Battery Park is the kind of place where strollers and Labradoodles abound on tree-lined sidewalks. But increasingly, so do excavators and bulldozers.
Beneath the bonhomie in this Bethesda neighborhood, sandwiched between Old Georgetown Road and Wilson Lane, tension simmers over the growing number of homes getting torn down and replaced with multimillion-dollar McMansions.
Two years ago, my family and I moved into our 1930s brick Cape Cod in the neighborhood, and I always thought I knew which side of the battle I was on. I was firmly on the side of the small but well preserved prewar homes standing firm against the encroachment of these new behemoths with open floor plans, elaborate master suites and two-car garages.
But lately I’ve been having my doubts.
This mostly upper-middle-class neighborhood was originally a haven for World War I veterans who served in the same artillery battery and settled next door to each other. There are fewer than 200 houses on these streets with names such as Park Lane and Glenbrook Road. Most of the houses have the small closets and tight layouts that were in vogue at the time and are being swiftly replaced by houses with Viking kitchen appliances and fully finished basement playrooms that dwarf our own living room.
In the two years since we’ve lived here, within a two block radius of our house, five houses recently have been, or will soon be, demolished. Up the street on Maple Ridge Road, two more are undergoing gut jobs.
What’s happening in my neighborhood isn’t unique. Whether it’s Capitol Hill rowhouses getting flipped into condos or luxury apartments sprouting in Tysons, all of Washington is changing rapidly. And developers have every reason to come to Battery Park — the Zip code’s median 2014 sales price of $447,000 has so far increased more than 17 percent in 2015 to $525,000. It has desirable schools and walkability to downtown Bethesda. Its aging housing stock makes it especially compelling to builders.
Derek Huetinck, managing partner of BeaconCrest Homes, a company currently erecting four houses in Bethesda, puts it bluntly: “There generally isn’t very much charm or value in what we’re demolishing.” He says a house “that has outlived its useful life” should be replaced with something “shiny and new.”
I would have taken Huetinck’s explanation personally several months ago, when I used to sigh as I walked by these construction sites that were seemingly engulfing us. But now that our kids are getting older and our space feels tighter, I can see the benefits of these “shiny and new” homes.
Although my husband and I like taking our two toddlers on walks to the farmers market at Bethesda Elementary School on the weekends and for strolls to the playground around the corner, I’ve found myself growing increasingly frustrated trying to navigate our living room without stepping on a toy, cramming clothes into closets that seem to grow smaller by the day, and making do with no garage. As much as I hate to say it, I’m starting to lose my allegiance to these older homes.
That’s not because I want to see our neighborhood turn into a cookie-cutter development, but it’s because I see the ease that something as simple as a mudroom can provide, especially with kids and a dog.
Glenn Carle, who sold his 1,800-square-foot Dutch Colonial in Battery Park to owners who knocked it down, is clearly on the side of these original homes. After a bidding war, the former CIA officer sold the three-bedroom house in 2013 for $895,000 and was furious to see it razed. He says he had no idea that was the buyer’s intention and would have sold to the second-highest bidder had he known their plan was to tear down the house he had bought in 2006 and brought up his two children from their middle school to high school years.
He fondly recalls how almost every winter night he would build fires in his living room fireplace and how he and his family grew vegetables in their back yard. That garden is now largely swallowed up by a much larger house, and he argues that some builders are “lacking in soul.”
“The houses in Battery Park are almost all pre-World War II construction, which is more solid and has a historical aesthetic and harmony and integrity to it which is different from a modern house that is designed first to provide a parking garage for the cars,” he says, still exasperated by the ordeal. “Then you design a living space around that garage, so you have these philistine cultural encrustations that have no taste whatsoever.”
Carle has since moved to Boston, but he worries that the uniqueness of his old neighborhood is being destroyed one house at a time. “It’s the closest thing to a New England town in the Washington area,” he says. His house, he says, was “one of the original homes in the development of Battery Park. It had character; it was approaching 100 years old. You come in with a McMansion, and these things are just boils. It’s nice to have a big chair and an IMAX screen in your den, but, nonetheless, it’s tasteless.”
He concedes that his beloved Battery Park doesn’t deserve special historic designation, it merely needs to stay the same or as close to the same as possible. The quirks of these older homes give Battery Park its charm, Carle argues, and the uniformity of these new houses strips away the character. “That is why Europe is charming and America consists of strip malls,” he added.
