Dispatches from Ward 5: McMansion Edition

Photo courtesy of
‘From Brookland with Love’
courtesy of ‘mediaslave’

The big excitement this week (aside from all the posturing around the At-Large interim council appointment) was on the Brookland list,  and started to spill over to the Ward 5 list. Two separate properties were identified by neighbors as “McMansions” (though I think that’s only a fair epithet for one of them- the other one is more “bad faux Victorian”), and a veritable tidal wave of accusations of zoning/permitting violations, damage to neighbors properties, etc. was poured out onto the list.

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The faux Victorian that started the conversation, on 13th Street NE between Franklin and Girard, has a long history of complaints lodged against it with DCRA, but DCRA has not been able to substantiate many of them. The couple that lives next door, however, is exactly the wrong couple to mess with if you intend on playing fast-and-loose with zoning regulations: the wife is an architect and the husband works in construction. They wrote a detailed letter to Nicholas Majett, Director of DCRA, making very specific allegations against the owner of the lot, not only arcane things like setbacks and driveway widths (citing chapter-and-verse of the zoning regulations), but also egregious things like tearing up their (the neighbors’) driveway repeatedly and refusing to replace it, and using their outdoor electrical and water hookups without asking.

Director Majett responded personally, explaining that DCRA’s “Chief Building Inspector, Zoning Administrator, and Permits Division chief” as well as two other unspecified DC government agencies were involved in investigating the status of the project.

Since I live just a few blocks from this property, I’ll be watching for the resolution of this situation with interest.

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The other house, at 22nd and Taylor NE (the “McMansion”), has mostly more mundane violations: the two lots it sits on may not have been properly converted to one lot; the setback from the street may not have been properly observed. But its primary offense seems to be that it’s ugly and out of proportion to the other houses on the street, prompting at least one neighbor to call for anti-McMansion legislation to be enacted.

And look, I practically break out in hives at the idea of neighbors having any say at all in the aesthetic choices made for other houses on the street — you say “Home Owners Association” and I hear “busybodies who want to decorate your house without paying your mortgage” — but I do tend to agree that these sort of neo-colonial architectural abominations are usually plopped down into neighborhoods by developers, rather than property owners intending to participate in the life of the community. Nonetheless, I don’t see how writing laws to ban ugly houses will fix more problems than it will create.

Tiffany Baxendell Bridge is an Internet enthusiast and an incurable smartass. When not heckling the neighborhood political scene on Twitter, she can be found goofing off with her ukulele, Bollywood dancing, or obsessing about cult TV. She is That Woman With the Baby In the Bar.

Tiffany lives in Brookland with her husband Tom, son Charlie, and two high-maintenance cats. Read why Tiffany loves DC.

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13 thoughts on “Dispatches from Ward 5: McMansion Edition

  1. There could be a good Onion story out of this sort of thing.

    “Gentrifyers protest McMansions, demand McCapeCods, McRanchers”

    As for the busybodies, yup, its true. Condo associations are not real great either, tend to be run by childless people who puts dogs ahead of kids and non-dog owners.

  2. Big houses, yes.

    McMansions, no.

    Have people completely forgotten what the “Mc” in McMansion represents? It’s a homage to McDonalds, mass production of a standardized product, as well as the tendency to Super Size things. It’s meant to describe your typical suburban subdivision, with acres and acres of mass produced houses that all look the same, not infill development in an urban area.

    So, these houses might be large, but they are hardly mass produced.

  3. Since the houses are built from an off-the-shelf floorplan, saving money on uniqueness to be able to pay for size (rather like a fast food meal, one might say), I don’t think it’s entirely reasonable to argue that they aren’t mass produced. They are, they’re just not mass produced all in the same place.

  4. Mass produced, but not side by side by side. This, to me, is a McMansion Row:


    It is a term that is by nature sprawling and suburban. I’ve seen it applied to every type of infill development in DC, and I don’t like it. Not because I favor that type of development (it depends on the project, of course), but I do cherish accurate language. As used, the term McMansion has become so broad it has almost lost meaning.

