Halting McMansions

You may have heard that Mayor Franklin ordered a temporary moratorium on the construction of new large homes on sites where smaller homes once stood in several intown neighborhoods (Buckhead, Va-Hi, Morningside, Ansley Park, and Lake Claire), essentially freezing the residential nature of the neighborhood for the time being. This moratorium stays in effect until the city council votes on Feb. 6 on a longer 120 day moratorium for the same neighborhoods.

The moratorium will prevent real estate investors from tearing down older homes and building new, big ones while the council considers restricting the scale of houses in Atlanta’s neighborhoods. The infill-teardown trend has blazed across Atlanta and close-in suburbs during the “back to the city” craze of the past five years. Established communities changed almost overnight as 1,500-square-foot ranch homes and bungalows built in the 1950s were demolished and replaced with houses 6,000 square feet or larger.
“A lot of people move into Virginia-Highland to live in bungalows,” Virginia-Highland resident Andy Walden said. “So I know people who are upset with bigger homes being built.”

I’m probably going to show some of my political stripes right here, but let me just say a couple of things and ask a couple of questions.

1) Do you think that such a move will encourage or discourage people from moving back in to the city? That is, given that I can build a larger house, cheaper in some neighborhoods, why would I live in the place where I’m not allowed to build the type of house that I want?

2) If you don’t want people to build the type of house that they want then you can (a) either buy their house or (b) have joined a condo-board or some other neighborhood that has a strict covenant.

3) Neighborhoods, and cities, are fluid things, changing all the time. And you can remember the olden days when it used to be some way, but the fact is that they change the way that the market and, thus, the people want them to change. If you think it is so important that we preserve the character of a community, then do you also believe that we should make it so that no types of businesses can leave the neighborhood? Perhaps we ought to have banned Starbuck’s from Little 5? Me, I’m not so in to the idea of government mandating the character of a neighborhood – it wreaks of central planning to me and that doesn’t really work out so well in the long run. Neighborhoods change to meet the needs of their market. They need to be allowed to change. Neighborhod “management” strikes me as something far better than neighborhood “preservation.”

Now, of course, there are issues of tree management and daylight-protection for houses, but those can be challenged/answered on an individual permit-by-permit basis. Isn’t that what the whole point of getting a building permit and people being able to challenge it is?

18 Comments so far

  1. ftp (unregistered) on January 20th, 2006 @ 3:06 pm

    The neighborhood homes should be preserved. It’s charming, or at least it used to be. That’s why I no longer live in the neighborhood. The renovated and old bungalows are nice. But, you know, I don’t even like to go to va hi anymore really. Different crowd…

  2. boo (unregistered) on January 20th, 2006 @ 3:10 pm

    reeks of

  3. Paul Thompson (unregistered) on January 20th, 2006 @ 3:19 pm

    I’m with you man. This thing is aimless and short-sighted. I blogged about it this morning, see:


    An executive order? Aren’t there other ways to get council to vote on something in this millenium easier than that?

  4. Cap'n Ken (unregistered) on January 20th, 2006 @ 3:46 pm

    A couple of comments:

    On your point about whether people will be discouraged from moving back to the city – we’re not talking about an “everyman” house here. The houses that would be “banned” are out of the price range of 95% of the region’s residents.

    On your second point, are you saying that if I want to keep somebody from opening an auto junk yard next door to me – and I don’t have non-governmental agreements in place – my only recourse should be buying the property myself? The government either has to have zoning rules or not have zoning rules. The degree of control is what we’re talking about.

    On your third point, I guess you would be in favor of throwing out the zoning laws? No “central planning” means anybody who owns a piece of property can do whatever they want with it. 30 years ago, Grant Park wasn’t a very viable neighborhood and might have been a good spot for a big industrial park. You’d be happy with that outcome – if that’s what the market needed?

    This is in no way a black or white decision. The idea that a property owner should have the absolute right to do with their property as they wish – think that auto junkyard next door to you – is a very, very bad one.

    There have to be rules. The question is what rules do you create that strike the right balance? Suburban sprawl is largely the result of bad zoning practices (keeping commercial and residential districts apart from each other), so the rules can have a profound effect.

