R5 The Giant Next Door

You don’t expect a Big Mac at a fancy French restaurant. And you don’t expect a McMansion in a nice, comfortable Westchester neighborhood. But for a number of years, that’s exactly what a lot of county residents have been getting.

When Hubert Herring moved into his house in Dobbs Ferry 18 years ago, one of the things he liked best was the small, wooded area next to his backyard. He knew that he might lose that someday, and he accepted the situation as part of life in Westchester. What he didn’t expect—or accept—was that his tiny woodland would be replaced by a 5,500-square-foot beast of a house, built in 2001, that stretched virtually to the limits of its property lines and was several times larger than most of its neighbors.

Herring had been “McMansioned,” an experience he has neither forgiven nor forgotten. “I believe in neighborhoods having a certain scale,” Herring says, “and if a house is built that is literally three times the size of the neighboring houses, it’s sort of an aesthetic assault on the neighbors, and it’s out of place. It ruins the sense of neighborhood.”

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Herring is far from alone in his feelings. Westchester is home to some of the world’s most attractive suburban neighborhoods. In many communities, it’s possible to find block after block of magnificent Tudors, Colonials, and other classics, all at once aged and restored to a magnificent, mellow attractiveness.

Though a single neighborhood may boast a dozen different styles of buildings, all share some basic characteristics that keep them from being McMansions. They’re usually similar in size and quality of materials. Even if they have a number of bedrooms, the total amount of square footage they occupy isn’t large by today’s standards. And when older buildings are big, they’re set on even larger lots, so they don’t overwhelm the structures around them.

Each of these older buildings reflects the era in which they were constructed. Homes were smaller years ago, even though families may have been bigger. Designers and residents considered the space around buildings as important as the space in them, and there was usually plenty of green to set off the wood, brick, and glass of the buildings that lined a community’s quiet streets. But all of that planning goes out the window the moment a McMansion (or a cluster of them) pops up in the neighborhood.

There have been McMansion booms all over America. In most communities, a McMansion has several specific defining characteristics. Size matters. An average McMansion is large—at least 5,000 to 8,000 square feet. Yet quality frequently is not part of the equation.

“The problem with most McMansions is that they’re initiated by builders, so they really aren’t well designed,” says Stephen Tilly, principal at Stephen Tilly Architects, a Westchester firm that is one of the leading preservation specialists in the region. “They’re mostly about conspicuous consumption, so there’s a lot of space in them that isn’t efficiently used. They’re an environmental problem as well as an aesthetic problem.”

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In most American communities seeing a McMansion boom, construction has created entire new neighborhoods, as farmland and untouched properties suddenly have sprouted vast homesteads. That’s not easy to do in a place like Westchester, which, by real estate definition, is “mature.” Translation: the neighborhoods already are built up, so McMansions either need to be pushed into the few empty spaces that exist as “infill,” or done as teardowns, in which existing properties are destroyed to make room for new, way bigger ones or for a number of homes on a lot that once held only one home.

“Bigger is better” seems to be the theme in housing throughout Westchester, as evidenced by these new homes in Briarcliff Manor (left) and Dobbs Ferry


 That’s just what is going to be witnessed by Scarsdale resident Don Dietz of 66 Brewster Road, despite strenuous efforts to the contrary by him and his neighbors. A developer bought a home on Dietz’s street and, he says, is going to raze it and erect three homes in its place. “This is a situation where one small ranch house on a property that’s a little over an acre is going to become three houses,” he says. “This is a case of clear overbuilding and abuse.”

Despite the fact that the new homes will be just within the letter of the law, the damage they’ll do to his neighborhood is considerable, Dietz says. “They’re totally inconsistent with the character of the neighborhood,” he claims. In addition, there are significant risks of drainage problems and, he says, a number of trees also will be lost.

Southern Westchester was the primary scene of the initial McMansion boom, which started to spread to Northern Westchester, where larger lots meant more space to drop in houses. So places like Yorktown and Briarcliff now boast buildings that fit the McMansion definition in every way save for the fact that they’re on relatively larger-sized lots.

