There Goes the Neighborhood

March 31, 2021



2.7 miles. That is the approximate distance of the walk I take every day, with Leon, my fluffy companion. I have a particular route I prefer, because…

  1. It is flat and nothing is flat in the South Hills of Pittsburgh. 
  2. The houses are spectacular and always well maintained.

It is a pleasure to see the craftsmanship on display alongside the mature trees and well tended yards. It’s also a popular loop for other people in the neighborhood, and I’ve gotten familiar with my fellow walkers, joggers, and leisurely strollers. 

My own block is a mixture of single family homes, duplexes and apartment buildings near a small commercial district, but every morning Leon and I make our way over to a neighborhood called Virginia Manor. The Manor is a little bit fancier. Built in the 1930’s, with rigid architectural restrictions, it must have been the most desirable address in the South Hills at that time. It remains so today. 

Houses in The Manor are predominantly stone and Tudor style is probably the most prevalent. Houses sit on large lots, and I must think, average over 3500 square feet. As a planner, I know all the issues with this type of building pattern, but as a fan of old homes and architecture and walking, I love living near this neighborhood and it makes my life better. 

The neighborhood is gorgeous because of the architectural restrictions that were put in place when it was built. While all the houses are different, which keeps it from being repetitive, they all share similar massing, and materials, which still allows them to be compatible. This is the sweet spot for all the built environments we love. Compatibility without redundancy. This is context. 

On our walk last week, I was stunned on approaching one of my favorite homes to find all of the windows removed and heavy equipment pulling out the landscaping. This house is an architectural treasure and it appeared someone was about to toss it in a landfill. 

I recall the house being listed a couple of months back. When I got back home to check, sure enough, Zillow showed the house sold for $1.1 million back in August. Want to see the listing?

I warn you, this is not for the faint of heart. 

You sure? 

It’s gonna hurt. 

Really? 

You asked for it. 

https://www.zillow.com/homedetails/810-Valleyview-Rd-Pittsburgh-PA-15243/11658753_zpid/

The Facebook debate was already taking place in a local group. Some were appalled that this could happen in such a nice neighborhood, others defended the actions as property rights, suggesting everyone needed to settle down. 

Here are some of the comments from the thread that I would like to address. These are also always the same comments that come up in these debates. I am paraphrasing the original statements.  

  • Facebook statement – “We have this thing called property rights and the new owners can do whatever they want, its their property.”
  • Response – No, in fact. It is the new owners right to do what they want with the property WITHIN the legal confines of what the code allows. For good reason, they cannot put up a slaughter house or a brothel or a ferris wheel. We have established zoning for a reason and it protects property values. In this instance, yes, the municipality has screwed up royally by not having any controls over demolition. You might think that no one would come along, pay $1.1 million for an architectural masterpiece just to demolish it, but clearly you would be wrong. This neighborhood was built with certain standards in the 30’s, which is what made it so desirable, it seems preposterous that we wouldn’t honor those same standards now. So, yes, the code does allow for these property owners to destroy something beautiful. It should not. This is not the fault of people with bad taste, but the fault of the municipality for not protecting valuable resources. 
  • Facebook statement – “Well everyone is jumping to conclusions and we can’t be sure what the new owners have in mind, maybe they will build something beautiful.”
  • Response – Um yeah, pretty sure we can go ahead and take good take good taste off the table. You know how we can be sure the owners will not build something beautiful in its place? Because they just spent over a million dollars to destroy a gorgeous historic home. I feel pretty confident we are not going to see an upgrade. I am thinking we are seeing the next post on https://mcmansionhell.com
  • Facebook statement – “You people are so rude, what a terrible welcome to the neighborhood. Imagine if the new owners can read these comments” 
  • Response – Oh dear god, let the new owners read these comments to see how their decisions have made people feel in their new community. I think more concerning than their welcome to the neighborhood is THEIR greeting. “Oh hey new neighbors, so this street you call home might be nice for you, but it’s not quite what we are looking for, so we are going to wreck it, and this million dollar historic home you’ve enjoyed for a hundred years has to go. So nice to meet you all!”
  • Facebook statement – “well you probably don’t even live on that street, so it doest affect you”
  • Response – We all live in the neighborhood so it affects us all. The idea that I have to live adjacent to this house to be affected by it’s departure is nonsense. Everything that takes place in my neighborhood affects my life, because we all share it. If a Dollar General replaces the local market down your street, it sure as hell affects you. When this beautiful home is replaced by a McMansion, it will be something I will see every single day and will make my walk worse and my neighborhood less interesting. It’s like the old smoking sections at restaurants, just because you are sitting across the room from me, doesn’t mean I am not still inhaling your smoke. Just because it’s not my house being demolished, doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect me.
  • Facebook statement – “Who are we to regulate taste?”
  • Response – Ummm, the community. And it’s not taste, it’s standards.  I believe it is always been the nature of the community to decide what is acceptable and what is not. Who are we to regulate good speed limits then? Who are we to regulate food safety or child labor laws? It is in adopting standards that we help shape what it is we want to be and how we want to operate as a society. This will be different for every community, but no community will thrive without standards. Remember, standards are the floor. This is what a community accepts as the bottom. When you lower them, you decline. Simple as that.
  • Facebook statement – “We don’t know anything about who is moving in, what if they are special needs or something?” 
  • Response – Fuck the what? You believe that if someone is special needs, their only option is to rip down a home and start fresh? Someone with special needs can’t live in a historic home? Nonsense. Absolutely any home, and any building for that matter, can be retrofitted to accommodate anyone- just ask Harvard or Oxford. Unless you think once the queen needs a wheelchair they will raze Buckingham Palace. 

