Monday, April 16, 2007

Progress or problems?

I've been meaning to post some images of changes going on across the alley from us for some time and yesterday I finally got around to taking the "after" picture.

Our neighbors catty-corner across the alley bought the house directly across the alley from us some months back and in January or so told us they were taking the fence down as the starting point for some renovations and additions to the house. We park one of our cars in a spot just off the alley and it was thoughtful of them to notify us of the work beforehand so we could move our car out of the possible danger zone. We knew that they were also planning to cut down the trees (most of little value except as greenery) but we really weren't prepared for what happened.

Here's what the alley looked like before.

And here's what it looked like yesterday.

Quite a change.

In my long-winded way, a little background:

When we moved into this house nearly 13 years ago, the alley was part of the attraction, both because of the availability of off-street parking and because it was such an overgrown, leafy-green tunnel. At the time, the alley itself was hard-packed caliche and gravel and, although probably half our alley-mates used it to access parking, it saw little traffic. Our kids and the neighbors played back there, learned to ride their bikes back there.

Five years ago the city-owned electric utility cleared trees under and around the electric lines that run on poles down the alley. In our backyard (the rear 10 feet of which is an easement) they cut down a large number of hackberries, mostly smallish but one fairly large. Around the same time they resurfaced the alley with asphalt. The alley was less shady but also less muddy after heavy rain and much improved for bike riding.

We took the opportunity of more sunlight to plant a Texas pistache (Pistacia texana) on one side and a tecoma stans (the yellow variety) and a Pride of Barbados (Caesalpinia pulcherrima), both of which tolerate extremes of heat and drought. That bed has done well and has, in fact, been expanded post-construction. Earlier this spring we thought about putting a Texas redbud (Cercis canadensis var. texensis) into the expanded area.

Then our neighbors started the work across the alley and we're having to reconsider.

When the parking lot went in — concrete lotline to lotline — we were shocked. The shock has worn off a bit but then the actual work on the house started.

If you enlarge the "after" image you can see that they've taken off part of the roof and are, apparently, planning a second-story addition. That addition will have, we think, an excellent view of our backyard. Hence the reconsideration of our back bed plantings. Maybe we need something bigger, taller (but not so tall the city will want to come cut it down in a few years) and preferably something that keeps its leaves in the winter. Something like the pistache.

But that would mean losing the yellow bells (Tecoma stans) and the PoB, which are both in the way and need quite a bit of sun. And I don't want to block the western sun from my long bed since those plants are also mostly sunlovers.

We'll probably wait and see what happens before we make a decision about revamping the whole bed but the situation has inspired a lot of thought about how powerless we are regarding what happens in our immediate surroundings. We have created a house and a garden that we love but something our neighbors do could change our whole experience of those spaces.

Our area has been in the midst of a serious real estate boom for years now. We are close-in, about one mile south of downtown, an attractive neighborhood of trees and hills with a long park running beside the banks of a creek straight through the middle. The original houses are a mix of mostly small two-bedrooms and a few much larger houses; the larger houses were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s (some of the first built on the south side of the Colorado River; downtown and the Capitol are to the north), while the smaller ones mostly date from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, with unbuilt lots filling in since then.

We've been here for nearly 25 years (which explains why we can afford to be here now) and have witnessed a lot of changes but the last few years have been extreme. Starting two or three years ago we finally started seeing the teardowns that have plagued other similar neighborhoods here and elsewhere. Developers bought vacant lots or smaller, run-down houses and in their stead built enormous monoliths, some as large as 4,000 square feet, on fairly small lots. Some of those structures were the impetus for a new city ordinance passed last year that became known as the McMansion ordinance. I'm not an expert on the details but I know it applies to central city, older neighborhoods where smaller houses were being overwhelmed by out-of-scale newer structures. The ordinance limits the size and height of both new houses and additions more strictly than the previous ordinance and, while some of us applaud it and hope it will help maintain the character of these older neighborhoods, it has been controversial.

We built an addition to our house last year (designed and permitted before the new ordinance was initiated) and we felt a responsiblity not to build something that would tower over our neighbors or intrude more than was absolutely necessary on their ability to enjoy their outdoor spaces. I don't mean to be too self-congratulatory but I think we succeeded in that goal. It was an important part of the process for us.

