Effects of Teardowns

Sep 18, 2013

Effects of Teardowns

Community Character

Alteration of community character is the most conspicuous effect of teardowns. When interviewed, officials from several municipalities named this as the foremost criticism from their constituencies. However, while most communities oppose significant changes to character, few can agree on how to define character.

During the interviews, the most commonly identified attribute of character was housing size. According to one of the respondents, current single-family tastes have replaced "looking out" – or valuing large, scenic yards over capacious structures – with "building out" to the extent of the zoning code. Because generous zoning restrictions were often written in the era that favored larger setbacks, the effects of building out those parcels could not be seen until recently. Oak Park and Hinsdale were given as examples of this.

To others, specific architectural styles are central to character. Most of the neighborhoods impacted by teardowns are aging, affluent suburbs with buildings designed by notable architects. While few would argue that all maturing structures should be preserved, critics claim that teardowns often lack proper deliberation and that the replacement construction is insensitive to the aesthetics of the neighborhood. Also, the heightened commoditization of real estate that accompanies teardowns can spur a trend of "benign neglect," according to one preservation advocate: "…people say that ‘if the dirt is worth more than the building, why should I waste my time painting?'"

Aside from the effect that teardowns can have on the character of the built environment, their impacts often reach the natural and social ones as well. When demolitions occur in older neighborhoods, like those most affected by teardowns, they often take mature trees and plantings with them. Also, teardowns decrease the amount of affordable housing in a neighborhood, diminishing the socio-economic diversity that once defined the community.

How would you define the character of your community? What in your community is important to preserve? How would teardowns affect this?

Have teardowns affected the character of your community? If so, how?

Economic Costs

In the beginning, a strong redeeming quality of the teardown was its boost to the local tax base. A house three times the value of its predecessor paid three times the taxes of its predecessor. However, according to some preservation experts, this is not the fiscal windfall that it once appeared to be. In Hinsdale, the school board has repeatedly relied on bond issues to fund the needs of new students brought by teardowns, according to a village trustee, because teardowns often replace the housing of seniors or couples without children with structures intended for large families. According to the same source, the "Rule of Three" (i.e. teardowns are three times the size and three times the price of their predecessors) also applies to city services consumed by teardowns. Accordingly, the impacts to city infrastructure costs are now starting to outweigh the benefits of larger tax rolls.

Rebuilds aside, many experts also see economic costs in the demolition itself. Because of their labor-intensive nature, rehabs to older buildings can be more costly than tearing down and starting over, which is often a more materials-intensive process. However, while the labor market is most likely to be in or near the immediate community, the materials market likely draws supply from all over the country, or farther. Therefore, some experts argue that rehabs are actually better for local economies, even if not those of the parcel owners.

Some experts argue that teardowns reduce development pressure in greenfield areas by encouraging infill development, because smaller, older housing stock isn't sufficient for the needs and preferences of real estate buyers today. (El Nasser, 2002) According to this view, homes that are bought and torn down would stand vacant if the teardown did not occur, with the prospective buyers moving to a different location to purchase a house that meets their demands.

Have teardowns affected revenues or costs in your community? If so, how?

Are houses that are being torn down in your community suitable for continued occupation? If these houses were not torn down, but preserved as they are, would they stand vacant or be occupied as-is?


Another effect of teardowns involves the natural environment. This analysis examines the local impacts of teardowns and the impacts that teardowns have on the larger region. Environmental effects include stormwater, landfill space, noise, and embodied energy, each described below.


During interviews, most municipal officials named stormwater flows as their main environmental concern.As smaller homes are replaced by larger ones, the correlating increase in impervious surfaces makes stormwater management more difficult. When runoff water is not readily absorbed, it charges city storm drains, often overwhelming them, before seeking basements and garages. According to a recent study in Downers Grove, these effects are often made worse because, during the replacement construction, developers seldom excavate down as far as the previous buildings. This creates a steeper grade around the edge of the teardown property, and a greater likelihood of flooding nearby parcels (Pond et al, 2007).

While increased housing size alone can undermine drainage systems, other threats also loom. According to one expert, conventional suburban zoning (i.e. houses spread evenly over a vast site) often requires extensive paved connectors such as streets and driveways. "With all this pavement connected, there is much less opportunity for runoff to soak into the ground. In short, conventional development carries with it a subtle but powerful bias toward maximizing both the quantity and speed of runoff" (Sykes, 1998). Thus, current zoning, especially when applied to the redevelopment of teardowns often facilitates the type of stormwater problems described above.

The Village of Downers Grove has taken steps to plan for the impacts that redevelopment and teardowns have on stormwater management. For more information on this case study, please click here.

Landfill space

In general, construction and demolition (C&D) is one of the largest sources of waste in the United States, totaling "About 130 million tons per year, or about 25% of all the solid waste that is discarded" (Lennon, 2004). Teardowns can cause more waste than conventional demolitions because, in many cases, they carry a tighter timeline, so most materials are hastily discarded, whether recyclable or not (Power, 2003). Construction waste was also an area of concern for municipalities interviewed for this paper.

Noise and other nuisances during the construction process

Residents of neighborhoods experiencing the teardown trend are also affected. As teardowns occur, their entire neighborhood can feel like a construction site, with dumpsters on every block and large trucks constantly passing by. A local director of community development said the impact of construction equipment on traffic, infrastructure and the general atmosphere was a primary concern to the surrounding neighborhood. (Rosenberg, 2006)

Embodied energy

A significant principal for understanding thevalue of an existing home is embodied energy.According to one international definition, "embodied energyrepresents allthe energy consumed by all of the processes associated with the production of a building, from the acquisition of natural resources to product delivery. This includes the mining and manufacturing of materials and equipment, the transport of the materials and the administrative functions." (Government of Australia)

Examining embodied energy helps to get at the true costs of teardowns and links it to issues ofair pollution and climate change (from the transport of materials and labor), natural resource depletion (forests, metals, gravel) and the environmental consequences of extracting materials. It goes beyond money and culture when evaluating an existing home. Put simply, it points to wasted energy, and the needfor sustainable processes of building construction.

Have teardowns had environmental impacts in your community, in the areas of stormwater or others?

What opinions do you have concerning the contributions of teardowns to landfills, and the waste of "embodied energy?" Are these useful concepts to consider when addressing the effects of teardowns?

Housing and Income Mix

Among experts, there are two strong and conflicting opinions about the impacts of teardowns on housing and income mix. First, many argue that teardowns increase property values and tax levies (due to the increased services they often require) that price lower-income residents out of their neighborhoods. They further claim that the displaced are often forced into already disinvested areas, which further polarizes the communities of haves and have-nots.

Conversely, other experts look at the influx of more expensive homes into teardown communities as a means to increase income mix, as it allows affluent homebuyers to buy in built-out areas, which are commonly more economically heterogeneous than their likely alternative: isolated pockets of wealth that form on the urban fringe. (El Nasser) However, experience has shown that most teardown communities are well above the regional median income before the trend even takes hold, albeit more so after.

Have teardowns affected the affordability of housing in your community? If so, how?


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