I am sad that there are people born onto this earth that can could do this to a beautiful home, that can see the beauty that went into the original home and say still say, “Fuck it, I need a 4 stall garage.” But then I remember, there will always be people that think new is better- and people that wear Crocs and jeans with designs on the pockets. While I think the new owners are making a tremendous mistake, the fault lies with the municipality for not doing more to protect one of its greatest assets. 

There are only a handful of neighborhoods like this across the country and to allow this home to be carted off to a landfill is such a tragedy. At what point, do enough original homes get replaced by McMansions to where The Manor no longer matters? At what point does it stop being a nice place to walk, because it is no longer beautiful? How does it affect the other property owners that have cared for and tended to those stone beauties of a bygone age? Their street is about to get a black eye. 

It’s okay to care about taste and how things look, it is more than okay- we should care. It’s how we are built as a species and it’s how we navigate this world and how we survive. Replacing something above average in terms of appearance, with something average is an investment in getting worse. Why should any place or anyone, ever want to get worse? It is a step in the wrong direction and well, that is obviously a bad idea. 

Standards are the floor we create for ourselves to keep from declining. Every community must adopt standards to ensure better outcomes. The key is accountability. When you see those standards begin to decline, someone must say something and more so, do something. Standards are meaningless without accountability. People deserve to live in beautiful places and places that make them proud. Places that facilitate a sense of community and give them ample opportunity to feel good. The only way to ensure this is in having standards and then being accountable to them.

And finally, and here is the thing I will never understand about tear downs. If you want a modern suburban subdivision, then move to a modern suburban subdivision. But if you love the character of a historic neighborhood, then why destroy it? 

****

Virginia Manor was developed by future Pennsylvania Gov. James Duff starting in 1926. Property deeds sold by the development company required that houses be designed by private architects and meet the approval of a single architect named Thomas Benner Garman, who apparently reviewed plans through 1954. 

****


Share this post


you may also like




April 8, 2021

Let’s Get Civic

Erica picks up litter as she walks her dog around the neighborhood. She lives in a duplex a couple of blocks off of Main Street and she always keeps her
READ MORE

March 16, 2021

There is a Hole in My Neighborhood

There is a hole in my neighborhood.  Where once there was something, now there is something missing.  The place we used to go is still there, but we no longer
READ MORE

March 10, 2021

A Mantra Problem

The Main Street world has its mantras. These are the cliches we fall back on, to explain away the way things are. Easy go-to phrases that allow us to make
READ MORE