    If you look at the current R4-A classification (pretty common in Atlanta), you can squeeze a big damned house on the lot:

    – Minimum lot size: 7,500 square feet (50 x 150, for example).
    – Minimum yard (setback) requirements: Front – 30 feet; sides – 7 feet each; back – 15 feet.
    – Maximum lot coverage (footprint): 50% of total lot area
    – Maximum building height: 35 feet.

    So under current R4-A rules, you can put as big as a 3,750-square-foot building area on a 50 x 150 lot and get three stories out of it if you try real hard. That’s a hell of a potential house (11,250 square feet).

    Back when it was not a financially-viable option for people to put that big of a house in these neighborhoods (considering the cost of purchasing an existing house and tearing it down), the maximum building size really wasn’t an issue.

    But builders are just working within the rules, and you can’t fault them for that. If those rules, however, don’t fit the current social and economic climate, the government has a duty to review the rules and see what changes should be made. Do you honestly believe it would be a good thing for Atlanta if every 1,600-square-foot house was replaced with a 6,000-square-foot one?

    I like the idea of allowing individual neighborhoods to decide the building character. Grant Park has very restrictive rules, which is why you don’t see some Faux Italian stucco mansion being built over there. If Virginia-Highland thinks its best served by restricting the size of residential buildings or perhaps their architecture, then that decision is best made locally. The same is true if Reynoldstown thinks it’s best served by allowing 12,000-square-foot mansions on 1/3-acre lots.

    Rules are a must in city planning, and those rules need to be reviewed from time to time.

  5. Stevo (unregistered) on January 20th, 2006 @ 3:49 pm

    There are other issues to contend with in some of these neighborhoods. Civel engineers know more than most about the subject, but there exists certain laws which require new housing to maintin a status quo in terms of drainage and soil management on adjacent properties. Larger homes on small lots generally interrupt the drainage and soil systems that have been in place for several years (and probably designed by the original builders).

    Anyone in VaHi or l5p is certainly aware of drainage and soil problems when heavy rains come. How many trees have fallen on cars and houses in the past few years? How many of these trees were near areas where the soil profile has been damaged by new construction? Just something to consider.

  6. Kent (unregistered) on January 20th, 2006 @ 4:09 pm

    Good response, Capn Ken.

    I guess if you want Atlanta’s intown neighborhoods to lose their character and look like every other suburban sprawl “community” then yes, we should be upset with this rule.

  7. Jonathan Peterson (unregistered) on January 20th, 2006 @ 5:02 pm


    Thanks for a thoughtful response. I live in Va-Hi and am really frustrated by the eruption of McMansions we’ve seen. Nice 2,000sq ft bungalos are being torn down and replaced by HUGE square 3 storey boxes, that on these small lots look like they will crush their neighbors. Several have 2 car street face garages in the front (in a neighborhood with no garages).

    I have no problem with property rights, but your property rights end when your decisions affect MY property values. In Va-Hi the buildings are mostly ugly architecture, poorly constructed beasts being built by 2 or 3 builders and thrown into a neighborhood where people either have restored their own homes carefully over time, or purchased from someone else who did.

    The Brookhaven area is much, much worse. Zoning designed to encourage low-income housing is allowing people to put 3 story 5,000sq ft McMansions 6 feet away from a 1,100 sq ft 3bed, 1 bath cottages.

    A builder can knock down an existing home in a matter of days, and build a monstrosity in a matter of months. It takes years or decades to get historic designation and put architectural review processes in place. The damage to Va-Hi in the last 12 months is significant, there are 5 teardowns in process within 4 blocks of my home right now (and these aren’t shacks, these are $400K bungalos). Va-Hi has seen an appalling level of construction noise, traffic and damage to sidewalks and city greenspace – I thank Mayor Franklin for listening to the PEOPLE she represents instead of the builders who are here to turn a quick profit and leave destroying the character of 100+ year old neighborhoods.

