Mad at Mansions in Alexandria

City officials in Alexandria are cracking down on the phenomenon of “mansionization,” which they fear is disrupting the character of traditional neighborhoods. Locations in the core of the Washington New Urban Region have gotten so valuable that people are tearing down older, smaller houses and building mansions that dwarf their neighbors. The trend, in the words of Alexandria mayor William D. Euille, “threatens to undermine the harmony” of the city.

City council has enacted emergency legislation to block the re-development and plans to take up a permanent solution, limiting the size or height of new homes, according to an article by Annie Gowen with the Washington Post. Arlington County, she noted, is grappling with similar problems.

The mansionization controversy pits two competing views: One view says that a property owner should have the right to build anything on his property as long as it doesn’t actively obstruct or interfere with his neighbors’ properties. A contrary view notes that an inappropriate structure can diminish the value of neighboring properties, which rely upon a consistent neighborhood “look and feel” for their value. Neighbors, or the city acting on their behalf, should have the right to veto a building that, by size or architectural inconsistency, is jarringly incompatible.

There is an argument to be made that city and county zoning codes are regulating the wrong thing: They restrict supposedly “incompatible” uses, such as housing, professional offices and small retail stores from being located in proximity to each other when, in fact, the intermixture of such uses often is highly desirable. What local governments should regulate is incompatible heights and sizes that disrupt the continuity of streetscapes. In other words, no 10,000-square-foot mansions shoe-horned into a street of 1,500-square-foot townhouses or cottages.

Frankly, I’m not sure where I stand on these issues, but I’ll continue to track them for Bacon’s Rebellion.

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4 responses to “Mad at Mansions in Alexandria”

  1. RedBull Avatar

    There are two parts to a property assessment – the land value and the structure(s) value.

    This phenomenon clearly demonstrates that in dense urban areas the land is more valuable than the structure and probably always will be.

    The argument that an inappropriate structure can diminish the value of neighboring properties, which rely upon a consistent neighborhood “look and feel” for their value is somewhat misleading, in my opinion.

    Yes, the structure values are diminished, but the land values likely increase resulting in a more valuable piece of property for the guy with the smaller house.

    That’s not always a bad thing is it?

  2. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    I’m not sure I agree. (Some would say, as usual :-))

    I have a large one acre lot, inside the beltway. The home is a modest prefab, yet the home is assessd at nearly four times the value of the lot.

    There is a fundamental disconnect or catch 22 here. If the government passes a new restriction regarding your property, then the argument goes that you have no reason to expect that the government won’t do so, and so you have no reson to expect compensation for for the lost value that you might have attained absent the new restriction. Although you purchased the property with that potential value in mind, it is now taken away.

    Yet, at the same time, Bacon is making the argument that people with a certain style to their neighborhood should be able to expect that it will remain always the same: You are not allowed to make a change to your property that affects your neighbors expectations, yet they, are free to do exactly that to you in the form of new regulations.

    My neighborhood is an older one consisting of large lots and modest homes, most built in the 1950’s and earlier. Near me, in two cases really tiny bungalows have been torn down and replaced with very large homes. Many other homes have had major additions, and several townhouse like, but detached, SFH’s have been shoehorned into lots formerly considered unbuildable.

    These may be jarringly uncompatible now, but in a few years I expect they will be the norm. A thousand homes that are overpriced bungalows at $500,000 might become market rate mansions at $1,500,000. That is a billion dollars in added value that could be prevented by a few activists showing up at meetings and hollering about aesthetics.

    I prefer the modest homes on large lots, but at the same time I say bring on the mansions. It may force me out, but some day I’ll sell out anyway, might as well sell for more as sell for less.

    We have to ask how much of this is because people are desperate to be in the urban core and how much of it is because they are already there and can simply afford more now. I suspect that some of these large homes are really for extended families, which is another issue.

    Bottom line: isn’t this just another form of infill? Do we really want to legislate against creating more value?

  3. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Ray, you said, “Bacon is making the argument that people with a certain style to their neighborhood should be able to expect that it will remain always the same.”

    I refer you to the last line of my post: “Frankly, I’m not sure where I stand on these issues.”

    I’m not making the argument one way or the other. I’m just pointing out that there are two ways of looking at the problem, two competing values to be considered.

  4. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    You are right, I apologize. I should have made it clear that this was obviously not you personally making the argument, but rather you stating the argument as it is frequently made and on behalf of others.

    This is a tough one. There really are two ways to look at it.

    First you have a cottage in the woods, then a house, then a neighborhood, then apartment buildings, next thing you know, it’s a city. Where do you draw the line?

    I don’t like change any more than the next person, but I’ve learned that when the wind changes you have to trim, reef, or add sail.

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