Neighbors on Steroids
"McMansion" Fever Spreads Throughout Westchester
by Julie Gilligan
(Republished on December 5, 2002 from the Westchester
WAG of September 2001
) Some people call them McMansions or MiniMansions.
Others call them Houses on Steroids. But they all call
them Big. Roughly 4,000-7,000 square feet, with three
stories and three car garages (the two-car garage is
decidedly passé), they're popping up all over
price tags ranging from $1.5 to $10.5 million, these
new homes are changing the landscape of even the most
affluent communities by towering above their neighbors.
They are also stretching so close to the edges of property
lines, that residents can practically see the people
next door undressing (which in some cases may not be
so bad!). If you're wondering why the little ranch house
next door seemed to have come down in the middle of
the night, wonder no more. Meet your new neighbors.
With loud rumblings of protest from the natives, open
land areas in Westchester are being grabbed by builders
with the attitude, "the bigger the better,"
as long as there are buyers to put cash on the line.
Developer Michael E. Fareri, was dubbed by The New York
Times (March 2000) as one of the first to capitalize
on the "flush 1990's Wall Street money" and
Armonk, his prime territory, was described as a "builder's
paradise." Long time residents began to worry about
their peaceful community, additionally concerned that
improving roads and building stores in the buffer zone
of Kensico Dam would affect the quality of water.
defends himself by saying, "Yes-I have built McMansions
in Armonk, but away from the town, where lot sizes average
two acres." Over the past 15 years he has also
constructed smaller homes closer to the town. "I
try to build the size home a customer wants. McMansion
owners expect a lot: a home entertainment center or
media room wired to access future digital and fiber
optic capacity, "his and her" dressing rooms,
and computer ready home offices. Three, even four car
garages, are requested to house two SUV's, another car
"to go out visiting," and one for a Nanny
or housekeeper's car."
Fareri continues, "Families in Armonk are growing.
There are now three or four children-no longer one or
two. This means extra bedrooms, in addition to those
for the Nanny and housekeeper." Armonk will soon
pass a new zoning law to address the ratio between recommended
square feet of living space in proportion to the size
of the building lot.
And they are not alone. Actions against the McMansion
phenomenon have begun in a number of desirable communities
including, in lower Westchester, Scarsdale, Rye, Larchmont,
and Harrison. Until the current craze for huge mansion
homes such suburban areas satisfied wealthy or upper
middle class families, content to have comfortable luxury
homes, fine school systems, access to swimming, sailing,
and preserved nature trails. But residents are up in
arms about the current "build out or up" philosophy,
creating an unsightly variety of McMansions covering
every inch of property. Further displeasure stems from
the fact that the newcomers have no regard for the accepted
style of architecture each community prides itself on.
Held, a 44-year resident of Harrison, feels that "the
sudden surge of McMansions overpowers smaller homes"
and spoils the natural look of attractive landscaped
houses nestled in the wooded area where she resides.
Held does not condemn larger homes but suggests that
they can be designed to fit info the landscape. "Polly
Park Road is newly developed in the Town of Harrison
- with lots of land, acres and trees. Homes there are
beautiful," she says.
But, these days Harrison authorities are forced to
investigate proposed building blueprints very carefully.
According to Held, "in the recent past, new owners
just built on to a smaller house or builders bought
property and built a McMansion, based on existing zoning
ordinances." Recognizing that the zoning code needs
tightening, she is adamant about spreading the word.
resident and architect, Doris Erdman, has been instrumental
in Mamaroneck Village being one of the first to adopt
FAR the (floor area ratio) concept for zoning. Larchmont,
Scarsdale and the Town of Mamaroneck are in the process
of implementing FAR as well. Erdman emphasizes, "Citizens
are aware. They want the building of huge mansions controlled.
Overspending makes these houses out of place. For example,
there's a home on Grecian Point where the individual
took full advantage of what was the current code and
made ground level higher, outside the "footprint"
(the designated building limit on the lot). Erdman notes
"While the FAR concept originally was created for
commercial use, adapting it for residential purposes
will assure a specific amount of frontage set back.
Expansion of the sides and back of a structure, as well
as, the height upward are limited."
Possessing both a personal and professional familiarity
with the spread of McMansions, Erdman is perplexed by
the trend. "I just cannot comprehend how young
people, smart enough to earn a fortune, do not look
into details of home buying. For example the ambiance
of the community-what makes it attractive and a sound
investment-and what is the longevity of that quality
of life for the future. They don't educate themselves.”
Newly elected [at the time the article was first published]
volunteer trustee of Larchmont Village, Anne McAndrews,
is also working hard to study the FAR concept, as one
possibility to meet the needs of her village. As an
attorney, McAndrews is analyzing the diverse structure
of zoning, which exists today. The small Village of
Larchmont has at least five different districts, each
with variations in the size of lots and accompanying
zoning or building codes. She says, "Creating a
law with just a different mathematical equation does
not solve the problem. It might eliminate the flourishes,
which make a house interesting. For example, front porches,
which are so much a part of family life in Larchmont.
Whenever you pass a law about zoning you must be careful
not to be out of compliance with other existing ordinances."
Larchmont has had its share of McMansion type homes
built over smaller structures on property facing Manor
Park. They are attractive and seem to melt right in
with neighboring homes. As McAndrew points out "Larchmont
has many large, gracious homes on small lots-residents
are used to seeing this, especially in the Larchmont
Manor area closer to the Sound." But, these homes
are not the problem.
