Teardown mania!

With Decatur’s stellar schools and high quality of life come super-sized houses and concerns over the tree canopy

On a recent Friday afternoon, Amanda Thompson, the city of Decatur’s planning director, gave a driving tour through the leafy, bungalow-lined streets of Decatur Heights, a charming neighborhood located just outside the city’s walkable downtown. Then she ordered a turn onto an adjacent street. The car seemed to have suddenly teleported into a particularly dismal tract of suburbia in, say, Alpharetta.

Until last year, Thompson explained, the lot contained a bunch of mature trees and a single-family house worth around $180,000. A developer flattened all that to erect three McMansions and sold them for $800,000 each.

This area is one of the hot spots for Decatur’s “infill housing,” a trend of tearing down what some people might consider perfectly good houses and replacing them with giant-size new homes. City officials have learned that infill housing is consuming roughly 50 older houses and an uncertain number of trees a year.

The new houses are typically two to three times bigger — and two to four times the price, say consultants hired by the city to study the issue — of the homes they replace.

Thompson showed CL about a dozen projects underway near Decatur Heights and Oakhurst. Some push zoning limits so hard that they look cartoonishly swollen, like someone stuck a bicycle pump into a normal house and overinflated it.

The trend is having a big impact on the progressive city’s housing prices and tree canopy, officials say.

Infill has been happening in Decatur for decades, but in recent years the pace has been red-hot: 43 teardowns in 2012, 59 last year, 22 more so far this year. Last year, 72 percent of single-family homes built in the city were teardown or infill projects.

“Infill housing and affordability are probably our biggest challenges,” Thompson says. “Small homes are torn down and no one can afford to buy a starter home. We’re running out of the supply of small houses.”

The infill trend and its effects have sparked passionate debate among residents over private property rights and co-existing in urban environments, discussions that have filled up the comment sections of local blogs Decatur Metro and Decaturish and captivated neighborhood email groups.

The city is taking it seriously. It has commissioned two studies and is prepping some mitigation measures that will roll out for public discussion next month.

But Decatur officials also don’t want to kill the golden property-tax goose that funds its renowned school system — a major reason, along with the proximity to Atlanta and high quality of life, for the housing demand in the first place. Plus, Thompson says, consensus to back some kind of rigid rules has been hard to come by.

“The infill debate — the community’s been split on these issues,” she says. “We have some who say, ‘We want stricter limits and more review.’ Others say, ‘Don’t tell us what to do. It’s our property.’”

Catherine Fox is one resident calling for stricter limits. An environmental consultant who advises cities on green policies, she happens to live near some of infill houses in Decatur Heights and nearly lost a tree during the homes’ construction. She formed the residents group Trees Decatur last year to push for a stronger tree-protection ordinance that the city commission passed in May.

While praising that new law as an improvement, Fox says she thinks it still basically lets deep-pocketed developers buy the right to clear-cut trees.

“The new tree ordinance is basically a replanting ordinance,” says Fox, who thinks Decatur’s environment is “getting stressed out.” The latest available data shows the percentage of the city covered by trees dropped from 50.9 percent in 1991 to 45.1 percent in 2010.

Whether it’s an ordinance about preserving trees or curbing McMansions, some residents had concerns, even if they agreed in spirit, because the rules can end up punishing the everyday resident who might one day want to add a kitchen or mud room.

“Generally, when you try and rein in the bad actors you curtail other people who want to do the right thing,” says Chad Stogner, a property owner who last year founded the Decatur Arbor Day Festival to encourage tree planting and add a more positive approach to the heated discussion that centered around the proposed tree ordinance.

Thompson shares some sympathies with critics. She talks about not wanting Decatur to end up like Somerville, Mass., a Boston suburb infamous for its paved-over yards. During a recent tour of Decatur’s streets, she points out some of the infill developers’ design choices. Some infill houses tower absurdly over their neighbors, with 10-foot-high porches, because developers were too cheap to dig a full basement. That design feature has since been addressed by zoning changes.

But she also points out some successes: a cute, smaller-scale infill project that saved trees near a nature preserve, and a local developer building in all-real brick.

There’s a subjective part of the infill debate, she explains, and neighborhood character is a big part. It’s the clear-cutting for cookie-cutter tract houses that drives people the craziest, she says.

“That’s when someone’s taken a plan they did in Alpharetta, Duluth ... and smacked it down without any context,” she says. “We’re trying as much as we can to make developers pay attention to context.”

That “stop and think” approach will be written into a few proposals in the city’s upcoming “Unified Development Ordinance,” a new zoning and planning master code.

The main ideas include: a temporary moratorium on demolition permits to allow for public review of teardown plans; zoning incentives for preserving the front part of older houses; and a new design review commission that could allow projects to exceed zoning if the design is innovative — say, if it preserves old trees. More policies could be on the way, as Decatur is studying other cities’ responses to infill development.

What Decatur wants to hear from neighbors, Thompson says, is, “Look at that gorgeous new house! And they saved that tree out front!”

Regardless, infill is expensive, which affects affordability. Decatur has some strategies to keep housing costs contained, such as a 40 percent limit on residential floor-area-to-lot-size ratio. But an infill housing study it commissioned early this year noted the city has not enacted most recommendations in its own 2008 affordable housing preservation study.

One of the strategies for helping affordability involves building different types of housing, including multi-family and more innovative residential concepts, to give people more options where they can live.

“I don’t know in our lifetime in Decatur if you’re going to buy a three-bedroom, two-bath house for $180,000,” Thompson says. “We can’t do it, and neither can Palo Alto, Calif. We’re past that. ... What we can do is try to maintain choice in supply, and greater supply.”