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Special Report: Tearing down the North Shore

Eugenia Meltzer stands in front of her “Prairie-esque” home in Winnetka, which she and her husband bought 15 years ago and renovated. Meltzer said she opposes redevelopment that clashes with the existing character of a neighborhood, and is proud to own a nearly 60-year-old house. (John P. Huston, Tribune reporter)

Eugenia Meltzer stands in front of her “Prairie-esque” home in Winnetka, which she and her husband bought 15 years ago and renovated. Meltzer said she opposes redevelopment that clashes with the existing character of a neighborhood, and is proud to own a nearly 60-year-old house. (John P. Huston, Tribune reporter)

By John P. Huston and Diana Novak / TribLocal reporters

As the real estate economy struggles to regain its footing amid record-low interest rates and home values, preservationists say a disturbing trend is returning to the North Shore: Tear-downs.

>>>Search for teardowns in your community

Critics often pair “tear-down” with the pejorative term “McMansion,” coined more than 15 years ago to describe quickly built, super-sized structures that replace more modest homes. Some neighbors complain that once a home is torn down, there is seldom an effort to blend its replacement with the surroundings.

“We’re back, definitely,” said Jean Follett, interim executive director at Landmarks Illinois. “The places that had tear-downs before are having them again this spring.”

In Winnetka, for example, the number of demolition permits for single family homes peaked at 60 in 2002. But that abruptly changed when the economy and housing market tanked in 2008, dipping as low as 16 in 2009.

But now tear-downs seem to be rebounding. Last year, the village issued 28 demolition permits. Through March of this year, the village received 10 applications for permits, according to Ann Klaassen, a village planning assistant.

“We’re seeing it pretty much in exactly the same suburban areas we saw them in that 1997 to 2007 time frame,” Follett said.

It reminds Follett of the inflated market of the early 2000s, and she worries that it will continue to grow.

The factors behind the new upswing have changed from a decade ago, when developers and speculators were driven by easy profits. Tear-downs now seem to be the result of the foreclosures that left homes deteriorating.

Whatever the cause, Follett says tear-downs threaten the North Shore’s historic housing stock.

But builders call it a positive sign of an economy finally getting back on its feet, and argue that many buyers just prefer new homes over renovation jobs.

Tearing down the North Shore

The North Shore was a prime area for tear-downs before the economy crashed.

That’s because in desirable suburbs like Glencoe, Winnetka and Kenilworth there is no unused land for new construction. It became more cost-effective to tear down century-old homes rather than make expensive renovations, according to experts.

Preservationists worried that communities renowned for their housing stock were losing their character.

Eugenia Meltzer has watched her Winnetka neighborhood change over the last 15 years as older homes were replaced by so-called McMansions. She lives near Ash Street and Berkeley Avenue, in the “tree streets” area east of Hibbard Road.

“We’ve lived in this particular house since 1997, and we chose to fix up the house,” Meltzer said.

She opposes redevelopment that clashes with the existing neighborhood.

“I think it’s important that a house maintains its character, especially if it was built by an architect,” she said.

Preservationists wish there were more people like Meltzer.

Susan Benjamin, an architectural historian, runs a consulting firm that helps owners of historic buildings through the preservation process. She admits that it’s more expensive to renovate an older home, but her firm helps people find tax breaks and credits to aid in the renovation process.

“In my heart of hearts I would like to think that people value the historic houses and see the desirability of retaining them and refurbishing them and making them shine again, but so much is tied to the economics,” Benjamin said. “As people have more money, they have more flexibility with what they can do and can’t do. Many of them want new houses, and that puts pressure on land in the developed communities in the inner ring of Chicago suburbs.”

Tear-downs elsewhere

The resurgence of the tear-down trend is also being felt in the western suburbs — Hinsdale, in particular.

Hinsdale’s property market is moving fast enough to make Realtors nervous, said Brian Hickey, president of InfillRE, a developer that specializes in tear-downs. He said Realtors don’t want to return to “that euphoric place” that led up to the market collapse.

But it’s difficult to argue with what customers want. According to Hickey, the last four of the company’s tear-down sales in Hinsdale have sold above list price, with multiple offers.

“It feels like the old days and it’s a little bit spooky,” Hickey said.

Postponing the wrecking ball

Peter Wall, InfillRE’s Winnetka representative, estimates that more than 10 percent of the current housing stock in Winnetka is eligible to be torn down, under the criteria used by his company.

The debate pits historical preservationists versus property rights advocates. Rules that try to regulate tear-downs work differently in each city or village, which impose varying delay periods before the wrecking ball can start swinging.

Lake Forest, for example, imposes a delay of two years in its historic district. But other municipalities have little to no delay.

In Kenilworth, battle lines that were drawn a decade ago are forming again as public officials consider altering the village’s demolition permit process. The village now imposes a year-long stay on demolition before a permit can be issued to a home that is determined to be “significant” by its Building Review Commission.

Kenilworth increased its waiting time from six months to a year in 2008, bowing to pressure from preservationists when a 2006 list from the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the village one of the 11 most endangered historic places in the country.

A committee there examined the process and recommended changes, but its report sidestepped the most crucial and most divisive subject of the demolition permit process — the one-year stay.

