Teardowns: What do neighbors owe you? What do you owe them?

What are your guarantees when you buy a house? You have an obligation to keep your home up, you have an obligation to pay the bank every month.

What do your neighbors owe you?

That’s the philosophical debate that has been waged in fits and starts since people started buying, then tearing down, older homes in Edina and Minneapolis, and has flared again with last week’s announcement that Minneapolis would put a moratorium on teardowns in several neighborhoods.

That’s good news, perhaps, for critics who say the new homes are too big and clog the street with construction equipment. But it’s bad news for homeowners who seem to have fulfilled their obligations when buying the property in the first place.

“It dumps one set of problems on a whole other set of people,” Gabriel Keller, principal at the architectural firm Peterssen/Keller tells the Star Tribune in its article on the subject today. “Homeowners will get caught in the middle.”

A team of University of Minnesota students will study the economic and environmental impacts of teardowns.

“This neighborhood wasn’t made for those giant houses,” said Sharon Potter, who has lived in her home in the Fulton neighborhood for 28 years. “There’s no place for kids to play in the yards. There are no yards.” She’s also worried the house going up next door will block the sun.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation says bungalows, in particular, are popular targets for teardowns because many homeowners think they’re too small for today’s needs. It also says tearing down bungalows and smaller homes deprives first-time buyers of starter homes.

“These are not all nondescript 1950s ramblers that are being razed,” a Star Tribune commenter points out. “Many are gorgeous 1920s Cape Cods and Tudors with tremendous craftsmanship that cannot be replaced. These are part of the city’s collective character, and should not be allowed to be demolished just because someone wants to build a massive monument to their ego. It is sad that the whole argument centers around noise, lot sizes and jobs, rather than what we’re losing in the process.”

“Welcome to Minneapolis,” says another. “The city where you pay the highest property taxes for the privilege of letting someone else tell you what you can do with your land.”

Traditionally, cities have controlled the growth in neighborhoods with zoning and planning ordinances. Those apparently aren’t working, according to moratorium supporters. There are other options: Conservation districts, tax abatements for preservations, higher demolition fees, and more affordable housing initiatives.

Discussion question: What’s the answer here? Does a neighborhood have a responsibility to protect its “character?” Where is the line between controlling development and giving people the freedom to do what they wish on property they own? What do your neighbors owe you?