How much house can fit on 50 feet?

David Valentine calls his house, on the right, “The Middle” because two larger homes have been constructed next to him. (Photo by Lisa Kaczke – Sun Newspapers)

David Valentine has started calling his house in northwestern Edina “The Middle.”

His 1952 rambler has become the small house sandwiched between two-story houses constructed in the past year. The house currently under construction to the south of Valentine’s house sits seven feet from his house, extends 25 feet longer than his house and the second story windows look down into his fenced backyard.

“They’ve taken any privacy I have and voided it. It’s right in my face. And what can I do about it?” he said.

He’ll soon look out his front windows at larger homes also, as one house across the street is expected to have a second story added to it and another is being sold to a builder to tear down.

Valentine said he can get over the noise and inconvenience of the construction. What he can’t get past is the effect the larger houses will have on the neighborhood as more one-story homes from the 1950s are torn down and larger ones fill their places on the 50-foot lots.

He’s not against new houses, but he said it’s unfair that people from outside the neighborhoods are making decisions about how Edina’s neighborhoods will look.

“It’s like they came and just threw this at me and said, ‘Whether you like it not,’” he said of the larger houses around his.

Edina has broken its record of how many building permits it annually issues, which in turn, has caused the number of complaints the city receives about house construction projects to increase.

As of Oct. 31, the city has issued 85 permits in 2012 with five more permits pending. Only one permit issued this year has been for a home to be built on a vacant lot, according to City Manager Scott Neal.

Edina was second among metro cities in November with 155 residential units permitted, according to the Builders Association of the Twin Cities. Minneapolis came in ahead of Edina with 735 permitted units.

The permits are expected to bring in an extra $300,000 in revenue for the city this year, according to Neal. Mayor Jim Hovland told residents at a Nov. 10 town hall meeting that the increased revenue isn’t a primary motivation of the city, according to meeting minutes.

As of Oct. 31, Edina’s revenue for all permits, which includes permits for items like plumbing and heating projects, is $2.3 million, Finance Director John Wallin said. At the same point in 2011, the city had received $1.75 million in revenue from building permits. The revenue from building permits goes into the city’s general fund.

Planning Director Cary Teague said the increase in house reconstruction projects is due to the positive turn in the economy and people’s desire to live in Edina.

The number of building permits issued by the city has rebounded since the low point of 14 permits in 2009. Fifty-two permits were issued in 2011 and 31 were issued in 2010, according to Teague.

Every time the number of building permits picks up, the city receives a lot of feedback and calls for the city to regulate the construction more, Teague said.

Hovland said the key is finding the balance of new and existing residents doing teardowns without adversely affecting the neighborhood.

Councilmember Josh Sprague said residents become “unnerved” whenever a boom happens like the one Edina is experiencing now because they see the character of their neighborhood changing.

The younger families like the newer houses while older residents who have spent decades in Edina see it as alarming, he said. He added the teardown trend in Edina can be positive because people considering a move to Edina see the turnover in the housing needs and a more modern inventory.

Style and needs change in houses and the market should fill that need, he said.

“I don’t want to stop the market from giving people what they want,” he said.

The city council doesn’t regulate the style of houses, but wants to control the massing of homes and the setbacks, he said.

The last time city officials considered changes to the ordinance was in 2006 and 2007. The problem a few years ago was the size of homes being built on 75-foot lots, which the city addressed, Hovland said.

The complaints the city is receiving now are about houses being built on 50-foot lots because that market is now being developed, Hovland said.

The Planning Commission is taking a look at what can be built on a 50-foot lot in a work-in-progress construction management plan.

The management plan would consider different aspects of a construction project, including where builders can park, hours of operation, and a builder’s contact information being posted at the site so neighbors will know whom to contact if there’s a problem, Teague said.

Hovland added that the study will take into consideration design elements, setbacks, lot coverage, runoff, retaining walls, and the removal of trees on properties.

The study will come to the Edina City Council for consideration once it’s completed.

The council wants to ensure the homes are fitting the context of the neighborhood and maintaining the same price point as the neighborhood, Hovland said. He added, “We need to move on this.”


Although the house reconstructions are scattered around Edina, most of the complaints the city receives come from the Morningside neighborhood in northeastern Edina, Teague said.

In neighborhoods with 50-foot lots, houses are tight together and residents may end up with two to three homes being constructed on one block.

“It gets to be a lot to live with,” Teague said.

Residents recognize that some of Morningside’s houses are old and outdated, but they still want the character of the neighborhood to remain the same, Hovland said.

Residents are also concerned that the new houses being built will increase the neighborhood’s home prices into the seven-figures range, which changes who can afford to live in Morningside, he said.

Sprague said he understands where the complaints are coming from because residents are alarmed at how many properties are changing on their streets.

He pointed out that the northeast quadrant has most of the teardowns because it offers what homebuyers are looking for: walkability to nearby destinations and a sense of community.

