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Correction to This Article
A photo caption in the April 2 Real Estate section incorrectly said that a house in Arlington had been moved to make way for new construction. As the accompanying story said, that house was demolished.

Subdivide and Conquer

Push to Replace Houses On Multiple Lots Shifts to Close-In Neighborhoods

By Sandra Fleishman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 2, 2005; Page F01

When word circulated last fall that a builder planned to demolish a century-old house in North Arlington and build two big houses in its place, more than three dozen families in the Westover neighborhood rallied to try to save it.

The "Yellow House," as neighbors called it, was a beloved landmark, according to a petition signed by 350 nearby residents. A one-time general store, with a sunny yellow-and-white exterior, a rare two-story porch and double front door, it had long served as an anchor for the community, they said, and its loss would be "devastating."


In North Arlington, the house at left was moved from its multiple lot and, in its place, other houses are under construction. A 2002 study shows that more than 200 communities in 20 states are struggling with the issue of "teardowns." (Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

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But the house also sat smack in the middle of two legal building lots. And the neighbors' efforts to spare it, either by convincing the builder to move it over to one of the two lots or to move it to a new location, just couldn't compete with what two big new houses could fetch, the builder said.

The two sides disagree over whether the house needed to come down, but they agree on why it happened: It wasn't about the house; it was about the double lot. The demand for land in the Washington area is so intense and the value so high that those who own houses sitting on double, triple or larger lots are under more pressure than ever to sell.

Real estate agents, small and medium-size builders, land brokers and developers have been calling and writing property owners in close-in neighborhoods for some time with offers to buy. And those with smaller homes on lots that can be subdivided into two or more pieces "by right," or without going through any zoning process, are considered the jackpot.

The rights go back many decades to when the houses were first built and situated in the middle of large pieces of land that were officially recorded as separate lots. That was a common practice in many older jurisdictions in the region. The owners built that way to provide for a side yard or gardening space or to keep some distance from neighbors.

"For many years it was not at all unusual for one house to have four lots" in many towns in Montgomery County, said Gwen Wright, historic preservation supervisor for the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission. "Now there are folks saying those lots have value and I want to sell them."

But as the demand grows, historic preservation advocates say more historic or near-historic sites like the Yellow House will disappear because preservation efforts are lagging behind the wrecking balls and because home buyers so often prize size over neighborhood charm.

"It's a scary thing . . . but we're going to lose a whole period of houses, I think, because we're still fighting the battles to save 19th-century and turn-of-the-20th-century [properties] while buildings from the early- to mid-20th century are being lost on a daily basis," Wright said.

Montgomery County has been designating potential historic districts and individual buildings since the 1970s, Wright added, but the commission's mandate was to focus on properties from the 18th and 19th centuries.

The commission hasn't "looked to see what might need protection from the early 20th century on," she said. "But by the time we do, it'll be too late."

The push to replace houses sitting on multiple lots "is a national trend," said Adrian Fine, director of the New England field office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "And it's just one aspect of the teardown and redevelopment trend."

Tensions over "teardowns" and "mansionization" used to occur only "either in really high-end real estate markets, such as in cities, or in high-end resort communities," Fine said, "but in the last five years, we've seen this happening in very modest or middle-income neighborhoods and in inner-ring suburbs."

Home buyers, he said, are looking for close-in locations because they're tired of long commutes and because they like the character and charm of older neighborhoods and the closeness of amenities such as shopping and movie theaters that were built as the suburbs boomed after World War II. "But the rub is that often what they're bringing is a change in character to those areas," Fine said.


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