Opinion Columns & Blogs

Claudia Newcorn: The ‘McMansions’ are coming!

Modesto Bee

In the old College area of Modesto, I’ve spotted an unsettling trend – the sprouting of what folks in the Bay Area call “McMansions.”

Huge, two-story homes that overbuild their lots, leaving just the minimum required space between the lot line and house, with little to no front or back yards. The emergence of these homes has begun to erode the neighborhood’s ambiance and, sadly, there are no restrictions on such structures.

The builders usually demolish an older home – many dating between the 1930s to 1950s – or keep just enough elements to call it a remodel. Trees are chopped down, old landscaping ripped out. Then, as rapidly as possible, a development-style home that rarely fits with the neighborhood appears. I watched one go up on Morris Avenue. It was put up for sale in just a few months. Another enormous one is being built off Sycamore Avenue, and all the neighbors are suddenly faced with the intrusion of a large two-story home overlooking their back fences. Three were jammed on a Magnolia Avenue lot where one home once stood.

I experienced a similar situation several years ago when a homeowner decided to go from a single story to two. The home was expanded to fill in as much of the lot as possible. Suddenly we had windows overlooking our backyard. We had to go to the City Council to get agreement to negotiate translucent windows to obtain some privacy.

Many people buy in the College neighborhood – and in other established neighborhoods in cities around Stanislaus County – precisely because of the older homes and larger properties. They appreciate the space between themselves and their neighbors, the established trees, the unique architectural styles. While many older homes are two stories, they’re on larger lots, so that home and property are aesthetically proportionate, and allow for privacy between properties.

I appreciate that people moving into the older homes often need to remodel. Old homes were not wired for today’s electrical and digital needs, new appliances are wanted, and new owners want to create a home they will enjoy. Fortunately, many homes in our area are tastefully remodeled to retain much of their charm, while being “upgraded” to satisfy the homeowner’s needs.

But McMansions?

These behemoths bring nothing to the locales, and basically boil down to somebody wanting to live in an older neighborhood in a development-style home with maximum square footage. You can imagine how people who have lived among one-story neighbors feel when a McMansion glares down at them. Many choose to move or erect tall plants as barriers in an effort to recapture a sense of privacy.

McMansions are a hot issue in the Bay Area, with existing homeowners protesting the intrusion. But few cities have any restrictions or guidelines in place for protecting and/or building in older neighborhoods. Those who do have recognized the value of managing older neighborhoods to bring value to their town. Along the same lines as preserving historic downtowns for their appeal, they preserve historic neighborhoods.

Large homes equal larger tax revenues from the city’s point of view. But as historic old neighborhoods succumb to McMansions, it’s just a matter of time before these areas look like the row houses in the 1970s Archie Bunker sitcom; they will have ruined the “old” neighborhood ambiance they sought.

Modesto failed to protect its historic downtown until it was too late. Perhaps it’s time to review building restrictions in older neighborhoods with an eye toward their potential to enhance the city’s image.