Edifice Rex 

Neighborhood-gobbling house monsters won't go away -- until the city acts

Frank and Susan Troutman have the bona fides of true-blue Atlantans. Their family's local history goes back the better part of a hundred years.

Susan's a nurse and, she smiles, "a professional golfer wannabe." Frank was in several businesses, ranging from barbecue to chemicals. He's also a member of that most Georgia of sporting outfits, the Augusta National Golf Club.

More than anything, their Atlanta credentials are attested to by their Buckhead home at 350 Manor Ridge Drive.

"I grew up here," Frank says. "My parents paid $12,500 for this in 1937." He waves his hand at a tasteful wood-paneled den, and shakes his head. Susan finishes the thought: "But that monstrosity has ruined this home for us."

"That monstrosity" is the vacant house next door, 6,000 or so square feet of déclassé mansion squeezed onto an oh-so-small lot. It's a study in daunting stone facade and horizon-blocking walls the size of drive-in movie screens. The grotesquerie is constructed in what's euphemistically dubbed the "Norman" style -- as in the architecture of England's 11th-century castles.

"I think they plan to pour boiling oil over the wall to repel us," Susan quips.

The faux castle -- a fine example of what's derisively called a McMansion or an Edifice Rex -- came about after an elderly owner who lived on the property for a half-century died. The old house sat vacant for about two years. A tree crashed onto the roof.

Then, a new owner took over. A flurry of permits and plans followed. The vintage dwelling was demolished. The new structure juts closer to the street than other houses on Manor Ridge and dwarfs nearby homes.

I'm visiting the Troutmans with Atlanta City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, who asks the question, "Did the plans look anything like that?"

Susan Troutman shakes her head, "Noooooooo."

Their house is about 2,700 square feet of down-home comfort -- a well-worn but beloved penny loafer compared to the shiny, steel-toed jackboot next door.

No one knows how many similar monstrosities have popped up in Atlanta. Some, like City Council President Lisa Borders, aren't convinced there's an emergency.

But in a three-hour drive with Norwood last week, I counted more than 100 new houses that were clearly out of scale with adjoining homes. That was in a small sampling of Atlanta neighborhoods.

"Some people say this isn't a crisis," Norwood says. "I say this is a crisis."

Infill construction in established neighborhoods can be good, especially when dwellings are built on vacant lots or replace derelict buildings -- and as long as the new structures are in character and scale with surrounding neighborhoods.

But the Manor Ridge Drive McMansion typifies another trend: the tear-down. It's the result of both social forces and raw economics. Owners -- often speculators who hope to buy, wreck, build and pocket a bundle in a few months -- squeeze much larger residences onto each lot. They're aided by loosely written zoning laws and the reluctance of politicians to buck the powerful home builder industry. That's the history in Atlanta, DeKalb County and cities across the nation.

Americans want to super-size everything, from fast-food meals to gas-guzzling SUVs to houses. In 1950, the average home size was 983 square feet, according to the National Association of Home Builders. By 1970, the average size had ballooned more than 50 percent. Now it tops 2,300 square feet.

Add that demand to a simple calculation. The Troutmans' home is assessed at $527,000, politely upscale but hardly garish. That's about $200 per square foot. By the same ruler, the McMansion next door could easily be worth $1.2 million.

Ironically, as Norwood notes, the huge houses often destroy the ambience of neighborhoods and even depress neighboring home values.

A ride with Mary Norwood is, well, an adventure. To say she's passionate about halting infill "mansionization" is like calling a hurricane drizzle. She repeatedly hits the brakes on her Buick, points at homes and exclaims, "That one maxed out" zoning restraints. Or, "Look, here's one that's really crazy, crazy, crazy." Or, "See that one? It's so much closer to the street than it should be." Or, "That's a walled fortress; horrible."

In January, Norwood convinced Mayor Shirley Franklin to impose a moratorium on infill development in four neighborhoods. "It affected only 3.4 percent of the city," Norwood sighs, "but people made it sound like the second burning of Atlanta."

Such moratoriums are common -- Franklin has granted almost 30 during her tenure. What made this one different was that it riled contractors.

The moratorium failed, 4-3, in City Council's Zoning Committee. Norwood blames that, in part, on the unexpected intervention of Council President Borders. "The jury is still out" on the impact of infill building, Borders says. "I'm careful on action and reaction, and I've told Mary we need to do more study."

Norwood rolls her eyes at that. Aside from the infill debate, the two are already squaring off for advantage in the 2009 mayor's race.

Meanwhile, a panel of architects and zoning experts, created at the behest of Norwood, will report May 31 to the city on recommendations for changing the rules to protect neighborhoods.

"They" -- meaning contractors, Borders and other foes -- "say we'll get everything done in six months," Norwood says. "If we wait six months, it will be a catastrophe. We'll lose the character of our neighborhoods."

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