Anne Moffett, who grew up in Larchmont, purchased a
smaller home on Hazel Lane five years ago. "I fell
in love with the southern exposure which had sliding
glass doors and large windows to let in bright sunshine."
Just 15 feet from her home, a reconstructed McMansion
style home was built on Pryor Lane. Moffett agonizes
over the fact that "Unlike the former house, there
is now a basement on ground level and two additional
floors. It will block the sun from my home!"
Trustees in Scarsdale Village arranged for a series
of public meetings, which began in July, to present
residents with a proposal under consideration to change
the village building code. According to the Village
Planner, Liz Marrinan, the Scarsdale Planning Board
feels it is unique. The plan introduces a floor area
ratio cap, which limits the area in new homes or additions
to an existing dwelling at a percentage of the total
lot area. The proposal allows homeowners to build beyond
the cap if they use architectural designs that reduce
the "bulky" appearance of the house. This
includes building garages and additions to the rear
of the house. The proposed law gives architects encouragement
and incentive to create designs that are sensitive to
concerns of nearby neighbors.
Pat Warnken, a realtor at Prudential Centennial in
Scarsdale, trained in design, says, "McMansions
do not necessarily have to be a negative influence as
long as the builder uses materials, style and size that
harmonize with the rest of the community." For
example, there is an estate area in Scarsdale with large
older homes on beautifully landscaped lots exceeding
one acre. And while a rebuilt 7000-squar~foot home here
might be viewed as a McMansion, constructed in stone,
it blends in with other stone houses. Some neighbors
actually feel that, in a case such as this, a McMansion
can improve the value of their nearby home.
Scarsdale Deputy Mayor Beverly Sved, along with other
village trustees, attended the first meeting on July
10th "to listen to the residents." Reactions
to the proposal ran the full gamut of pro and con. According
to Marrinan, property rights people" wanted to
expand the "building out" area, which they
felt prevented the plans they had to build on existing
lots. Those in favor of a new law felt the current proposal
was a beginning step, but it was flawed. Other public
hearings are scheduled through the early Fall when community
consensus will clear the path for design of a new building
ordinance. Residents agree, "It is a lengthy, important
process to determine the future character of Scarsdale."
Rye also has a wide variety of property lot sizes and
homes. Traditionally, homes in the past were not built
out to the edge of the lot. George Latimer, Chairman
of the Westchester County Board of Legislators, and
a home owner in Rye, says "Westchester County has
a lot of market pressure. But, building land is not
there in some communities. This means new options for
both long time residents and newcomers." He continues,
"It is a very difficult balancing act to maintain
a community's character, while upholding property rights.
Everyone needs to understand each other's point of view,
before going to war."
Jeff Marston and his wife moved to the Greenhaven section
of Rye from Larchmont three years ago and purchased
a house on a little larger piece of land. A McMansion
extension of an existing house nearby is in process.
Marston feels, "it is not the style of the house
that is objectionable, but, rather, that it is right
in your face."
Rye Mayor Steve Otis, who grew up in Harrison and attended
Rye Country Day School, certainly under- stands the
pleasant suburban appeal of the City of Rye. He says,
"House size to lot size is the issue here. At the
same time one needs to balance needs of families for
space. Set back variances, which are intrusive to neighbors,
are a very complicated change. The community must move
cautiously. We must focus on the excesses in height
or set backs where it impacts on neighbors."
John Feingold, a nine-year resident of Pound Ridge,
who recently relocated to Larchmont, works with Allee,
King, Rosen & Fleming, a national planning firm
dedicating their services to villages, towns and cities
and covering issues such as the environment, wildlife,
traffic and the total impact on local finance, property
values, school taxes and police security. Feingold recalls
residents of Pound Ridge being concerned about what
they dubbed "New Canaanism," enormous homes
being constructed and stretched to the very end of building
Feingold points out that while building laws for lots
and houses in upper Westchester, where there is much
more land, may be on a grander scale, a similar situation
to lower Westchester exists. New residents and builders
take their lot survey (which happens to be quite large)
and are free, within the local zoning code, to erect
houses within a designated building envelope. Normally,
before the era of McMansions, this included building
up-out- or-in back of-the structure. The result was
old homes were spread out to fill existing lots. New
homes were designed to fill up lots, thereby being out
of scale, and eroding neighborhood appearance and character".
Kevin Brenner of Brenner Builders & Associates
in Pound Ridge offered another view, saying, "It
is not about the size or cost of a new home. It's about
good taste. Houses can be of similar size, but they
must fit in to the neighborhood and not be offensive."
Joy Simpkins, the Pound Ridge Town Supervisor and a
long time resident, says, "Over a year ago Pound
Ridge voted to change the zoning code to provide a different
ratio of house size to lot size." Simpkins senses
some of the new ostentatious structures are a game of
show-off. "They need to be built on an equitable
piece of property." She also questions the wisdom
of newcomers who invest in McMansions during this period
of an up and down economy. "However" she concludes,
"Everyone has a dream house!"
But, one man's dream house, can be another man's nightmare.
Therefore, Westchester residents are moving towards
legislation regarding the size and expansion of neighboring
homes. Until then, McMansions will be sprouting up faster
then Jack's beanstalk.
Publishers Note: With the current local interest
in McMansions, FAR, and home expansion, we thought our
readers would appreciate a geographic perspective from
this still timely article. We owe thanks to the Westchester
WAG and Larchmont author Julie Gilligan for allowing
this article to be republished in the Larchmont Gazette.
Illustrations courtesy of Jim Fleming: see McMansions:
Size Isn't Always That Important for his take on
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