McMansions Battle Won But Class War Continues

McMansion ProtestThe moratorium on McMansions came too late to ease the pain of the residents on Daniel Drive. Home builder Hunter Wheeler, who became perhaps the most reviled home builder in Austin last fall when he razed an architectural award-winning home in Tarrytown, has removed the house he purchased March 27 on Daniel Drive. No word yet on what he plans to build on the lot, but his previous foray into the neighborhood resulted in the 3-story house across the street.

Unlike my neighbors, I’ve admired Wheeler’s infill at 1004 Daniel Drive. The split-level design breaks up the 3396 square foot mass. Most of the house is only visible dangling over the cliff, from the side facing Barton Springs Road. My regret was that it was finished off with bland suburban landscaping incongruous with both its own design and the surrounding neighborhood. Come on, guys. If you’re going to pay $600,000 for a house, couldn’t you hire a more creative landscape architect?

Next door, Jack Dabney of Dabney Homes has cut up the existing 936 square foot house for removal and filed a building permit to replace it with a 4306 square foot 2-story. Both lots sit on the rise of Daniel Drive where any massive building will block sunlight, create drainage problems, and intrude on the backyard privacy of its neighbors.

People wonder at the vitriol spewed on both sides of Austin’s McMansion debate. The central neighborhoods are old communities not instant suburban developments. When someone plunks a building in without any regard for that community, resentment is bound to follow. I wonder, would I buy a house knowing that everyone on my street hated me for building it?

9 Comments so far

  1. M1EK (unregistered) on July 17th, 2006 @ 8:54 am

    This discussion continues to be incorrectly framed. I could just as easily point out that the task force, most of whom live in very large homes, some of which are subjectively out-of-scale and incompatible with their neighbors, are trying to prevent young families like mine and my next-door neighbors from building modest (typical Hyde Park) 2-story homes with garage apartments in back.

    Start here.

  2. M Sinclair Stevens (unregistered) on July 17th, 2006 @ 4:49 pm

    The Bouldin Creek neighborhood does not have the grand old houses of Hyde Park. Generally it’s an eclectic mix of cottages and bungalows. One proposed house will be four times the size of the house it replaces.

    In sharp contrast, on the same street, the residence of FAB Architects Patrick Ousey and Pam Chandler demonstrates how additional square footage can be integrated without losing the charm of the original house. The site-sensitive design is in keeping with its neighbors and the landscaping is fantastic.

  3. M1EK (unregistered) on July 18th, 2006 @ 8:40 am


    Sure, Bouldin doesn’t have as many big houses. But these rules affect me just as much as they affect you – meaning that I can’t build what so much of Hyde Park already has (for instance, every other lot on my side of the block already has two dwelling units, and I live right next-door to a 2800 square-foot duplex). If that, combined with the fact that the Task Force was comprised mainly of people who already had large lots and big houses (many which are at least violating the spirit if not the letter of the new rules), doesn’t tell you something, I don’t know what I can say.

  4. M1EK (unregistered) on July 18th, 2006 @ 11:09 am

    I think I get the disconnect now. I’ve read your blog before (and enjoyed it) but never hit the “About” link. It says that you’re on a “urban lot of 100 x 150 feet”. That’s 15,000 square feet; bigger than almost every lot in Hyde Park and North University. (Mine is 6000 square feet).

    #1: 15,000 square foot lots aren’t remotely “urban”.
    #2: It’s no wonder you don’t care about the impact of the McMansion ordinance on families like mine an my neighbors’ – if you think 15,000 square feet remotely typical, the new rules allow a pretty darn big house on lots that size.

  5. M Sinclair Stevens (unregistered) on July 18th, 2006 @ 1:30 pm

    I neither live on Daniel Drive, nor did I put up the sign I photographed. I’m simply reporting what I discovered walking around the neighborhood.

    In fact, I sympathize with both the residents of Daniel Drive and you–I think you want the same thing: to be able to build in keeping with the structures neighboring you. On Daniel Drive the original houses are all about 1000 to 1500 SF.

    I’ve read your blog and understand your resentment at the members of the task force. Where we disagree is that I believe developers such as Hunter Wheeler should shoulder some of the blame. Without his excesses the counter-reaction might not have been so extreme and unforgiving to situations such as yours.