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Ultra-renovating a residence is another way to create a McMansion; more than one Westchester block has its collection of houses that look like the structural version of a baseball player after a steroid binge, with once sensible buildings showing all sorts of awkward bulges and growths.

Destroying a building to create a new one may seem a bit wasteful. But in Southern Westchester, where land costs an astronomical amount per acre ($1 million or more in certain towns), taking down a small building for a cost of $50,000 or so and building a new one for $500,000 to $750,000 actually can be a very logical economical proposition. And there are a lot of “small” homes in Westchester—especially in the southern part of the county.

Of course, small charming homes on beautiful green is what gives so many neighborhoods in the county their charm. Many of Southern Westchester’s most attractive neighborhoods were constructed in the first two-thirds of the 20th century. In 1950, the average size of a home was 983 square feet, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). By 1970, that total had climbed to 1,500 square feet. Today, despite the fact that families are 25 percent smaller than they were back in 1970, houses are 50 percent bigger, at 2,500 square feet. (The average home in Westchester is 2,582 square feet, according to the NAHB.)

So a big house by 1970s standards—and Westchester’s were likely on the large side—is just average today—and tiny by McMansion standards. This means that most homes in Westchester’s loveliest neighborhoods are considered somewhat cramped by today’s standards.

What are people using all that space for? At one time, it was not unusual for siblings to share bedrooms. How often does that happen in Westchester today? And how many homes in the 1970s had home theaters, exercise rooms, or home offices? All these are common today.

“It’s pretty clear, given that there’s limited land in Westchester County, that the pressure is on builders to recover the cost of that land,” says P. Gilbert Mercurio, CEO of the Westchester County Board of Realtors. “It only makes sense to put up a very large and consequently expensive product when you have land prices as they are.”
Indeed, that logic is one reason people build skyscrapers in Manhattan, and given the rising cost of Westchester land, high-density developments, such as condos or townhouses, actually are an eminently rational next step—if you don’t happen to live in the neighborhood or community in question.

Westchester homeowners, however, have a different view of what’s rational and logical. They didn’t just buy property. They purchased an entire suburban experience, which includes green lawns, open spaces between houses, a reasonable amount of stylistic consistency, and no huge buildings knocking shoulders with one another.

Like organisms defending themselves against infections, some communities began protecting themselves against what they saw as a plague. The first ordinances and regulations designed to combat McMansions came about early this decade. In Scarsdale, one of the most important is the Board of Architectural Review (BAR), an organization with both teeth and bite. BAR usually can’t directly block the building of a McMansion, but it can help ensure that whatever is built is both compatible with the neighborhood and in decent taste.

And more and more communities are restricting the size of a building that can be constructed on a given lot. In places such as Elmsford, Dobbs Ferry, Mamaroneck, Scarsdale, and Larchmont, buildings must conform to a strict lot/area ratio. “It’s all relative,” says building inspector Frank Blasi of the Village of Larchmont. “The size of the home is proportional to the amount of space a property has.” No building can cover more than 30 percent of a 5,000-square-foot lot; the percentage drops down to 25 on a 10,000-square-foot lot. Still, many home-owners feel McMansions have been forced upon them and consequently have been very disappointed in their local governments.

The good news: there are fewer McMansions being built in Westchester today. “Sales have indeed slowed and prices have softened,” says Albert Annunziata, executive director of the Builders Institute of Westchester, “for both big homes and McMansions.”

Some even speculate that the days of McMansions may be over. With energy prices high and taxes rising continuously, McMansions are getting too expensive even for those who can afford significant chunks of real estate.

Eric Messer, president of Sunrise Building and Remodeling, believes there’s still another reason. “I think people are more cost-and energy conscious than they were. Who wants such huge overheads? They’ll rethink the six- to seven-thousand-square-foot houses they’re trying to jam onto lots that don’t warrant as much.”

A longtime trade and consumer journalist, Tony Seideman grew up in Scarsdale and now lives in Peekskill.

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