  8. Andisheh Nouraee (unregistered) on January 20th, 2006 @ 6:42 pm

    Excellent response, Cpt. Ken. I agree with everything you said except:

    >>builders are just working within the rules, and you can’t fault them for that.

    If it’s all the same to you, I’d prefer to go ahead and fault them. Just because tasteless, tacky development is permissible and profitable, doesn’t mean regular people don’t have the right (or obligation) to scoff. A home can appeal to modern tastes without ruining an existing streetscape.

    As for Daniel’s hypothetical about banning Starbucks in L5P, I’d be happy if we could enact a ban on Christmas Blend and Breakfast Blend. Those are nasty, nasty coffees.

  9. Cap'n Ken (unregistered) on January 20th, 2006 @ 6:56 pm

    Thanks, Andisheh.

    What I meant by “you can’t fault the builders” is that if they’re building things allowed by the zoning, then they’re not doing anything “wrong”. Of course, their motivation is to develop properties that maximize their profit. For the most part, they don’t actually care about the neighborhood. The people who have invested their time and effort to create their particular neighborhood character, however, do. That’s why I believe giving the neighborhood more say in development rules is not a bad thing at all.

  10. Andrea (unregistered) on January 21st, 2006 @ 11:36 am

    I’m strongly in favor of protecting historic neighborhoods. It seems to me that only a blockhead would want to do otherwise.

    However, there are several things that seem bizarre and backwards about the current action:

    (1) We already have very specific laws on the books to accomplish that exact thing. The city’s zoning code authorizes the creation of special overlay districts to protect neighborhoods which have historic, architectural, and/or cultural significance. If I’m not mistaken this has been the law for nearly 30 years.

    These protections already apply in many neighborhoods, such Cabbagetown, Druid Hills, West End, Adair Park, Washington Park, Inman Park, Whittier Mill, MLK, Grant Park, etc. There are several levels of protection, ranging from Landmark District (the most rigid) to Historic Distict to Conservation District. You can have subareas and transitional zones in those neighborhoods if you want. You can make things subject to the approval of the Urban Design Commission, and you can be as ultra-specific as you want, all the way down to specifying landscape, door and window size, building materials, and so forth.

    It’s specifically stated in most areas which are deemed landmark, historic or conservation districts that the intent of the special zoning overlay is to preserve the architectural, cultural and aesthetic character of the neighborhood. These overlays already provide tremendous protection for many older neighborhoods.

    Granted, getting your neighborhood designated as a protected district takes some work, but it’s by no means impossible. The fact that probably a dozen or more areas have already done so makes that obvious.

    (2) Neighborhood limitations need to be context-sensitive, and tailored to individual communities. An across-the-board ban (or ordinance) is an attempt to apply a “one size fits all” solution to situations and circumstances that vary tremendously. In Lake Claire and in parts of VA-Highland, for example, there’s a uniformity of architectural style and scale that doesn’t exist in North Buckhead or Ansley.

    (3) Frankly, not every lot, house, street or neighborhood in Atlanta is of particular architectural significance. Many are outmoded, underdeveloped, vacant, poorly conceived, delapidated or just plain boring. It’s the nature of every great city to continually reinvent itself, and to grow by enhancing and improving areas that are maybe were not optimal to begin with. It would ridiculous to insist that everything built in Atlanta remain in a static condition, and that new construction can only be “compatible” with its neighbors. If that were the case I could insist that all the ranches and bungalows that were added to my street 20, 30 or 40 years after my house was built be removed, on the grounds that I was here first and that in my opinion they simply don’t fit in.

    (4) We already have — and have had for years — excellent ways to preserve neighborhoods, right down to the nth degree. Yes, you may have to get on the stick and get organized and show the city that you really are a neighborhood and that preserving things the way they are means enough to do something about it. You also have to convince your neighbors that designation as a historic or conservation district is in everyone’s best interest. Yet that’s how communities operate, by consensus. I don’t think it’s realistic to simply sit back and do nothing, and then howl when when the guy next door decides he’s ready to build something different. Not to be too blunt, but that’s life in the city — things change and grow and it’s a bit of a stretch for any of us to say, “Well, I assumed everybody would do things the way I like it!”

