MK Place and Space is a regular feature column dedicated to the exploration of ideas on what makes Meridian~Kessler special as a built community. We encourage relevant conversations on architecture, urban planning and design, development and redevelopment, conservation and preservation. We invite ideas that contribute to how we shape our notions of our places and spaces. We publish research, case studies, projects, opinions and interviews. MK Place and Space is edited by Kim Kourany, Mary Owens, Nick Colby and Christopher Vice. Please share your ideas for future columns. Email suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Meridian-Kessler contains a treasure trove of late 19th Century and early 20th Century eye-appealing homes. Each showcases unique artistic expression and architectural style. One of the greatest threats to Meridian-Kessler, and other urban neighborhoods nationwide, is teardowns: the demolition of an older, single-family home that is replaced with a larger single-family home.
According to The National Association of Home Builders, more than 75,000 houses are demolished each year and replaced with larger houses, and the phenomenon is affecting more than 300 communities in 33 states. The negative effects of these teardowns include the loss of irreplaceable architectural features, loss of the character of a neighborhood, economic costs, environmental impacts, and changes in neighborhood demographics. Many communities, including some in Indianapolis, are preserving the character and architectural significance of their neighborhoods by connecting builders, property owners and city planners to determine what is best for both public and private interests before construction begins.
Academic researchers, planners and preservationists have conducted numerous studies to determine which homes are most likely to be torn down or changed beyond recognition and replaced with a larger home. One factor consistent in this research is that older, smaller homes on bigger lots are most frequently targeted for demolition and redevelopment. Developers or single-family property owners desire the convenience of a walkable neighborhood with the living space, features and style of suburban homes. According to Suzanne Lanyi Charles, assistant professor of Architecture at Northeastern University, school district quality, property size, property tax rates and a house’s age are significant contributors in determining the likelihood that a home will be targeted for demolition.
Meridian-Kessler residents have seen this phenomenon first-hand. Families with school-age children desire good schools, like Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) Center for Inquiry #84, where there is typically a waiting list comprised of dozens of future kindergarteners. Those who live within an approximate one mile radius of the school are given priority in the admissions process. Others are interested in the parochial school options (e.g., Immaculate Heart of Mary and St. Joan of Arc schools) within Meridian-Kessler and nearby private schools. Because several Meridian-Kessler neighborhoods also feature large lots—some of which contain modest homes that were built nearly 100 years ago—it is ripe for teardowns.
Teardowns are detrimental to Meridian-Kessler for several reasons. Loss of architectural detail tops the list. Old homes were built by craftsmen, who spent months or years creating the interior and exterior details. They used materials like old growth hardwoods that homebuilders could rarely find today, let alone afford. (Environmentalists would also shutter at the thought of using old growth trees for new construction.) Sculptors carved limestone fireplaces and entryways. Many roofs were made of slate and tile. Windows made by carpenters often stand 100 years later with their shimmering “wavy” glass. When homes are demolished or gutted, those irreplaceable architectural features are gone forever.
Today’s building practices are much different. Property owners can download a picture of a home from the internet and hire a contractor to build it. Big Box Stores offer inexpensive materials that are often prefabricated, not crafted by artisans. When buildings are erected in this manner, the property owner gets what she wants and the builder makes a profit, but often the impact to the neighborhood or to the neighbors is overlooked. A conscientious property owner, builder or architect considers the broader impact of a structure within its surrounding context.
Architects are trained not only in how things should be built, but also what makes a structure pleasing. For instance, they consider the fenestration of a building, the placement and proportion of windows and doors. No matter what the style of architecture—whether it be Craftsman, Queen Anne, Georgian or Modern—the exterior was designed with purpose, and the architect considered the place, or context, in which the home was built. Context helps ensure the neighborhood is “livable” by ensuring proper distance from the street and neighbors (setback), adequate backyards, privacy and sunlight.
The economic impact of teardowns is evidenced by what is often called the “Rule of Three.” (i.e., A replacement house is often three times the size and three times the price of its predecessors.) Thus, teardowns eliminate small homes that are often inhabited by couples with no children, first-time home buyers, single professionals, or retirees. Large homes replace them, which are typically intended for families.
The large homes change the demographic of the neighborhood by forcing out lower income groups and replacing them with wealthier families.
“The workmen who built Meridian-Kessler homes were building a product that was sought after at different price points, so people at a variety of household incomes could afford them,” explains Vera Adams, assistant professor at Ball State University’s Urban Planning Department.