  5. But even then you have to add a modifier to indicate that you’re talking about a place where there are a lot of them clustered together, which is my point- the idea of several of them close together is not implicit in the word “McMansion” any more than a Big Mac is less of a Big Mac if there’s just one of them in your drive-thru bag.

    But really, I think the mass-producedness is not the *inherently* objectionable quality (though certainly it can amplify the effects of bad design)- go to Petworth and look at block upon block of essentially identical rowhouses, or drive down Rhode Island Avenue and look at block upon block of basically identical Victorians. Why? Because there were standard floorplans that the builders bought and that’s what they put there. No one complains about the mass-produced nature of those houses, though that’s assuredly how they were built.

    People’s objections to houses-commonly-called-McMansions isn’t the standardization per se, it’s that their awful design is being replicated through the same processes that have always been used to build standard floorplan houses.

  6. The phrase “McMansion” seems to serve the promotion of class warfare. Most new home communities today are made up of a handful of house designs done by one or two builders, with emphasis on neighborhood homogeny. That cookie-cutter quality is there, whether the homes are 1,800 sf or 8,100 square feet, though generally, once houses get up to the 8,000 sf range, there’s enough money involved that builders give the homebuyers many more options to customize their homes with various bumpouts and facade choices.

    As to the solution to infill and teardown/rebuilds? I don’t know how you can mandate good taste…invariably, someone will think the two-story glass tower rising up out of their 1970s rancher is the essence of good taste, and someone else will have a conniption fit over a neighbor’s choice of paint on their garage door. I guess that’s why HOAs have risen in popularity, in spite of their fearsome reputations for petty anal-retentiveness…they do a pretty good job at keeping one’s neighbor from doing something to their home that will negatively impact the surrounding homeowners’ enjoyment of their own home.

    Lastly, I’ve never seen a new home built as part of a new-home community that is as ugly as that mismatched hodge-podge shown in the second picture.

  7. One last thought: the homeowners who built the houses shown in the photos are living in the neighborhood. Do you really want to encourage neighborhood hostilities over something like your disapproval over the aesthetics of their home? They might be receiving your misdelivered mail and packages. They might be the folks who you’d want to call the police if they see someone suspicious prowling around your house. They’re the people you hope will return your dog if they see it wandering loose. They’re the people your children and grandchildren will pass by when they’re outside playing.

    Intellectualizing your resentments into carrying a grudge (they started the aggression by virtue of offending your design sensibilities) is foolish, and a surefire way to get yourself involved in the misery of a never-ending feud.

  8. If the aesthetics of their housing choices have actual, physical consequences for those who live there now, then yeah, I think calling in the authorities is a wise choice.

  9. Assuming the account of the neighbors is true, the offense has less to do with the aesthetic value of the house and more with the contractor tearing up the neighbor’s driveway with his equipment and the owner’s refusal to pay for it being replaced. In the case of the second house, it appears that the house is being built by a developer, rather than someone who actually intends to live in the neighborhood.

  10. @ Tiffany: I seriously doubt the house in the second photo is being built by a developer. Developers of spec houses generally want to build something that will appeal to as many people as possible in the target demographic. The 2nd house looks like it’s been altered or concocted to the specifications of a homeowner with more money than taste, many of whom have gravitated to the DC Metro area in recent years. Still, it is their home, and it would behoove the neighbors to be neighborly.

    Is it possible that you believe “it appears that the house is being built by a devloper” because it’s easier to villify an anonymous demon (the developer) than the actual family that is/will be living there?

  11. Pay attention Momma, I said the *second house*, not the house in the second photo. The second house described in the post (THIRD photo) is indeed being built by a developer; one with a long history of flipping properties in the District. (Not that i have a problem with that per se – we bought our house from someone who does that and he did a great job restoring it.)

    The first house described in the post, the one in the second photo, is also owned/built by a developer, but at the moment, the developer lists its headquarters at that address, so I have no problem believing he intends to occupy the house. But that does make me think he probably should have at least offered to replace the neighbors’ driveway after destroying it.

    But, you know, feel free to keep making unfounded assumptions about strangers on the Internet based on your own personal prejudices.

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