    Yes, I have a 1324 SF house with attached garage on a 15,000 SF double lot. (Double the taxes, too.) I could build two duplexes on this site. But I won’t. I moved to this house specifically because houses in the suburbs were too big for my family and because we needed to be near public transit. I wanted a small house with a big yard.

    I hope someday that the pendulum will swing toward a happy medium and that you will be able to build the house of your dreams, too.

  6. M1EK (unregistered) on July 18th, 2006 @ 2:11 pm

    I think you’re being a bit too trusting as to the motives of the task force. Yes, a lot of people in the public have a visceral dislike for big houses; but if you follow the history of the people who were driving this issue, you see a dislike for all change of any kind anywhere in Austin. (They’ve opposed multifamily in their neighborhoods, near their neighborhoods, and far away from their neighborhoods – then complain about superduplexes, McDorms, etc.).

    In other words, the builder didn’t create the problem here – the neighborhood interests did, by fighting reasonable multifamily development essentially everywhere for so long that the market got completely warped.

  7. James Retherford (unregistered) on July 20th, 2006 @ 11:54 pm

    Thanks for posting the picture of my front yard sign on Daniel Drive.

    You nailed a number of very important things about overzized building projects. I liked everything about your article … except — this probably will not come as a surprise to you — your “appreciation” of Hunter Wheeler’s homage to excess at 1004 Daniel. I wonder if you would have felt the same about this Big House had you noted the CoA building permit square footage (4,549) instead of the obviously incorrect TravisCAD total (3,396). When the construction was beginning, Wheeler’s architect told me the living area would total 4,800 square feet, a number which may more accurately signify this structure’s unyielding physical presence.

    From my perspective, as well as the oft-expressed
    dismay of neighbors who live in the shadow of this urban fortress, Wheeler built a super-size-me house set amidst and, with minimum setbacks on either side, on top of a block in which the average single-family home size is 1,013 square feet. The structure’s insulation/energy efficiency is highly suspect after it flunked a city inspection in 2004, and an estimated 200-plus light bulbs burn night and day, 24-7-365.25, like there is no tomorrow. Yet this three-quarters-of-a-million-dollar Cathedral of Conspicuous Consumption sits empty some 300 days a year while its sole owner/occupant, a young Christian rock ‘n’ roll superstar, is on the road with his band. Talk about pissing away God’s bountiful gifts to humankind … It’s enough to make me take the name of the vain in lord.

    Did you happen to hear Margot Adler’s July 4 NPR feature on the American Dream Home? It was interesting, even tantalizing, but ultimately failed to deliver satisfying answers to the overarching questions: (1) why does a relatively well-off class of Americans lust after super-sized houses and (2) how will the owners sustain these urban outposts in a future of rapidly diminishing oil and natural gas?

    I was interested to discover that the average single-family home in 1950 was about 950 square feet, This, I noted, is almost the exact size of the Knebel home at 1006 Daniel where Herbert and Hertha lived from 1948 on and raised wonderful five kids in a living space affording an average of 134 square feet per family member and where builder Jack Dabney now apparently intends to test the interim ordinance with a proposed 4,200 square foot single-family box — according to my estimate, about 20 percent larger than the law allows. To achieve the living space efficiency enjoyed by the Knebel clan, Dabney would need to sell this single-family house to a family of 32.

    According to Adler, during the last half century, the average single family home has grown by almost 250 percent to today’s 2,400 square feet. Though the Wheelers and Dabneys have selected a block that is “below average” to “average” measured by almost every conceivable demographic and/or socioeconomic yardstick — except, of course, the extraordinary, hard-working, and uniquely creative character of the fine folks who live here!!! — it is obvious that the developers are building buildings far out of scale with even the current “average home size” and are marketing their McMonstrocities to the kind of high-roller buyer who has absolutely no commonality with the indigenous Daniel Drive culture. Truth be told, they seek to import affluence, Austin’s version of nouveau-riche, into the heart of a community of hard-working wage-earners, artists, musicians, writers, architects, political activists, film professionals, small business owners, students, and retired elderly and ultimately to transform our lively community into an inner city exurb, an Austin-style River Oaks. In this context, my “class war” yard sign and your final point about resentment are especially relevant: Put crudely (and with apologies to a great Austin punk band), what kind of “yuppie prick” would find comfort living in the close-knit working neighborhood in which your every move is observed with disdain and resentment by your nearby neighbors, where you will always be treated as an outsider, an undesirable alien (hey, let’s build a fence!) — and where even the neighborhood dogs pick your front sidewalk as the choice spot on which to plop doggy doodoo. Hunter Wheeler and his wife apparently weren’t the kind of yuppies who could handle the situation. They briefly lived in 1004 Daniel but moved out several months later after having established NO neighborly relationships whatsoever — zero, zilch, nada.

