shoddy duplexes from replacing shoddy single family houses. The flip side is to prevent large new houses from taking over where 50's style ranches rule 2 acre roosts.

Northside and Pine Knolls are two prime examples of neighborhoods that should be seeing explosive amounts of revitalization. The reason they aren't is because a very high percentage of the homes are owned by absentee landlords who are content to collect rent checks and let the housing stock decline to the point of blight. That is compounded by both Chapel Hill and Carrboro not caring enough about the areas or the people who live there to enforce laws, build sidewalks, put up street lights, etc...

Some of those in-town lots are great candidates for subdivision or the construction of duplexes, some are not. Instead of just putting out a blanket ban on duplexes or infill, how about setting up some standards for construction and design, enforce the existing laws that make the neighborhoods safe and appealing, and letting the market work. Infill and duplexes done properly are both GOOD. Remember walkability, getting out of cars, living smaller, not larger, all that liberal stuff many of us purport to believe in?


My neighborhood is seeking an NCD because we are indeed upset by a new development of McMansions in our midst. We are also upset by the increase in the number of houses not occupied by their owners, as well as other issues.

I look to you as a member of the Planning Board to provide guidance in ways to protect our neighborhood's character.

If you have suggestions for ways to improve the NCD or to achieve our goals in some other way, I'd love to hear them.

You seem to be saying that something called "design standards" can help neighborhoods "evolve", i.e., change some, without losing their character. Is this correct?

Could you tell us more about how that might work? You reference an article describing how hard it is to agree upon design standards, so I'm at a loss as to how to think about this.

-- ge

George, I've tried to kick off this discussion before, but nobody ever seems to take it up. Here are the two questions I think would help the NCD discussion most:

Which housing characteristics, of existing or future housing-- reinofrce the things you like about your neighborhood?

Or even further, to address infill in greater detail: which non-single family detached housing types (rowhomes, charleston houses?) would beautify your neighborhood?

First of all the neighborhood "revitalization" move always moves out established older residents. It is a very complex issue. Second, a lot of the neighborhoods that are under tremendous assault from absentee landlords and student rental housing were built under a different developer model. At that time, the developer sold the lots, and the eventual occupant built the house or had the house built. Additionally, the move to keep density low in some parts of the entire county, puts pressure on all the neighborhoods that were not developed under the homeowner association model. Homeowner associations neighborhoods have covenants that limit rental occupied dwellings and absentee landlords. So before we talk about some neighborhoods need "revitalization", we need to look and to analyze all the factors that have brought them to this circumstance.

If you want to see a McMansion--totally out of character with the neighborhood--take a drive down N. Lakeshore. On the left, on a rise, you will see an ENORMOUS brick house LOOMING over all the other houses. Unlike the rebuilds on the lake side of the street, it is completely out of character with it's neighbors.

I don't know if there IS a solution to this problem.


The 605 Main St. building in Carrboro ins't a McMansion, but it sure is ugly.

Visiting Chicago recently I was wondering why no one seems to build nice looking buildings any more -- is it because in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the economy and the construction industry were propped up by child labor and a captive workforce with no minimum wage? So many brownstones and larger residential buildings built up through mid-century have aged very well -- newer construction there (and here) looks so cheap and disposable in comparison.


Part of this may be that ugly, poorly made houses built in the late 1800s and early 1900s are order words only well built houses would have lasted for 50 to more than 100 years.

Carrboro mill houses were mostly really crappily built - no foundation, crawl space a few inches high and full of mud puddles, floor structures way over span - but have lasted since the 1920's because folks were too poor to tear them down when they went out of style. Now they're back in vogue and you'll pay $300K and up for a fixer-upper. If they were of a later period - sturdy, solidly-built brick ranches from the 60's - they'd be candidates for tear-down as they are in the Neighborhood Conservation Districts. Go figure.
BTW, I'm tired of the grumbling about 605 East Main. It's no architectural gem but it's quite respectably put together, about as well designed as any commercial building in Carrboro since the Mill. It's hard to see the building though because of the mess of cable slung around the two big utility poles which grace its front elevation. Now that's ugly.


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