Preservationists say the delay allows time to investigate other options that would save a historic home. Others say it unfairly infringes on property owners’ rights and has never actually saved a home from demolition.

Since the Building Code and Regulations Study Group couldn’t reach a unanimous agreement, members decided leave it to the Kenilworth Village Board to handle, said Robert Smietana, the group’s chairman.

Examining the success of the village’s 10-year-old demolition ordinance, the report determined that even with the year-long delay, property owners have not changed their minds about demolition.

This 111-year-old Tudor home in the 500 block of Essex Road in Kenilworth was deemed historically significant when a developer applied for a demolition permit. Now that a year-long waiting period has expired, it is eligible to be demolished, and the property -- along with schematics for a new home -- is listed for sale for $3.98 million. (John P. Huston, Tribune reporter)

The report found that 17 houses were deemed “significant” by the Building Review Commission since 2002. Of those, 13 have already come down, two were sold during the wait period, and two are awaiting demolition.

A three-story Tudor home in the 500 block of Essex Road in Kenilworth is among those poised to fall. Its owner has waited for the required year, and is now eligible for a demolition permit.

The home was designed by the Irish-born architect William Wallace Blair 1901 as his personal residence. He lived there until 1905, when he moved to Canada, according to a village study of the property.

The report calls the home “significant for its distinctive architecture but also for the unusual and meaningful connections it makes to the ethos of Kenilworth at the turn of the century.”

Developer Leo Birov, of Heritage Luxury Builders, which owns the property, could not be reached for comment. Kenilworth Village Manager Brad Burke said Birov had indicated he would entertain the concept of rehabbing the home, if it makes economic sense.

Heritage specializes in tear-downs and new constructions in Winnetka, Glencoe and Kenilworth, according to its website, which lists the William Wallace Blair property for sale at $3.98 million. An artist’s rendering shows a new home on the site.

The next generation of home buyer

Howard Handler, government affairs director for the North Shore-Barrington Association of Realtors, said demolition delays imposed by villages are unsuccessful and interfere with the market.

“You have people trying to artificially try and slow down demand and it just doesn’t work,” Handler said. “What happens is that people who happen to own the properties simply get stuck with them for longer periods of time and it decreases value.

“If there was demand there for the older housing, people would be focused on providing that older housing more,” Handler said.

Many of the North Shore’s older homes were built in the late 19th Century, with floor plans, small closets and small bedrooms considered undesirable by today’s standards.

Today’s homeowner is looking for a different set of amenities, said Allen Smith, of Vasco Builders. His company develops new homes primarily along the North Shore, where buyers are looking for a large master suite, a family room and a first floor den. That means maximizing the home’s footprint by extending it from set-back to set-back, based on local zoning restrictions.

The result is often cookie-cutter designs that don’t gel with the Victorian, Tudor or other styles that helped define the North Shore’s architectural stock for decades.

In the late 1990s, it became more expensive to renovate an older home than to demolish and rebuild, ushering in the tear-down trend, Smith said.

“All of a sudden it became cost effective to take the house down than go into these old houses and remodel and change the floor plans,” Smith said.

The trend rippled so quickly that by 2008, Winnetka officials estimated that 10 percent of the village’s 3,000 homes had been torn down and replaced, according to news accounts.

Since the boom stopped booming, people have changed their philosophies toward homes, said Keith Jacobs, president of The Jacobs Companies. He calls home buyers in their 30s who didn’t get caught up in the housing crisis “the new regime.”

“Their credit is still good,” Jacobs said. “A lot of them are coming from the city to get to the schools. They’re thinking, ‘What’s the best kind of home I can get?’”

He reports an uptick in new home construction this spring, and his company is buying vacant lots and performing tear-downs across the northern suburbs.

One common theme is that people aren’t building 8,000- to 15,000-square-foot houses, like they were a decade ago. People are opting for more traditional 2,800- to 3,500-square-foot structures, he said.

“They’re building family homes, they’re not building … the monsters, the McMansions,” Jacobs said. “Not that we see.”

Smith puts it a different way: “People are looking at it as a place to live. They’re not looking at them as an investment any more.”

Legislating taste

Both Smith and Jacobs said their firms consider the neighborhood before designing a home. But in the end, Jacobs said his company does what the customer wants.

“In my opinion one really shouldn’t legislate taste,” he said. “Taste is an individual thing. Does my house look out of place next to my neighbor’s because mine is contemporary and his is traditional?”

Benjamin, the architectural historian, said the downturn in the market to some extent helped the preservationists’ cause.

“Nobody wishes for a poor economy, but on the other hand if you think about historic towns and cities across the country, Charleston (S.C.) looks the way it does because it suffered from the economy for many years,” she said.

With signs of economic recovery starting to show, the work to preserve historically significant homes gets a little harder, according to Benjamin.

“It’s very likely that when the economy picks up that we’re going to see, for those who want new houses but want to live in established neighborhoods, that puts pressure to tear older houses down,” Benjamin said.

For an example of compromise after a Winnetka tear-down, click here.

Click for maps of tear-downs from 2002 to 2011 in:

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