“Meridian Street has large homes on large lots. Washington Boulevard has good-sized lots and houses, and Park Avenue has two bedroom, two bath wood frame houses. This mixture is very healthy for a neighborhood.”
Some, who cite increasing property values as beneficial to all, might consider new, larger, more expensive homes in Meridian-Kessler a good thing. However, diversity is desirable, and it’s a key contributor to the character of the neighborhood. Ironically, character is often the primary factor that makes Meridian-Kessler appealing to residents in the first place.
“These remodels,” Adams said, “probably contribute to the devaluation of the environmental quality of the neighborhood.”
Indianapolis, like other cities, has building codes in place that address setback, lot coverage, drainage, demolitions, and numerous other issues that builders must follow by law. If a builder or property owner’s plans differ from current code, they may petition the city for a variance, and the planners will listen to arguments for and against the variance. Petitioners are required to post large, orange yard signs indicating a public hearing will be held to evaluate the case. At the hearing, the public may speak for, or remonstrate against, the variance.
“City planners have a vision, a future plan, for a neighborhood,” said Adams, “and they generally try to adhere to the rules to see that vision to reality. Variances are not all bad or ill intentioned,” Adams continued,
“The important thing is that builders work within the law and request a variance before the work is done. When builders construct a home or an addition that is not allowed under the code and request a variance after the work is done, they act dishonorably. A collaborative review process, on the other hand, is beneficial to all.”
According to Adams, city planning is a political process too. Politics can affect the interpretation of the code, who has final authority when parties disagree, and the amount of latitude a planning director may have. Sometimes political issues restrict the amount of control the planner has.
“Ultimately, planning is a very complex legal process,” emphasized Adams, “and all stakeholders should be involved to ensure their arguments are considered during the process.”
Teardowns also have a negative impact on the environment. Demolition debris, including the irreplaceable architectural features, goes to the landfill. Older homes often contain lead paint, asbestos, mercury, solvents and treated wood which are all hazardous to the environment and to construction workers, if not handled and disposed of properly. Then those dangerous chemicals get into our water supply.
Older homes also contain tremendous embodied energy—the energy that has been spent on its construction, including the energy it required to extract, process, deliver and install the materials. Thus, preserving them makes sense. Demolishing historic homes discards the embodied energy stored in the house; then more energy is used to teardown the home; and still more energy is used to build a new house. Saving older homes from demolition is actually more Green than tearing down an older home and building a LEED certified home in its place. (LEED, or Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, is a green building certification program that recognizes best-in-class building strategies and practices.) If you include embodied energy in energy savings calculations, when a builder knocks down an older home and replaces it with a new, energy-efficient home, it takes 13 years to recoup the lost energy (provided the houses are the same size.) However, most replacement homes are two or three times bigger. Doubling the size of the home makes recouping the energy savings take 28 years.
Charles’ research looked at 120 inner-ring suburbs in Chicago between 2000 and 2010 that had experienced high numbers of teardowns. Her research found that once one small, older home is demolished and a new, bigger one replaces it, others feel empowered to do the same because the precedent has been set. Investors follow suit, and the landscape of a neighborhood starts to change rapidly.
Development and change are important for all communities in order to remain relevant. Hiring an American Institute of Architects (AIA) member architect helps ensure that new buildings and additions compliment the neighborhood and promote walkability. Proper planning, resources, and expertise are needed to ensure responsible development occurs without changing the face of historic neighborhoods or stifling growth. City planners, neighbors, builders, architects, business owners, religious and social organizations and other stakeholders must communicate early in the planning process and work together to achieve responsible growth and development. Restoring homes in Meridian-Kessler responsibly is in the best interest of the community, the environment, and its residents. It has been done successfully in communities in nearly every state, especially those neighborhoods with guidelines and review processes in place that promote walkable, desirable neighborhoods.
LEARN MORE about historic conservation by attending the MKNA All Neighborhood Meeting
The agenda features a panel discussion on the benefits of Conservation Districts. Paul Diebold, author of “The History and Architecture of Meridian-Kessler” will serve as moderator.
Thursday, May 14 at Basile Opera Center in Historic Washington Park, 4011 North Pennsylvania Street. Refreshments and pizza from BeBop Pizza Kitchen will be served at 6:00pm and the meeting commences at 6:30pm.