A Tipping Point For Tear-Downs: Is This Really What We Want?

By Dan Brosgol

A house that no longer exists on Hancock Street - Image (c) Integrated Construction Sitework & Landscape LLC
A house that once stood on Hancock Street – Image (c) Integrated Construction Sitework & Landscape LLC

Another week, another demolition. Ho-hum.

Take a walk around my neighborhood and look at the six (at least) new and enormous homes that have gone up in the past two years where smaller ones used to be. Take a walk a little farther and you’ll see about a dozen more new homes or ones that are in the process of being demolished and replaced by larger ones. I’m frightened to even speculate about the overall number in town, but I’m sure someone knows.

As I’ve commented before, under our existing laws this is entirely legal. But as I’ve also commented before, if this continues, the only affordable housing left in town is going to be condos.

Is this really what we want?

It’s a problem not unique to Bedford. In Newton, where I spend the majority of my non-Bedford time since I work there, the same thing is happening. It’s gotten so bad that some of the Aldermen are proposing a 12-month moratorium on all tear-downs.

The two sides of this debate are clear. On the one hand, people want to preserve at least the illusion of having affordable homes in Newton. On the other hand, people who are planning on cashing in on a home sale are vehemently against the idea. Current zoning laws in Newton (and in Bedford) allow “builders to put oversized homes on small lots,” creating an environment where less-expensive homes are becoming difficult to find.

Is this really what we want?

The language of the Globe piece is a little amusing, as it describes “moderately priced homes” in Newton to be “in the $800,000 range,” but if we translate that into comparable language twelve miles north and west of Newton, one thing that most of us can agree on is that pretty soon there won’t be anything left to buy in Bedford for under $500,000—which is what  the tear-downs are being sold for now.

Is this really what we want?

We live in a small town, with good schools, no fees, and excellent people. Not a small amount of that excellence is derived from a vibrant mix of people from all backgrounds and from all walks of life. Policemen and teachers, real estate developers and corporate executives, firefighters and systems managers, doctors and lawyers, small business owners and fitness professionals, and so on.  I know all of these kinds of people and more, and enjoy the fact that we all live together.

But pretty soon, that’s not going to be the case. Do we aspire to be Newton? Or Lexington? Or Concord?

Is that really what we want?

I don’t think so.

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October 31, 2014 7:36 pm

A moratorium on tear-downs? I love the idea. Lots of people like the thought of payday though so I think it would be a challenge to get one instituted.

November 3, 2014 9:10 pm

I am a local Realtor in town, and I also grew up here- I am a Bedfordite through and through! I am very passionate about Bedford and the people that make up the fabric of our unique, small town. This has been a hot topic, and I can truly see both views. It’s hard when things change, but this is going on in our entire region- it’s not just a Bedford-centric concern. I am a lover of all things Historic, and hate to see older, classic homes disappear. I was on the HPC (Historic Pres. Commission) in years past- we would help to oversee the 12 month demo delay on properties built pre-1943. I’ve helped some developers see the value of saving a beautiful old home, like 26 Concord Road, while turning it into a beautiful prominent home that meets the needs of today’s buyers. But I see other sides of this too. Yes, developers are business people, looking to earn a living, and some are very considerate of neighbors and the spirit of the town. But the point I want to make is about the homeowners. I think of those who have lived in town for years, been involved, paid their taxes, but perhaps have not kept up or updated their homes. Sadly they can have more value as a “tear down” and builders provide a clean and “easy” process for those looking to sell and move to the next chapter of their lives. I am concerned if we start to limit the the rights of property owners. We may not all LIKE the rate at which this is happening, and I agree that I would like to see more parameters set in terms of tree removal and keeping new construction in keeping with the look and feel of the neighborhood, but to limit more severely the rights of those looking to sell is not the right move, either. I think it’s extremely important to look at zoning closely- where can there be more opportunities for affordable, smaller homes? Locations where there is easy access to transportation, and places to walk to? This would serve the needs of 2 huge demographic segments…the baby boomers and the “Gen X” younger buyers. The Coast Guard housing area off Pine Hill is a great example …what a perfect spot for housing that is small yet well thought out and designed….the Riverwalk project in Concord is a great benchmark for this.
I could obviously go on, but I wanted to put some thoughts out there. How can we work as a town to embrace the change while keeping our wonderful small town spirit?

Betty DeAngelo
November 1, 2014 12:54 pm

I also believe that there should be a 12 month moratorium on tearing down small houses. Bedford will no longer be a community where all ages can afford to buy a house.

November 1, 2014 9:24 am

“Is that really what we want?”: What are you suggesting “we” do about it? Pass a law forcing other people not to do what “we” dislike? It’s one thing to pass laws preventing murder and assault – those are violation of people’s rights. But are you proposing to pass a law to enforce your sense of aesthetics?

Isn’t that a little too authoritarian?

Holly Bloomfield
November 1, 2014 2:38 pm
Reply to  rea5245

Most zoning laws are about aesthetics. They get created based on what a community values. For example, at town meeting this week we will vote on a change to “buffer zones”(i.e. trees) for mixed use developments. I doubt too many people have been imprisoned for breaking a zoning law, but I do believe that communities look better as a result of having them.

Holly Bloomfield
October 31, 2014 9:57 pm

This topic recently became hard to ignore in my neighborhood since five houses and thousands of trees have come down in the past year. All were 1950’s ranches on sizable lots, replaced by much larger houses. I’ve asked questions in town and I’ve been surprised by the answers. The first thing I learned is that there is nothing to keep a developer from felling every tree on a lot, except if wetland rules apply. The second thing I learned is that there is nothing to keep a developer from building the biggest house the lot will allow, enforced only by the limits stated on the code enforcement website. This means that the new structure can be up to 37′ in height and needs only be 15′ from the property line. The size of the other houses in the neighborhood is of no consequence. Let’s use my house as an example. it is a 1950’s ranch, 18′ in height. The rule allows a new house next door to be 19′ feet taller, or twice the height of my house and as close as 15′ from my property line. Now tell me, who wants to be shadowed by a huge structure? Who wants to gain an obstructed view? Who wants to live next to a large treeless lot that was once forested? Owners in this situation are faced with a decision; stay or sell, too? Sell and the domino effect is put into motion. The whole neighborhood may turn over. It has happened already in some areas of town. Surprisingly, the only people complaining are the people who choose to stay. The seller profits from the appreciated value of their property. The developer profits from building and selling a new house, maybe $800K or more above the price they paid for the property a few months earlier. The town profits from the revenue raised from building fees and later from increased property taxes on the larger house. So, who is motivated to change this scenario, if not the owners, the developers or the town? Like you, I wondered, how often it is happening, so I looked at the permits for new foundations and demolitions since they are public documents. I found over 40 properties that got these kinds of permits in Bedford in the past year, rather significant, I’d say for the size of the town. The rules need to change to zone proportionally, limit permits and take the environment into consideration while developing in an existing neighborhood. These changes matter to those of us who wish to stay and who wish to preserve the economic diversity of our community. The redevelopment of Bedford into a place where all the homes cost more than a million dollars is not what I want, Dan.