When Sarah Hardy’s family moved from Portland, Ore., to Edina, they decided they wanted to live in the Morningside neighborhood because it was an organized neighborhood where people were out and engaged, and it had the walkability similar to where they lived in Portland.

They tried to buy a house that already existed in the neighborhood, but were crestfallen when they didn’t get the house they bid on, she said.

During their search to buy a house, they eventually reached a point where the money they would spend to buy a house was the same as what they would spend to buy a house, tear it down and build a new house that was designed with everything they wanted and needed.

“The math worked for us,” she said.

They picked a lot in Morningside that gave them the illusion of space. The house on the lot looked “tired” – it had been moved to the property and awkwardly added onto several times.

“The house we tore down was truly a tear downer,” she said.

Since moving in last December, she’s learned from attending neighborhood meetings how impacted the neighborhood has been by projects like her house, she said.

“I know we caused some headaches and I regret that,” she said. Despite that, her family has been welcomed into the neighborhood, she said.

They had a good builder who communicated with the neighbors, she said.

When it comes to sensitivity to the neighborhood and communication with the neighbors, “not every builder is the same and not every employee for a builder is the same,” she said.

The issue of what Hardy calls “builder fatigue” in Morningside was the topic of the neighborhood association’s annual meeting.  Three pages of the benefits and concerns about the teardowns discussed by residents at the meeting was recently sent to the Edina City Council – four benefits were listed while 26 concerns and six construction-specific impacts were listed.

On the benefits side of the teardown projects, the newly constructed houses add diversity to the housing styles, attract new residents to Morningside, could raise property values and increase the city’s tax base, according to the summary.

The concerns range from changes to yard elevation, how much of the lot is covered by the house, changes to the sun and shade in neighboring yards and changes to privacy.

Residents also have concerns during the construction of the new houses, including construction vehicles blocking access to driveways and making it difficult for vehicles to get through the neighborhood and the wear and tear of streets and sidewalks.

Why teardown?

The boom in the teardowns can be attributed to a combination of several factors, including a push by builders and people wanting to invest the money in a new Edina house.

Steve Schmitz in the Edina office of Coldwell Banker Burnet said that a number of homebuyers already live in Edina. They want to buy a new house, but they don’t want to leave the city, he said.

The teardown trend is something that’s only being seen right now in Edina and within the Wayzata school district’s portion of Minnetonka, said realtor Jack Mazzara of RE/MAX in Edina.

Sprague, who is a realtor, said there’s a demand in Edina because of the low land prices, which is due to the housing recession. The city also has low taxes compared to neighboring cities.

Homebuyers feel they’re getting a lot more value for their dollar when they buy in Edina, he said.

Mazzara said people want to move to Edina for the schools, the quality of life, the low crime rate and the proximity to downtown.

Hovland summarized it, saying, “It’s a place that people want to move to.”

The city is in the middle of a turnover from the bedroom community of the 1950s and 1960s as older retired residents are moving out of their homes and younger families are moving in, Mazzara said.

Schmitz pointed out that the housing supply is old and the demand is for a new housing supply. However, he doesn’t believe that every older house in Edina will be torn down and rebuilt because some people are looking for the older houses and the neighborhoods that have them.

The average home price in Edina means it’s not a “starter community,” Mazzara said. Instead, Edina’s homes are typically the second or third time people have “moved up” because the city is a destination community for homeowners.

People looking to buy a house can go to neighboring cities and find a newer home to buy that’s move-in ready. But they can come to Edina, find an older home that hasn’t had a lot of updating and build the home that they want in its place, he said.

When people move to Edina, they plan to live in the city for a long time and feel OK about investing their money in building a new home from start to finish, he said.

They also feel safe doing a teardown because the see them happening all around the city and therefore, they won’t be the only resident with construction going on, he said.

Builders are also seeing this trend and are optimizing on it.

Building companies are purchasing homes, tearing them down, building new homes on spec and then selling them, he said.

That situation happened next door to Valentine’s “The Middle” house, where the torn down home was the original 1952 two-bedroom, one-story home owned by a 95-year-old man.

After the man died, his children sold the home to a builder for around $170,000. The new home being constructed on the property is a two-story, four-bedroom house with a price around $650,000, according to the realtor’s information.

“The builder told me, ‘We’re going to do this on every lot on the street,’” Valentine said, adding that a builder has twice offered him a buyout. It’s “divide and conquer” on his street, he said.

Valentine said he’s upset because he has spent 37 years in his home, renovating it throughout the years so that it’s now a perfect house for him in his retirement.

“I’m really happy here. I don’t want to leave,” he said. He doesn’t know where he would go if he decided to move.

He notes that if he decided to sell his house to a builder, the new house built on his property would have to be larger than his existing house in order to fit in between the two larger houses.

He also feels that he’ll have a schism with the new neighbors after they move in because of how negatively affected his property is by the under-construction house.

“I want to be nice to the new neighbors, but I don’t know how.”

Edina building permits

2012: 85 as of Oct. 31

2011: 52

2010: 31

2009: 14

2008: 32

2007: 52