    One must wonder: How long before Mr. Wheeler-Dealer snaps to the troubling marketing implications of the class war he has started in Bouldin Creek and elsewhere? Will he start surrounding his McMonstrosities with 30-foot-high concrete fences, moats, and high-tech security outposts replete with guard dogs and machine-gun turrets? And if and when such a scenario begins to unfold along our inner-city streets, who will find himself/herself the prisoner and who will feel free?

    A parting note: I think ALL builders and ALL prospective McMansion dwellers should be required to see Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” and then read James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency. Unfortunately quite a few proponents of unrestricted development also trust and support what the elder George Bush declared in the early 1990s: that the United States government will wage unlimited war wherever necessary to protect the lavish standard of living of its privileged citizens. Besides the sordid hubris required to justify sacrificing young American men and women in order to protect the opulent lifestyle of the super rich, support of the Bush Doctrine is extraordinarily foolish in at least two other ways: (1) If these would-be cheerleaders of affluence and American Exceptionalism think they are part of the Real Game, the Elite One Percent, they are making a big mistake, as they will discover when we arrive at Point #2. (2) Both the wealthy corporatist elite and their political and military minions, as well as the small deluded but nonetheless dedicated group of laissez-faire “worker ants” described above, fail to take into account that, as the world’s nonrenewable oil and gas production begins its downward spiral in the next few years, the American oligarchy will find itself alone in a world with old and new foreign “enemies” lurking outside our borders and an ever-growing mass of desperate, cold and hungry, and very pissed off “ordinary” Americans — including many who bought into that (now unheatable) Big American Dream Home fantasy — pounding down the gates from within.

    Alas, the relentless in-yo-face reality of cold and hunger is such a potent counterpoint to once-popular mythologies.

  8. M1EK (unregistered) on July 21st, 2006 @ 8:45 am

    James Retherford:

    All I want to do on my 6000 square foot lot is build a second floor on somewhat the same footprint as my 1200 square foot first floor, and put an apartment over my existing garage. This would lead to a net increase of housing units within walking distance of UT and on a major transit corridor, and would, hence, support the goals of affordable housing, less driving, etc.

    You’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater here. My next-door neighbors have a family of 5 in 1000 square feet (with big garage apartment in back currently housing the kids’ aunt). They face moving out or tearing down the garage apartment once kid #3 is big enough to make sharing a room with mom&dad less feasible. Either one is bad for the city – either another family moves out to the ‘burbs, or an affordable housing unit gets wiped.

    I can’t compete with your quantity, but hopefully that’s enough quality to contradict your implicit claims that only the Tarrytown Monsters are hurt by this ill-conceived ordinance.

  9. Chris C (unregistered) on July 24th, 2006 @ 8:56 am

    I have no love of McMansions, but a few things make me very cynical about this ordinance:

    One is the way it hurts the few remaining middle class families trying to stay in central Austin, as M1EK points out.

    Second, and related, is the way it’s a stealth attack on density by hurting legitimate duplexes and garage apartments. The Planning Commission’s suggestions of allowing 50% of FAR for duplexes and garage apartments would have helped significantly, but I didn’t hear a peep out of the BCNA or ANC on this issue. I guess they need to read Kunstler and watch Al’s movie too.

    Third, people who live in houses which cost two to four times what the majority of Austin families can afford should drop the “working neighbors” rhetoric. It just alienates the rest of the population. (Yeah, I know a lot of people couldn’t afford their own houses at today’s prices, but there are worse things than sitting on a $100K windfall.)

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