Friday, April 10, 2009

The Horrors of Prosperity

One county official called the scene "absolutely disgusting," and said laws must be changed to put a stop to it. Another, stunned by what she saw, called it "way out of character" with community norms. All gawked in amazement as they toured the area by bus.

What was it that evoked such a reaction? A ride through the tenderloin district? The growth of an open-air crack market? A messy sewage plant mishap, maybe? No. This was the reaction to that scourge of middle class suburbs everywhere, the "McMansion," which are springing up like garish eyesores in the "once-modest" Millcreek neighborhood outside Salt Lake City, according to this story in yesterday's Salt Lake Tribune.

"It was a sightseeing tour of the stars -- not of the sprawling estates of Hollywood celebrities, but of the practically palatial living that has crept into once-modest Millcreek neighborhoods and prompted a political movement to stop the spread of so-called monster homes.

Several Salt Lake County Council members boarded a miniature school bus Wednesday for a guided tour through this township torn by an ongoing debate over oversized homes. They wanted to see for themselves the two- and three-story McMansions that critics say have squeezed up to property lines, obstructed views and disrupted the character of this unincorporated burb of 65,000 people.

"That is absolutely disgusting," said Councilman Joe Hatch as the bus rumbled to a stop beside a 6,500-square-foot home that dwarfed its single-story neighbors. "We should have a zoning change to prevent that."

The Millcreek Township Planning Commission has proposed a change that includes black-and-white restrictions on home heights and masses along with grayer provisions that would allow bigger homes as long as they are compatible with the neighborhood."

Homes that are incompatible with the neighborhood? A lack of uniformity and conformity? Overt displays of income disparity? What is Millcreek coming to? It's not the Millcreek I knew as a youngster! And these county commissioners aren't going to stand for it, I tell you.

Three council members -- Jani Iwamoto, Jim Bradley and Hatch -- spent two hours Wednesday surveying neighborhoods interrupted by 4,000-, 5,000- and even 6,000-square-foot homes.

They paused at a more-modest house that offered 3,100 square feet and a second floor but fit under the proposed standards. They snaked through an upper-scale neighborhood in east Millcreek that would accommodate bigger homes, based on the plan's more flexible sections.

"I can't even see the top from here," said Diane Angus, a west Millcreek community councilwoman who accompanied the council tour, as the bus stopped beside an enormous pair of red-brick homes.

"You have to use the periscope," quipped county planner Tom Schafer.

Iwamoto stepped off the bus without a staked position on the proposed building ordinance. What was clear, she said, is that something needs to be done. "What is allowed in some of those areas is way out of character with the community."

It's a debate that has proven particularly sensitive in Millcreek, where residents are split over the rights of property owners to build and the rights of neighbors to protect themselves from oversized homes that erode privacy and reshape skylines."

Can you really "reshape the skyline" in suburbia? Manhattan has a skyline. Chicago has a skyline. But does Millcreek have a skyline, that can be thrown out of kilter by a two-story home? And aren't so-called invasions of private a two-way street? If you build a house next door with windows looking into my yard, you must not mind me looking in your windows. And how much privacy does anyone really expect, and is someone entitled to, in such a neighborhood? If you want to live in seclusion, build a cabin on Walden Pond. If you hate having neighbors, buy that rat hole next door and tear it down.

But why reason the issue through. It's not about skylines or privacy. The hatred of "McMansions" is mostly about envy, on the part of the offended and insecure neighbors, and about pandering to envy and exercising control, on the part of local officials. I mean, just imagine the anxiety and disharmony it creates in Millcreek when the modest people living there, modestly, in their modest middle class homes, suddenly find their house looking rather dingy and dumpy, next to the stately McMansion some nuevo riche yuppie (probably an escapee from Wall Street) slaps up right next door! Imagine the shame. Imagine the humiliation. Imagine the envy this is generating in once-modest Millcreek.

This disparity in domiciles is humbling to some, and ego-gratifying to others, depending on which side of the fence you stand -- a visual reminder that we remain a nation of "haves" and "have-nots." But there's no escaping it, unless you live in a glass tower in the city, or some cookie-cutter Levittown where every home is exactly the same (not that there's anything wrong with that).

And there's nothing wrong with it, and no need for local officials to correct it, since wanting a slightly bigger and better house than the dump next door is part and parcel of the American dream, at least as many Americans define it. And it's that American dream which has made it possible for so many of us to live in "McMansions" that they've become a "problem."

Other countries should have such problems.

1 comment:

Hill said...

One almost might think so, judging from the way the freshman senator is hurriedly distancing himself from the practice of earmarking, in the wake of this blog's connecting of dots between him and the next big lobbying scandal brewing in Washington, focused on the currently-under-investigation PMA Group. The firm has strong ties to Democrats, especially Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha -- one of the House's most prodigious porkers -- but it spread money around to Republicans as well (including local Rep. Doug Lamborn).
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