Tear-Down Controversy Pits History Vs. Modernity

by Chicago Agent

Old, historical homes across the North Shore are being threatened with tear-downs, and preservationists are growing increasingly concerned.

The tear-down, a controversial, boom-era construction strategy, may be making a return to the North Shore – and it’s not returning quietly.

According to an extensive article by Trib Local, the tear-down is often associated with a controversial, transformative process that has drawn criticism from conservationists. Often, old, modest homes are torn down and replaced with much larger, “McMansion” properties that share little of the theme and character of the previous home.

That trend became alarmingly common along the North Shore during the housing boom (by 2008, Winnetka officials estimated that 10 percent of the village’s 3,000 homes had been torn down and replaced), but it trailed off as the housing market cooled down; now, though, with the market recovering, the tear-down seems to be returning as a viable option for prospective buyers.

For instance, tear-downs in Winnetka peaked at 60 in 2002, but fell with the housing market to 16 in 2009. But in 2011, the village issued 28 demolition permits, and Jean Follett, the interim executive director at Landmarks Illinois, fears the tear-down, in all its historical detriment, is back.

“The places that had tear-downs before are having them again this spring,” Follet said in the Trib Local piece. “We’re seeing it pretty much in exactly the same suburban areas we saw them in that 1997 to 2007 time frame.”

The reasons for the present wave of tear-downs, though, differs from the past, when easy financing and speculation drove the process. Now, relatively cheap REO properties in areas such as Glencoe, Winnetka and Kenilworth are  prime targets for tear-downs, and as the Trib Local piece points out, the reason for the tear-downs is not aesthetics – rather, it’s cheaper for homebuyers to build a new custom house rather than renovate a century-old property.

Eve Bremen, the branch manager for Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage’s Winnetka office, said that dichotomy, between renovation and new construction, is especially prominent in the buy/sell stage, when sellers field offers not just from traditional buyers, who want to purchase the home itself, and builders, who want to purchase the property as a tear-down and construct a new, modern residence on the land.

“It becomes an issue of new construction,” Bremen said, for land-locked communities composed mainly of older properties. Though Bremen said the sellers will sometimes pause at the offers from builders, the sales contract they signed ultimately decides which offer is best for the house.

In fact, Bremen said the office just had two properties for sale that perfectly represented that conflict of interest – one sold to a traditional buyer, who intended to renovate the property and maintain its classic appeal, and the other sold to a builder that intended to tear it down.

As tear-downs grow more prevalent (and Bremen said she’s definitely observed a greater presence of tear-downs in the last two years), preservationists are growing increasingly concerned that the history and character of those aforementioned communities are falling by the wayside. Susan Benjamin, for instance, an architectural historian and owner of a consulting firm, said she helps owners find tax breaks and credits to renovate, rather than tear down, their homes.

“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.”

But with tear-downs now viable once again, the work of preservationists like Benjamin has fostered an ongoing debate between them and property rights advocates, who claim that restrictive housing policies in towns such as Lake Forest and Kenilworth, where delays are placed on existing-home purchases before tear-downs can occur, are unnecessary regulations that infringe on property owner’s rights.

“I think there’s an emotional feeling to retain the ‘character’ of the community,” Bremen said, on the preservationist’s intentions.

The “battle lines,” as Trib Local described them, between preservationists and property-right advocates are particularly pronounced in Kenilworth, where the village’s demolition permit process has been the source of a decade-long quarrel. Currently, Kenilworth mandates a year-long waiting period between purchasing and demolition, but that timeline has come under scrutiny in recent months.

Another issue that Trib Local mentioned is the conflict between new homeowners and old homeowners. Though old homeowners appreciate the rustic quality of the Tudor and Victorian homes that populated North Shore communities throughout the 20th century, today’s homebuyers, as Howard Handler, the government affairs director for the North Shore-Barrington Association of Realtors, explained, are not looking for those details; and demolition regulations interfere with that.

“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.

And Allen Smith, of Vasco Builders, said in the Trib Local piece that buyers today are looking for larger master suites, family rooms and first floor dens in their properties, which require a maximization of the property’s land that older homes simply do not offer.

In the end, a large question hovers over the debate – what should the priorities be for the North Shore communities? Do they favor history and character, but with greater expense, or new, modern chic that is less pricey, but less in-tune with the area’s dense historical fabric?

For Bremen, it’s a debate that’s difficult to resolve, especially given the fantastical elements of the housing boom, when tear-downs were so prevalent. Will tear-downs reach those earlier heights? Will preservationists prevail?

“Time will tell,” she said.

Read More Related to This Post


  • Brian Hickey says:

    The redevelopment of established communities should be about evolution not revolution:)



  • Kevin Murray says:

    Having grown up on the North Shore, I understand the quandary. As children, We were amazed when a new house was built. Usually, they were on a lot split off of a larger lot. Rare were the scrape and build.
    Some of the houses are so unique! I had a friend whose home was made of parts from a home disassembled in England. This included hidden panel doors under the stairs…….something I still build into homes.
    If you live there, you know that there is a Victorian downtown surrounded by 1920’s McMansions. These had carriage houses and grazing areas.
    I worry about Contractors and Relators being in charge of changing these neighborhoods. If they are local, and show sensitivity to the neighborhood, They can help form a buyer’s choices. Where’s the Architects?

Join the conversation

New Subscribe

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.