Government & Politics

Prairie Village is tearing down homes. Is it progress or problem for neighborhoods?

Housing tear-downs in Prairie Village stir debate

A fierce debate is underway in Prairie Village and other Johnson County communities about teardowns of older homes and new construction on small lots.
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A fierce debate is underway in Prairie Village and other Johnson County communities about teardowns of older homes and new construction on small lots.

Phyllis Brinkerhoff and Terri McGovern love watching kids ride bikes and scooters through their neighborhood of quaint homes and tree-lined streets near the Prairie Village shops.

But more and more, they’re seeing some of that charm and those trees disappear, with nearly a dozen teardown/new home projects replacing modest $200,000 homes with properties worth $750,000 or more. They view these new structures as reducing privacy, crowding their lots and boosting their property taxes.

“They are on top of us,” said McGovern, who watched a four-bedroom house behind her backyard replace a two-bedroom Cape Cod house. “I feel like we are being pushed out.”

But the owner of that new four-bedroom house behind McGovern’s says Prairie Village is a wonderful, affordable place to build, and new homes for today’s young families help the neighborhoods thrive.

“We were very careful in our design to try to do something that was respectful in scale with the neighborhood,” said Dav Bettenhausen, an engineer who moved with his wife and four children into their Fontana Street home last spring. “At some point, if you don’t allow new construction, people with families will move out of this neighborhood.”

These competing perspectives are creating a big challenge not just for Prairie Village, but for other Johnson County cities, including Fairway, Leawood, Mission Hills and Roeland Park. It’s about finding a way to balance progress with preserving neighborhood character.

In Prairie Village, where many of the lots are small and the replacement homes are often twice as big as the old ones, the balancing act is especially emotional, says Prairie Village City Administrator Wes Jordan, who previously was the police chief.

Jordan presided over meetings last year that dealt with new residential design standards, but no consensus emerged and they were never adopted.

“The meetings were more difficult for me and more passionate than any meeting I went to as police chief,” Jordan said this month at a community gathering.

The debate is likely to persist, as the pace of teardowns and rebuilds shows no sign of abating. Prairie Village has had more than 50 home teardowns in just the past two years: 31 in 2016 and 22 so far this year. That’s up from seven in 2010, 12 in 2014 and 20 in 2015.

Jordan argues the city has already adopted some worthwhile restrictions, even in the absence of design standards. A new set of zoning changes approved in summer 2016 made a number of changes, including reducing maximum home heights and increasing side setbacks so the maximum home width cannot exceed 80 percent of the lot.

Before those changes were adopted, some residents worried about the big house impact.

“Some of them look like they belong in Mission Hills or further south,” resident Andrea Ernst said at a 2016 plan commission meeting. “We don’t want to become Olathe. We do want to maintain some standard in the village.”

In addition, the city began requiring a drainage study for each new home, to address concerns about neighborhood and basement flooding with the increased driveways and other concrete surfaces.

“You have to have an engineering study about how drainage works on that property,” Jordan assured area residents at this month’s community meeting.

Prairie Village Ward 1 Councilwoman Jori Nelson, who hosted the community meeting, said many concerns remain among longtime residents. The conversations on possible changes continue on the best way to support “smart growth policies.”

“The concerns I am hearing involved the mass and density of the new home builds and the changing character of the neighborhood,” Nelson said in an email answer to questions.

She said the new homes still raise questions about water runoff, construction impacts on landscaping, and changes to shade or sun in adjacent lots when a new home goes in. She said she also hears support for the new homes and the positive economic impact they bring.

“I do believe there is always room for improvement,” she said. “I would like to revisit the size and mass of the new home builds on (smaller) lots. I believe that there must be a balance.”

Nelson and Jordan said they are resurrecting consideration of home scale and how a residence looks and relates to the street.

“What we’re going to try our best to do is take another shot at design standards,” Jordan said. “We’re going to work with a group of architects that approached us and said we think we can find some compromises that would work.”

Public meetings are not yet scheduled but could come late this fall or early next year.

Diverse Opinions

In the 6700 blocks of Granada Road, Granada Lane and Fontana Street, neighbors get along and there’s no pervasive discord. But there’s definitely a difference of opinion. Longtime residents cherish their small Cape Cod-style homes.

New young families say they want bigger homes and the Prairie Village location is ideal — good schools, walkability, plentiful trees and parks, close access to Prairie Village shops and proximity to Kansas City and other metro area suburbs.

Because the existing homes are small, they’re less expensive to buy and tear down than larger homes elsewhere in Johnson County.

Brinkerhoff, 89, moved with her husband and two daughters into their home in 1969, and she treasures the area. Her grandson and 8-year-old great granddaughter live just two doors away. She agrees it’s a “wonderful place to raise children.”

She wants good relations with all her neighbors and she has that. But she was concerned when a two-story detached garage went up right next to her backyard.

“I’m concerned about this being so close,” she said, gazing at the garage that overshadows her wooden back fence. “It’s just too big for that lot.”

She wonders about the drainage impact to her yard and says the city should consider some restrictions in the future.