The new owners of Carle’s former property declined to comment for this article. Absent a specific inquiry by the seller prior to the contract being finalized, buyers are under no legal obligation to disclose their intended use of the property to the seller, according to Robert Gratz, an attorney at Paragon Title in Bethesda. Although it’s considerate, it is not a requirement.
Anna Fierst has lived in the neighborhood since 1993 and has raised her two children there. She also happens to be a descendent of American royalty: She is a great-granddaughter of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. She says she loves the balance among retirees, semi-retirees and young families in the neighborhood. “There are generally a lot of people around here, even during the day,” she says. “There’s a conservative feeling, not politically, but socially. There’s a cohesiveness to people; people really know each other here.”
Fierst, an active member of the Battery Park Citizens Association for five years, is on Carle’s side in the debate. She says she has noticed more teardowns since 2010.
“I understand that people want a little more space, but these houses are dwarfing and casting a lot of shadow on other people’s yards,” Fierst says. Because of a “sun deficit,” she adds, some people can no longer grow what they used to grow in their gardens because “all of a sudden they’ve got this monstrous house looming over them.” Fierst says she envies anyone who is in a position to buy his neighbor’s house so it won’t be sold to a developer.
But builders say luxurious McMansions benefit everyone in the area — even disgruntled neighbors — by lifting all home values. “The pendulum swings when they’re ready to sell their house,” says Mimi Kress, chief operating officer of high-end, Bethesda-based Sandy Spring Builders. “And they’re only-oh-so-happy that their neighbor’s house went for so much more.”
William Cawood lived in a three-bedroom, 1936 Colonial on Park Lane in Battery Park for 15 years. It’s where he raised his three children. Unlike Carle, Cawood says he understands the desire for new construction. His 1,500-square-foot house sold to a developer last year for more than three times what he paid in 1999. A 5,000-square-foot, five-bedroom, with an original asking price of $2.2 million, now stands in its place. (The price has since been lowered to $1.949 million.)
Cawood is an architect who has worked on teardowns for clients. He says he tried to sell his house to a family but none were interested, mostly because of its original small kitchen. This wasn’t surprising: “As an architect I put in a lot of kitchens, and I would never sell a client on that kitchen.”
If a builder hadn’t come along, Cawood says, he would have had to lower his asking price.
Still, he concedes feeling a little low when a former neighbor e-mailed him a photo of the house being demolished. The image made the structure look like nothing more than a child’s dollhouse. “It’s sad to see that big, huge bite taken out of it,” he says. “I’d been there a long time, and there were some long looks back.”
Cawood and his family left the crowded suburb and moved to a large stone farmhouse in Leesburg. Their new house is no McMansion — it was built in 1740, nearly 200 years before the house on Park Lane — but it sits on 6½ acres, a drastic change from their 7,250-square-foot lot in Bethesda. His wife always wanted animals; now they have a horse, two ponies and a cow.
Other neighbors brace for what they see as inevitable. Marjorie Perloff, a program director at the National Cancer Institute, bought her Dutch Colonial in 1994 and raised her two children there. She says she remembers when most of the people on her street had kids the same age as hers, and they would play on each other’s lawns all summer.
When I ask how she would feel if a builder knocked down her house, she shrugs and says: “I’m not in love with my house.” After a pause, she adds: “But I know [not caring] is a defense, because I’m sort of afraid that it’s coming, and I’m trying to prepare myself. The new houses that are being built are so unimaginative.”
Perloff says her daughter hopes to inherit the family home one day — so she can tear it down and build a bigger one with an open floor plan. “If she can afford to do that, and that was her choice, then that would be fine,” her mother insists.
For now, though, Perloff says she would not sell to a developer unless she was offered a very high price. She doesn’t know how much exactly but says it would have to be higher than the $800,000 to $1.2 million that older houses typically go for.
I never forget how lucky my family and I are to live here. I love our three wood-burning fireplaces, and I’ve even grown accustomed to our creaky floors.
But the allure of a mammoth open kitchen, a two-car garage and a walk-in closet in the master bedroom is hard to ignore.
These sterile, user-friendly McMansions are looking better to me every day. Unlike our friend and neighbor Marjorie, I think we could come up with a price.
Kate Andersen Brower is a freelance writer and author of “The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House.”