    (5) It’s somewhat puzzling that this ban would be undertaken suddenly with no prior notice, no public hearings, no discussion in city council, and no community forums. The Mayor says she did it as a favor to Mary Norwood, even though she adds that she isn’t sure she supports it or that Council will support it. Other council members say they hadn’t heard anything about it.

    Infill didn’t just start happening. Nor did many neighborhoods just start getting their act together and availing themselves of the preservation tools that are already on the books. A lot of them have already done so. All of these things have been happening for years. So why the sudden screeching halt, with a complete absence of notice, public hearings, community forums, or input from the planning department?

    (6) Most importantly, I also have to wonder what are we telling people who now live in Atlanta or who might be thinking about moving here? “Don’t plan on living inside the Altanta city limits if you want a larger home to raise a family — just go on up to Sandy Springs or move out to Roswell, Gwinnett or Banks County. We stick with what we’ve got here in the city, regardless of when or how it was built.” To me, that seems like an extremely unfortunate message to send out just as the city is starting to gain serious momentum again.

  11. Daniel (unregistered) on January 21st, 2006 @ 7:21 pm

    Andrea, you’ve said a lot about it that I wish I had said. But I’ve never held myself up to be a particularly adept writer. I’m all for preserving neighborhoods that are deemed historic. However, neighborhoods like Morningside (which I grew up in) are not historic, nor is every single one of the houses in it.

  12. Cap'n Ken (unregistered) on January 22nd, 2006 @ 1:20 pm


    Great analysis. Along those lines, you have to wonder why an executive order was necessary when all of these methods and potential protections are in place. Is it because Shirley felt the council was never going to address any potential changes in the general zoning laws without the “nuclear option” of her shutting things down?

  13. benny (unregistered) on January 23rd, 2006 @ 7:58 am

    I’m with Andrea. Unless the neighborhood is considered a historical area, one should be able to build the house they want. If people don’t like that idea, then they should move to a community with a HOA.

  14. Smoove D (unregistered) on January 23rd, 2006 @ 9:58 pm

    This moratorium is more offensive and a bigger danger to freedom than the Patriot Act.

  15. shelbinator (unregistered) on January 24th, 2006 @ 3:45 pm

    Why is everyone screaming bloody murder like Shirley Franklin is out to permanently ban all large homes in Atlanta? It’s a temporary moratorium put in place so that individual neighborhoods finally have one last chance to get off their asses and do what Andrea obviously points out in (2), (3), and (4), no?

  16. Daddio (unregistered) on January 27th, 2006 @ 1:13 pm

    Doesn’t this boil down to just what the lot owner wants to do?

    If his tiny cottage just ain’t financially viable, maybe the three story McMansion would be.

  17. Mr. T (unregistered) on January 27th, 2006 @ 6:32 pm

    There’s a balance to be found between the wants of neighborhood groups and developers and I think the moratorium is a useful, if politically deaf, tool.

    In my opinion, current zoning laws are inadequate in regard to set backs and distances between houses, especially if you are building larger houses. I would like to see those guidelines have a direct correlation with house size so if you want to build a 6,000-sf house in a neighborhood where houses are in the 1,500-sf range, then your distance from the lot lines must be four times the minimum set forth in the zoning. That would help to reduce the problems of scale. I also think historic neighborhoods should have some say in ensuring that designs are kept within reasonable guidelines.

    That said, I am annoyed by people who are trying to keep a landowner from doing what he or she is allowed to ensure that their kitchen continues to get sunlight. If city planners used maintaining views to make decisions, progress would come pretty damn slowly here.

    In the end, you can expect neighborhoods to get a little more power over development decisions but if you think the politicians are gonna seriously restrict the developers that line their pockets every election season, prepare to be disappointed.

  18. Jo (unregistered) on January 28th, 2006 @ 9:39 pm

    Several posters have said that we should only be worried about homes that are historic. However, even those we may not consider historic today will be historic tomorrow. Homes built in the 30’s and 40’s have their own style and charm. Will Atlanta have any left for future generations to enjoy?

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