Jordan acknowledged that outbuildings such as the garage behind Brinkerhoff’s house can be quite close to the neighboring property line.

Prairie Village codes officials checked, and that garage behind Brinkerhoff’s house is legal under current city code. It can’t be a mother-in-law quarters, but if it’s just used for office or storage, a two-story structure is allowed.

McGovern lives in a two-bedroom 1950s house across the street from Brinkerhoff and is surrounded by well-kept two-bedroom homes. She laments that the second floor of the Bettenhausen’s four-bedroom home looks straight down into her backyard.

“There’s no privacy,” she said. She says some neighbors have chosen to sell (for $150,000 to $200,000) and others have received solicitations to sell. With the new homes, she worries about rising property values and taxes. She doesn’t want to move.

“Where else would we go for the money?” she asked. “I’ve lived here like half my life, so I just want it to stop.”

But Jim Lambie, owner of Lambie Custom Homes, the primary builder in the area, says he builds high-quality replacement homes with enough bedrooms and other amenities, plus two-car garages, to meet a modern family’s needs.

“If you look at the ones I’ve built, they look nice next to the smaller homes,” Lambie said. “It doesn’t make them feel out of place. Some do, but mine don’t.”

He did his first Prairie Village teardown for his daughter and her family a few years ago and then started getting calls from her friends, in their mid-30s.

“All these younger kids can’t afford to live in Mission Hills,” he said. “They want to be in Prairie Village and love the schools and walking distance of the village. They all want to move in there and never want to move again. It’s their forever home.”

He said the first house he bought was $110,000, but it’s now hard to get anything under $200,000. With the new house, the properties are then worth $650,000 to about $1 million.

He said he’s built about eight homes in recent years and has 10 more lots. He’s done a few in Roeland Park, two in Merriam, has another vacant lot in Merriam and just bought a property in Fairway.

From Lambie’s perspective, cities can either grow and adapt to young families or stagnate and the schools start to close. “So it’s kind of getting rejuvenated, which is good for the neighborhood. Cities all over town wish they had this problem,” he said.

Bettenhausen said he and his family love their four-bedroom, two-car-garage home built by Lambie in the style of a 1903 California bungalow, with a big front porch. He said if they weren’t able to build in Prairie Village, they would have had to move out south or west, where some of their friends have gone.

“If you said tomorrow there shall be no more new construction in Prairie Village, I feel like you’re really turning away a lot of citizens who bring a lot of great things to Prairie Village,” he said.

“I really think one of the lovely things about Prairie Village right now is we have a good diversity of housing stock, so that folks from all walks of life can live together here.”

Other cities

The teardown phenomenon has picked up especially since 2010, also affecting Fairway, Mission Hills and old Leawood. Mission Hills had 16 between 2010 and 2014, then eight in 2015, four in 2016 and two so far this year.

Leawood has averaged about 20 per year over the past five years. Fairway had 44 between 2003 and 2013, but then the pace picked up even faster, with 47 since 2014, including 13 so far this year.

Roeland Park officials say they are just starting to see the trend and are trying to get out ahead of it. City Administrator Keith Moody said Roeland Park isn’t dealing so much with teardowns and replacements on one tiny lot as it is seeing instances where small homes on more than one lot are replaced by larger homes.

He said the city is just starting to look at possible new construction regulations to deal with things like green space, additional runoff, home size and height, plus sport courts or outdoor sport facilities.

Fairway city administrator Nathan Nogelmeier said teardowns have been a hot topic in his city for about 10 years, but the city has been proactive in adopting regulations to promote green space, keep architectural designs reasonably consistent with surrounding homes, and require window and door openings so side walls aren’t just one big mass.

Leawood has had more than 100 teardowns in the past five years, reflecting its prime location, said Community Development Director Richard Coleman.

“A lot of times, the land value is worth more than the house,” he said. “When that occurs, then it’s worth it for someone to tear the house down and rebuild new.”

He said homes worth $200,000 to $300,000 have been replaced by homes valued at $800,000 to more than $1 million.

“Our ordinance tries to mitigate the impacts, while still allowing people to build their homes to accommodate new young families,” Coleman said. “Not everybody is completely happy, but it does a pretty good job of allowing new homes but not allowing giant mansions.”

Coleman said Leawood doesn’t allow detached garages like the one Brinkerhoff is concerned about in her Prairie Village neighborhood.

“We don’t allow garages that are fully detached from the main structure,” he said.

That type of issue could be revisited in Prairie Village as well, said Chris Brewster, a Gould Evans plan consultant who has advised Prairie Village on the teardowns guidelines. He said the question of detached garages wasn’t discussed in the past “but it might be addressed going forward.

“We have heard of those concerns,” he said. “Yes, the rules may change.”

Jordan says Prairie Village has already made progress, and his goal is to find a good compromise on design standards going forward.

“Our goal is not to have a council chamber filled with angry people,” he said. “From where we started, we gained a lot of ground in my opinion. I think we can do more, without sinking the boat or causing rioting in the streets.”

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley

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