Hillcrest Fights Teardowns

In May 2005, John Selva bought a dilapidated house in Little Rock's Hillcrest neighborhood to save it from being torn down.
Selva, 30, said a developer had his eye on the four-bedroom, 2,800-SF home and the one adjacent with the idea of razing both and replacing them with condominiums.
Selva, an executive broker at Crye-Leike Realtors in Little Rock, plopped down $125,000 to buy the home at 1620 Kavanaugh, halting the developers' plans.
"We weren't looking to buy something like that. [But] we didn't want to see that house get torn down. That's how much we care about anti-teardown," said Selva, who runs a Web site called savehillcrest.org. "It just destroys the fabric of what is Hillcrest. It's like if you have great-grandmother's quilt that she made, somebody comes along and just rips it in half."
Selva and a group of other Hillcrest residents have been disturbed by the progression of teardowns — existing houses razed and replaced with new construction — in the neighboring Heights area. Between 1990 and 2005, at least seven homes in the Heights were torn down and replaced with larger homes, casting a shadow over the traditionally smaller houses.
Last week, the Hillcrest Residents Association approved a draft ordinance that would create a "design overlay district" in the residential neighborhoods between University Avenue on the west and Woodrow Street on the east and between Markham Street on the south and Lookout Street on the north.
The proposal calls for capping the square footage of a new house depending on the lot size. For example, a new house built on a 7,000-SF lot — the average size in Hillcrest — would be limited to 2,600 SF on one level or 3,500 SF on two.
The proposed ordinance also says that maximum lot coverage, or the percentage of lot area occupied by the footprint of the home, can't exceed 50 percent. (The ground floor of the house could cover 37 percent of the lot and 13 percent would be allowed for the garage.)
This is significantly more restrictive than existing zoning restrictions, which require setbacks of 25 feet in front and back and 5 feet on each side. There is also a height limit of 35 feet, or about two stories. On an average Hillcrest lot, those restrictions would allow a two-story house of as much as 7,200 SF.
The proposed ordinance will go to the Little Rock Planning Commission for consideration. If the Planning Commis-sion approves, it will then head to the Little Rock Board of Directors for a vote.
The trend of tearing down old homes and replacing them with larger ones is sweeping communities across the country.
"Teardowns wreck neighborhoods," Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation of Washington, D.C., said in a speech in June. "They spread through a community like a cancer, destroying the character and livability that are a neighborhood's lifeblood. I believe teardowns represent the biggest threat to America's older neighborhoods since the heyday of urban renewal and interstate highway construction during the 1950s and '60s."
Opposition Heard
But not everyone supports the move to preserve the old homes.
Preventing teardowns and implementing an overlay district could ultimately destroy Hillcrest, said Gary Pursell, who owns Pursell Construction Inc. of Little Rock and has razed and built homes in Hillcrest.
"The problem with Hillcrest right now is they're pretty much running everybody off that has the ability, skill and knowledge to help refurbish Hillcrest," he said.
He said the price of the homes in Hillcrest had risen to between $130 and $170 per SF, and buyers aren't willing to pay those prices only to then have to spend thousands more to fix up the houses. In many cases, he said, it would be cheaper to raze a house and replace it — but only if the new house is big enough to spread the cost around. Otherwise, Pursell said, a new 1,900-SF house could end up costing a prohibitive $500 per SF.
"They're looking at 'Save the neighborhood; save Hillcrest,' " Pursell said. "Well, you know, there's a fine line on how you go about doing it."
Selva said he probably would drop another $150,000 repairing everything from the roof to the foundation of his Hillcrest home. But he said razing and rebuilding the house would cost him about the same total amount.
Pursell said most people wouldn't want to invest in refurbishing a 1,900-SF house when they could tear it down and start over and have a bigger house.
"Then what happens is, the people that are willing to put money into Hillcrest will go somewhere else, where they can get their money back," he said.
Without new investments, property values will fall in Hillcrest, Pursell said.
"There are a lot of houses that are already too far gone," he said.
Changing Times
When James Metzger moved into Hillcrest 27 years ago, the neighborhood was in transition.
