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McMansions Are Us 

Money isn't only price to pay as Charlotte's yen for huge houses grows

The super-sized house is making its presence known in Charlotte. Just cruise down Providence Road toward Weddington, or meander through Myers Park and gawk at the 17,000-square-foot mega-abode on Queens Road West, or check out many of the homes around Mountain Island Lake. Even a quick look at real estate listings will show you: Some Charlotteans are laying down serious dough for some serious housing. Whether you ogle the houses enviously or mockingly call them McMansions (or Starter Castles, Beltway Baronials or Faux Chateaus) the mammoth-home trend has seduced the Charlotte area in much the same way as it has the rest of the nation. The number of homes in Mecklenburg, Gaston and York counties with at least 10 rooms increased from 14,600 in 1995 to 39,200 in 2002, according to US Census data.

In its March/April issue, Mother Jones magazine culled various sources including census data and industry reports to catalogue the effects of American homes' increasing size. The resulting illustration, featured with the magazine's permission on the following pages, seriously suggests that bigger isn't always better.

To some observers, the expanding size of US homes is a sign that more people are living the good life — or at least are hocking themselves up to their eyeballs trying. Who's to say these homes aren't the American Dream made manifest? More people want larger homes, according to real estate surveys.

But environmentalists and smart-growth proponents say McMansions could have dire implications for Charlotte. The natural resources needed to maintain larger houses and the traffic created by McMansion sprawl should have everyone concerned, from millionaires to paupers, they say.

"It's a real burden to the community," says Tim Frank, a San Francisco Bay-based senior adviser to the Sierra Club's Challenge to Sprawl Campaign.

But other people argue the size of a home in itself doesn't dictate how it affects the environment. Mick Mulvaney of Mulvaney Properties, which develops infrastructure for homes in Charlotte, says energy-efficient technology is likely used more often in larger, more expensive homes than in older, smaller housing. "McMansion," he says, is a word coined simply to "cast something in a negative light."

"If you live in a small house, you wouldn't want people to say you live in a small house. Just like you wouldn't want people to say you live in a McMansion if you live in a bigger one," he says.

"McMansion" is a loosely defined term that entered the lexicon only in the last decade or so. According to Word Spy, a website devoted to "sleuthing" new words and phrases, the word has evolved from meaning "a large cookie-cutter house" to "a large opulent house, especially a new house that has a size and style that doesn't fit in with the surrounding houses." To some, it's simply a huge house, usually of at least 5,000 square feet, while to others it implies a certain low construction standard. To those who bristle at the word's connotations, "McMansion" brings to mind an anti-suburban elitist who is possibly some sort of socialist at heart.

Tom Low, a Huntersville architect, is no fan of McMansions. He says McMansions "tend to kind of create their own world." Gone is the simple master bedroom, he says. It's been replaced with a "master resort" complete with juice bar and exercise room. Gone is the den or TV room. It's been replaced with the home theater. And gone is the kitchen or breakfast nook. It's now a café.

"They're actually creating the town hall, the café and the theater all within their house," Low says. "The communities don't deliver all of this. A classic suburban subdivision delivers exclusiveness and privacy, which is what suburbia is all about. What it doesn't deliver is community; basically, the McMansion is a substitute for community life."

McMansions have environmental groups increasingly worried about the impact large homes have on communities. With each new McMansion subdivision, environmentalists warn, more cars are put on the roads to log more trips and more miles, and to use more gasoline.

Sierra Club's Tim Frank says they burden other taxpayers in several ways: the cost of infrastructure, increased traffic. They also eat up land, he says.

"You make it more difficult to do more orderly development," Frank says. "Taking five-acre parcels out of commission, it's like creating Swiss cheese in the landscape. You can't develop a neighborhood that has a big hole in the middle."

Meizhu Lui, executive director of United for a Fair Economy, a liberal advocacy group based in Boston, said the demand for larger homes is driving less affluent people out of the home buying market as developers look to high-end homes for a bigger buck.

"Even though people need smaller houses that are affordable, the market is not as hot for those, Lui says. "They've really reduced affordable housing."

Lui says the personal decision to buy a McMansion puts a burden on other taxpayers, including less affluent ones, who share the cost of extending city services outward. McMansions, she says, "are really subsidized by everyone else."

Mulvaney, however, argues that bigger houses actually contribute more to the tax dollars that pay for sewer and other infrastructure because they pay more property taxes. He also says larger houses often have the budgets to use more energy-efficient technology in their construction. Tankless water heaters, for instance, mean the appliance won't have to keep bath and cooking water hot all day, he says.

"I don't think the size of the houses dictates the demands on the infrastructure or the environment," Mulvaney says. "I think it has more to do with the way the house is built."

Of course, not all large-housing developments are razing the land. Kathryn Blanchard, spokeswoman for The Sanctuary, a high-end development at Lake Wylie that's designed to preserve much of its previous habitat, notes the community last year won recognition from Audubon International, a group whose stated mission is to work with developers to make them more eco-friendly. The group recognized The Sanctuary for its use of green building practices and protection of wildlife, water quality and native flora and fauna.

Environmentalists, however, have little reason to think eco-friendly building techniques will solve the problems they fear. According to a 2004 National Association of Realtors' survey of homebuyers, few respondents said they were willing to pay extra for a home built in an environmentally friendly way.

Some observers predict a retreat from McMansions. Low, the architect, says the Baby Boomers who buy huge homes are retiring. Faced with the prospect of walking up so many stairs and maintaining such a large house, they're looking for something smaller in walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, he says. And the "young, hip creative class" will continue migrating downtown. "What's going to start happening is there'll be this gradual decanting from McMansion life, because it's boring," he says.

He then makes a prediction that's likely unimaginable to commuters who trek through explosive development to reach homes in Union County or near Lake Norman.

"They could be our future slums," he says.

Reprinted with permission from Mother Jones, ©2005, Foundation for National Progress.

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