A building debate on tear-down projects

A crowd gathered Sunday at 442 Mammoth Oaks Drive to cast a curious glance inside the newest house on the block.

Lili and Madison Geer spent the better part of the past year turning a 1950s ranch into a shining example of neo-classic architecture. And in the process, the couple turned a 1,600-square-foot house that cost $300,000 into a 3,800-square-foot mansion officially listed Sunday at $994,000.

To some the project would be considered a “McMansion,” an unusually large home that seems to dwarf others in its neighborhood, off Providence Road in south Charlotte. But to the Geers, the house is a labor of love – and a pretty darned good investment.

“We tried to make it so the house blends as much as possible into the environment,” Lili Geer said. “I think we accomplished that. We've heard only good things from the neighborhood.”

Last week a group of residents from central Charlotte neighborhoods such as Dilworth, Elizabeth and Myers Park met in Plaza Midwood to discuss methods for stemming certain kinds of infill development.

They focused on stopping the spread of new over-large homes in older neighborhoods, which some people feel erode the charm of older communities. But others say the current fight is really a debate over taste and approach.

“When you build charm, you are not taking away from charm,” said Tate Self, a Cabarrus County resident building a 2,950-square-foot home off Ashland Avenue in Plaza Midwood.

Self and his wife, Allison, moved out of Plaza Midwood three years ago. At the time, they wanted more space.

But they missed their old neighborhood. When their old home hit the market, they scooped it up. The only problem was the 980-square-foot home no longer matched their needs. The couple wanted to start a family and the house was way too small.

The Selfs decided to tear down the old house and build a new one. Tear-downs have become increasingly popular in the area. Last year in Mecklenburg County, 794 single-family houses were demolished. That's up from 697 in 2006.

The Selfs said their home, which will be finished in a few months, fits well into their neighborhood. And they said it would increase the value of other homes in the area.

It is a complicated issue, with heated feelings on both sides. If city officials wade into the debate, they likely will find themselves balancing desire for neighborhood aesthetics with concerns about property owners' rights.

Residents at last Thursday's meeting discussed several possible changes to existing laws, including the expansion of historic districts and the creation of conservation districts.

Charlotte has nine existing overlay districts. They range from the historic districts, which protect the look of buildings in certain communities, to the transit districts, which spur growth around commuter areas.

A conservation overlay district would be similar to a historic district. It would detail the kind of home that could be built.

Developers say such a measure would slow an already complicated process and result in higher prices.

But Charlotte City Council member Patsy Kinsey, a Democrat whose district covers central Charlotte, is one of several council members open to the idea.

“I do have some concern about houses being built with no thought of the surrounding neighborhood,” Kinsey said. “But bigger is not bad, as long as it works in the area.”

This was the Geers' thinking when they tackled the Mammoth Oaks project. The home sat on more than three-quarters of an acre and was set back from the road.

The couple had the room to go bigger, but decided they wanted the house to fit the area. Still, they refuse to pass judgment on others.

“We did what we thought was right in this case, but will not dismiss other people's vision,” Lili Geer said. “Variety is an important thing.”