"You'd see a lot of houses that haven't been worked on very much but are still interesting, attractive houses," said the 57-year-old Metzger, who also works in Hillcrest at Histecon Associates Inc. "And then sometime in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it clearly took off. In the last 10 to 15 years, you don't see as many absentee landlord issues in Hillcrest."
Now the area is hot because it's close to downtown and the property values are good. But Metzger became troubled when he noticed some homes were being bought, torn down and much bigger homes put up in their place.
One case in particular caught his eye.
In 2004, Lagniappe Ventures Inc., led by Pursell, bought a 4,400-SF home on the one-acre lot at 4400 I St. for $330,000 and proceeded to tear it down.
Lagniappe divided the lot into three home sites and started to build, but Hillcrest neighbors complained to the Little Rock Planning Commission.
"They wanted to limit us to a certain lot coverage and a certain building height," said Cathy Pursell, Gary's Pursell's wife. "They didn't understand the way the ordinances read. ... So when we got our first house erected over there, they were like, 'Oh my God, That thing is too tall.' "
Cathy Pursell said the height was fine, but the amount of space the house was going to take up on the lot was larger than what the Pursells had agreed to with the city of Little Rock before they built.
Gary Pursell said he agreed to keep the footprint of the first home to 32 percent of the lot size to receive approval for a "planned residential development." But then, he said, he forgot he agreed to it. And after the frame was up, the building covered 42 percent of the lot.
Instead of tearing down the frame of the house, the Pursells negotiated with the city to complete the first house as planned but agreed to reduce the height of the future homes on the rest of the site. The home is about 80 percent complete. Gary Pursell said that once the house was finished, it would be sold. The other two homes will be sold after they're built.
The phenomenon of teardowns had already occurred in the Heights, taking residents by surprise, said Mitch Jansonius, who has owned the Heights Gallery on Kavanaugh Boulevard for some 30 years. He said he didn't think Heights residents tried to stop the teardown phenomenon.
Jansonius said more Hillcrest residents tended to be activists and that they tended to be more protective of their neighborhood than their Heights counterparts.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation became aware of teardowns about four years ago, and now it's become a national trend, said Adrian Fine, director of the northeast field office in Philadelphia.
When older homes are torn down, their replacements are often out of scale with the rest of the neighborhood, he said.
Teardowns can eradicate the essential character of entire neighborhoods, Fine said. "We're not opposed to doing new construction ... but it's just the way that you do it."
The National Trust for Historic Preservation is trying to teach developers and homeowners the benefits of preserving historic homes. But Fine said action needed to be taken locally, not at the federal level.
Save the Neighborhood
Metzger, Selva and a few other supporters of preserving Hillcrest came together in 2005 and started developing ideas about ways to prevent teardowns in the neighborhood, which has approximately 3,000 houses.
At first homeowners thought that Hillcrest's status as a historic district protected it against teardowns. But that isn't the case.
"And if too many homes get torn down, then the area will lose its historic designation," Selva said.
When people learned the older homes could be razed, neighborhood meetings on preserving the area gained momentum, Metzger said. The idea of creating a board to review each new home project was considered and rejected.
"Historically, this neighborhood has not wanted to have that kind of separate review," Metzger said. "They didn't want another layer of bureaucracy over what kind of house they build."
Homeowners thought the best solution was to create the overlay district.
"You still [would not be able to] prevent somebody from going downtown and getting a demolition permit and tearing [a house] down," Selva said.
Nor would the district dictate the style or building materials used in a replacement home. It would, however, limit the size of the new structure.
Developer Pursell said that capping house sizes was unnecessarily restrictive.
Pursell and his wife, Cathy, renovated a 1904 Sears Craftsman home in the Heights, enlarging it from 1,800 SF to 2,800 SF, but, from the outside, it looks the same as the original. The couple was able to put living space in the attic.
Many homebuyers are looking for space and amenities that the older homes in Hillcrest simply don't offer, Cathy Pursell said. "They want closets. They want a kitchen and a den."
If they're not able to get the bigger house in Hillcrest, they'll go somewhere else, she said.
But Metzger said that people looking for an 8,000-SF home should look elsewhere.
"That's not what Hillcrest has been," he said. "Part of it is why it's on the Historic Register. It looks different. It is not Chenal in midtown. It has its own character."