A Teachable Moment

It was bound to happen eventually. News of the latest home builder to close shop has given us a chance to reflect on the model of suburban tract housing. IBJ’s News Talk poses an important question:

–What will become of Morgan neighborhoods, many of which are little more than rows of poor-man’s drywall castles? Will they, like tail fins, be viewed as vestiges of a super-sized America? Or will they, as was the case through much of this decade, be sought out for the sheer room for the buck? A related question: Will Morgan houses ever attract urban pioneers of the distant future? Why?

I believe that the answer of this question could be the subject of a documentary film in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, what can we learn from the possible demise of tract housing? Quite a bit.

  • If it’s a large house, and the price looks too good to be true, then it probably is.
  • There are actually restraints to growth. Growth for the sake of “the American Dream” can lead to making everyone else poor. From the Star Article on the subject:

The massive size of the housing developments proposed by the builder also ran into resistance at times from counties in the metro area unaccustomed to urban sprawl. Shelby County rejected a 300-acre proposal for a C.P. Morgan tract several years ago out of concern local government wasn’t in position to handle the costs of expanding fire, water, waste and educational services, said former commissioner Roger Laird.

“It was going to be a high-density project, and we didn’t have a good plan from them or anyone else on how to handle the sewage, water and everything else,” Laird said. He noted that the site on I-74 at Pleasant View now is being considered as a possible location for a supplier to the Honda car plant in Greensburg.

Shelby commissioners who rejected the housing proposal received plenty of backing from local residents who objected to the big complex coming in.

“A bunch of us, people who have been here forever, wanted it stopped. We got together and convinced the commissioners to vote against it,” said a member of the informal group, Dick Larkey of Larkey Insurance and Real Estate in Fairland.

  • Newer does not always mean better. In fact, it’s often just the opposite. My house was built in 1925. It’s going to stand another 84 more years, at least.
  • These houses were popping up as well-built places within the city were sitting empty. I do have a glimmer of hope that we can now turn our attention towards a more resource responsible infill development. For the ball to really get rolling on this, though, we need to improve our schools. Charters sound like a step in the right direction.

I hope that we do not forget this moment, and that we can begin to develop more sustainably.

Comments 11

  • My house was built in 1994. The build quality is not near what my parent’s home from the 1920s is. I put up some chair rail, and now you can see the bowing of the wall. Also, none of the walls are square.

    I bought my house because of the area/value (in Fishers, my fiance works in the area, and it makes it easy for me to get downtown). And wish I could have bought an older/smaller house. But sadly, my house was one of the oldest.

    Sadly, I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the quality of years past. People still want new. People still want cheap. I really don’t see that changing.

  • I agree with where you are coming from here. I also don’t think we will get to quality of years past with regards to single family homes.

    My house was build before air conditioning, and it stays amazingly cool in the summer because of the orientation of the windows (and the tall trees that shade it help a lot as well). In the winter, the fireplace is so well built that we can have a fire on the coldest days and not notice much of a heat loss in the rest of the house. We’ve lost a lot of these details as our technology has grown more sophisticated.

    What I think we might see more of in the future is multi-unit apartments and mixed-use buildings.

  • Kevin, I think those of us without young children tend to underestimate the “pull” of the (perceived) safe big backyard green swaths of the suburbs, as well as the “push” of the misperception that there’s noplace inside 465 to well and safely educate your kids.

    On both counts, I know better but the argument falls on deaf ears.

    And then there’s the whole American “bigger/newer-is-better” thing. Clearly my German-American-farmer ancestry steers me toward the old-fashioned notion of thrift…no throwing away food nor taking up more space (or resources) than is necessary. I’ve never built a new house. So I don’t get that whole ethic.

    But again…that argument is out of step with many of my peers, and I can’t really tell if this is truly a “teachable moment” for those fully bought into the suburban commuter-consumer lifestyle.

  • Good points thunder.

    I should say that I intended this post more for the developers than for the suburban residents. I understand the pull to the suburbs. I grew up in them. Strangely, that may be a big factor in my personal feelings towards them. Once a child reaches a certain age, the are basically trapped out there, with no means to get around outside of their parents’ cars. So the suburbs might be fine for young kids, but teenagers? Not so much, IMO.

    Of course, I must agree that the developers will keep doing what the demand will tell them to do. However, as more stories are told about people who’s suburban dreams get dashed by a number of problems (foreclosures, poor quality, rising crime), I think we may see a shift in demand. Which is one of the reasons why I think this could be a great documentary film.

    Even a couple of years ago, could you have imagined there would be so much negative press about tract housing? And it’s not going to get any better. The comments in the articles are quite telling. These are not urbanites that post over on Skyscraper City. I could be wrong, but I believe that the momentum has shifted. The major key is to give people options, and to keep improving our neighborhoods.

  • I once read a demographics article (in 2000) that predicted the next growth wave will be in the central city. Its where the major employment and entertainment will be, but most importantly it is where significant healthcare will be in 20-40 years. It also stated that the cheaply built tract homes will be the slums of the future. This is if we continue on a path towards haves and have-nots as we seem to be. This will follow most european models as well, especially Paris.

  • Interesting news from CP Morgan, it will be interesting to see if this is a unique situation or if other tract builders will follow suit.

    The older stock of houses are better built, it is true. I would not expect a return to that level of quality anytime soon, as labor costs are much higher (relatively speaking) compared to the 1920’s or so.

    Also, it is nearly impossible to find the same quality of wood as used in those days. We have already chopped most of it down. The older housing methods weren’t always sustainable either, but renovating and reusing them is a very sustainable solution going forward.

    I think one of the reasons that the suburban areas did well is that they leveraged one of their criticisms, sameness, as a strength. One house in a suburb is just the same as any other house, with the same schools, the same level of crime, and similar neighbors. These same issues are very location dependent in urban neighborhoods, so people have to do a lot of investigating before making a decision. Surburban neighborhoods are an easy choice, but not necessarily a better one.

  • Interesting thought Graeme. I’d never viewed homogeneity as an asset before.

  • Kevin, to amplify Graeme’s point: That’s exactly it with schools. The “easy” choice is to pick the best suburban district you can afford, where everyone looks like you and lives in a house that looks like yours.

    In the city, not only do neighborhoods vary block-by-block, but so do schools. There is no “easy” choice for parents without considerable investigation. There is also some real parenting work required to determine your child’s strengths and weaknesses and how s/he will be best placed in a public, magnet, charter, or private school.

    ps. I also grew up in suburbs and small towns in several different states, but went to college in a large city. City person ever since.

  • That’s true. Perhaps I just needed Graeme to come in and beat me over the head with it…he he…

  • Lots of good thoughts here. I’m curious to see if we begin to see an influx of investors developing and revitalizing houses around midtown and the near north side here in the next few years. As the demand for new houses decline, that creativity and those resources have to go somewhere. It’d be great to see it materialize in a positive way around the neighborhoods of Indy that have a lot of obvious investment value. Those efforts would have a lot of “trickle-down” benefits for the city at large.

  • We can do without the kind of “investors” who shop tax sales, slap on new vinyl floors, a fresh coat of paint, and used appliances then sell on “rent to own” contracts.

    All of the areas ringing the Regional Center (not just the near north but also the near east, south, and west sides) need an influx of young, committed, and (at first) childless homeowners who can invest time and effort in real renovation. Once “bought in”, they’ll find the right schools for their kids.

    A man can dream, can’t he?

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