I suppose we knew all along that others might not have the same attitude. We've witnessed that all over the neighborhood so why not next door to us? Of course, we don't know for sure what our across-the-alley neighbors are planning (although we have been analysing their building permit, available on-line) but we've now started pondering the implications of the duplex next door to us on the north. Prime development potential, we now see. Rental units in the neighborhood have disappeared as house prices have gone up (we both moved to the neighborhood initially as renters) and the lot is surely worth a fortune, while the duplex itself is rather dumpy. If it was razed and a new structure — even one meeting the McMansion ordinance requirements — replaced it, it would overlook our backyard and our up-to-now lovely and private new porch.

Yesterday we were talking about calling the duplex owner (who doesn't live there) and telling her that, if she ever decides to sell, we'd like to make an offer. Then at least it would be in our control. I don't know that we could afford such a step but at least then I wouldn't be considering the need for a 10-foot-tall hedge along the north edge of my garden.


Annie in Austin said...

No answers, but I sure can empathize with you, Susan - and wish your leafy tunnel could have stayed. When I was young the leafy tunnels were Elm trees that met over residential streets, all lost to Dutch Elm Disease.

If you turn to fencing at some point, we saw some interesting ideas when on the Austin Pond Society Tour last year. One ponder used an ordinary 6-foot wooden fence as a background with taller trellises constructed on the inside of the fence. Once the vines got growing, it gave a look of a tall hedge without needing so much planting area at ground level. For the people passing by on the outside it was very attractive, colorful and even fragrant.

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

Susan said...

Annie — I really like the idea of trellis/vine "hedges." I can imagine some climbing rose as a hedge, something with a lovely scent like Zephrine Drouhin (which I've always wanted; they used to have one at Barton Springs Nursery, huge, with lovely flowers and a heavenly scent. Maybe you all will have some ideas this weekend. See you then.

LostRoses said...

Well, Susan, this sounds like a good case for the old adage "good fences make good neighbors". That's quite a startling change and rather tough to take. Pop-tops and tear-downs are a big issue in a lot of Denver neighborhoods too, and have engendered a lot of hard feelings, and a few new restrictions. Even though you were conscientious about your remodel it sure doesn't mean everyone is, unfortunately. I like Annie's idea of the trellis hedges too.

Yolanda Elizabet said...

Oh dear, this is not nice at all. In the Netherlands we are with many people living in a very small country so we have rules and regulations about this sort of thing. No one is allowed to built a house in such a way that the privacy of their neighbours is in any way compromised.

I'm sorry that your leafy tunnel is gone but I like Annie's idea a lot.

Vivé said...

So sorry you're dealing with this. I, too, can sympathize. We're waiting with our breath held to see what happens next door to us--where the property was purchased, the house razed, and the remaining triple lot left to grow full of weeds while they figure out what's next--and behind us, where a change in zoning will probably mean condos, if not a Blockbuster video. Sigh. I've got privacy fences on the horizon too.

I'm thrilled that you introduced me to the Zephirine...however. Now that the wall is painted, it's read for trellises and things that climb. I would have missed this altogether.

Did you see that movie Friends with Money? I didn't like it overall, but there's a scene where Catherine Keener's character, fully absorbed in her house renovation, goes into the under-construction room upstairs and realizes she's blocked the views of all of her neighbors, something that in her self-absorption she didn't even think about until that moment. There was something very honest in that. It's good that you guys considered the neighbors when you added on. Too bad we can't count on everyone to do that...

M Sinclair Stevens (Austin) said...

I live across Congress Ave from you and our neighborhood is undergoing the same razing. It used to be that people moved here because they wanted to live in a funky little cottage, on a big lot with old trees. Lot's of people like us, with small families, don't need huge houses, and don't want to live in cookie-cutter suburban houses.

But now developers are snapping up the smaller houses and instead of updating them, they simply bulldoze them and build monstrous houses to the lot lines. I showed a couple to my son the other demonstrate how his old 'hood is changing, and he said, "Why would anyone want to live in a house like that?" Exactly!

I'm not sure that the McMansion ordinance accomplished anything. I suppose it could be worse but I haven't seen any slowdown in the destruction since it passed.

I don't really understand the attitude of buying a house just to tear it down. These people don't care about being neighbors or living in our neighborhood at all; they're so used to instant, pre-packaged development...the kind of thing that I moved away from Las Vegas to escape.

mss @ Zanthan Gardens