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Monday, August 18, 2008

Teardowns have foes, but they can revitalize the block

The first part of Mark and Constance Eddy's home-ownership story is classic: In 1998, the newlyweds bought a starter home in a post-World War II subdivision in Prairie Village, Kan.

The 900-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bath house was dated, with 1950s metal cabinets and gold-flecked Formica counters in the kitchen, but cozy.

"It was all we needed," Mark Eddy said.

What really sold the couple on the home was the street. Prairie Lane is a winding street of tiny houses nestled close together under a canopy of large trees. The neighborhood is next to the Prairie Village Shops, which contains an urban mix of businesses -- gas station, hardware store, drugstore and diner, as well as upscale restaurants and boutiques.

"People live in their front yards. There's a mix of ages -- some neighbors are like grandparents to the children on the street. It really has a sense of community," Eddy said.

Seven years later, the couple had two small children and a third on the way. It was time to trade up. So the Eddys sold the house on Prairie Lane and bought a 1,900-square-foot ranch on a big lot in Leawood, Kan. They were living the American dream.

But in a 21st-Century twist to the tale, the Eddys were unhappy in the "better" neighborhood. The street was usually deserted and quiet, except for the distant hum of traffic on Interstate 435.

"We immediately missed the neighbors, and we missed walking to the shops," Mark Eddy said. Two years later, when the house next door to their first home came up for sale, the Eddys decided to buy it, tear it down and build a new house on Prairie Lane big enough for their family to grow into.

At 3,400 square feet, the Eddys' new home addition towers over its neighbors on Prairie Lane. The home is in compliance with city requirements for setback from the street, setbacks from the sides of the property, height and footprint on the lot. But shortly after groundbreaking, the Prairie Village Homes Association took the Eddys to court, claiming the proposed house design was in violation of deed restrictions that limited to homes to "1 1/2 " stories. The judge eventually ruled in favor of the Eddys.

Mark Eddy, co-owner of Gahagan-Eddy Building Co., says he talked with many neighbors on the street and showed them his house plans to try to gain their approval before moving ahead with the teardown. A majority of homeowners on his street signed a petition in favor of allowing the house.

Bill Chinnery on the homes association board of directors says he thinks the chocolate-brown exterior paint and two tall trees on the lot help the house blend into the neighborhood in summer. But in winter he thinks the house sticks out too much.

"I like the house, but it's too big for the neighborhood," Chinnery said.

Jessamine Guislain, who has lived on the street since 1965, disagrees.

"It's a beautiful house, and I enjoy looking at it," Guislain said. "I'm happy to see a family who loved Prairie Lane able to move back to it."

Guislain said allowing home teardowns and new home renovations on the street helps keep the community intact. "In my own experience with a house next door to me, every family who lived there, once they had their second child, moved."

Eddy says most of his neighbors have been supportive, but he acknowledges others think the house is too big. "I respectfully disagree. If a house is beautiful, I don't care if it's twice the size of the one next to it. It should only be a problem if it's ugly."

Prairie Village recently adopted an ordinance to notify homes associations of permit requests within their neighborhoods, says assistant city administrator Dennis Enslinger.

"Everybody has their own expectation of what the neighborhood is and what it should become, and the city is trying to balance those interests for everybody involved. But it is an ever-changing balance," Enslinger said.

Cydney Millstein, owner of Architectural & Historical Research LLC in Kansas City, says preserving historic neighborhoods is important, but it doesn't mean everything has to stay the same.

"If new designs are done tastefully with a tip of the hat to what was going on historically, that's OK. If it's bringing life back to a neighborhood that became kind of stale after a while, this is a good way to inject vitality back into the neighborhood."

By: Cindy Hoedel; McClatchy Newspapers
Detroit Free Press; August 17, 2008