Here Come The Joneses

It's the last thing you'd think most suburban towns would be worrying about: encroaching affluence. If you announced plans to demolish a modest ranch house in the Chicago suburb of Hinsdale to put up, say, a residence for unwed mothers with substance-abuse problems, you wouldn't be surprised if the neighbors were unhappy. Yet if you tear down the same house and build in its place a $1.7 million, 15-room mansion with an oak-paneled elevator and a wet bar in the master bathroom . . . they're still unhappy. So unhappy, in fact, that this fall Hinsdale took the unprecedented step of prohibiting all residential demolition, out of fear that the whole town might otherwise disappear, to be replaced by thousands of mock-Tudor mansions and faux Loire chateaus costing four times as much as what was there before. The ban lasted only two weeks before the village trustees reversed themselves under threat of legal action. But you just never know: of all the things to keep out of the suburbs, why pick on rich neighbors?

Rich people have to live somewhere, naturally. Like the rest of us, they're attracted to suburbs such as Hinsdale, a bosky village of 16,700 only 20 minutes from the Loop. But they don't see why they should have to live in the modest old frame houses they happen to find there. So increasingly, they buy the houses, tear them down and put up new ones more to their taste . . . like the 5,000-square-foot mansion nicknamed by neighbors ""The Quarry'' for its sunken, three-car garage with a heated driveway that will never need shoveling. Fully a tenth of the town has been swallowed up that way just since 1987. And it's not happening just here, but in older suburbs from Gulf Stream, Fla., to Santa Monica, Calif. -- wherever built-up lots have become more valuable than the houses on them. A house marked for demolition recently changed hands in Hinsdale for $650,000. ""Tear-downs,'' they're called, or, in the pungent phrase of writer Tony Hiss, ""gentrification on steroids.''

To the towns affected, this smacks of being appreciated to death. ""Hinsdale is really a small town, and that's part of its charm,'' says Dale Kleber, spokesman for a group that wants to slow the teardown craze. ""The sheer number of teardowns has an impact on where you can park, on the noise and dirt in the street and the look and feel of a place.'' Rich people like to build their houses higher than their neighbors', an arrangement apt to send runoff during rainstorms into neighbors' basements. (The corresponding objection among Floridians is that the new houses block the ocean breeze and can look down into everyone else's swimming pool.) Teardowns diminish diversity, driving away young families and the less affluent. And they raise taxes for everyone else, whose houses become increasingly valuable candidates for the scrap heap. One family in Hinsdale saw their annual tax bill go from $4,000 to $6,000 after a million-dollar house went up across the street.

It is, unfortunately, also true that not every shopping-center developer is a budding Medici. ""A lot of the problem with the new monstrous houses is they're so aggressive, so obnoxious, so pretentious,'' says architect Andres Duany. ""Nowadays a very vulgar class has economic clout.'' By definition a teardown will stand out in its neighborhood, and for many rich people, naturally, that's just what they want. ""Around Santa Monica you see these charming bungalows from the 1920s,'' says architecture writer Philip Langdon. ""Then you go down these same streets a few years later and these new houses with Palladian windows and large balconies -- it's like they're flexing their muscles. People move in and want to show off how well they're doing.''

Yet to flex muscles and show off -- isn't that just the American way? ""I think what's happening in Hinsdale is America,'' says John Benish, a school-bus-company owner who recently moved into a sprawling ""French country-style'' mansion next door to a $1.5 million stone Tudor belonging to the head of a brokerage firm. Both replaced elderly wood-frame bungalows a fraction of the size. ""People are jealous, and they don't want to have a house in town that looks prettier than theirs,'' says Hinsdale builder Tim Thompson. ""They're saying: "You shouldn't have anything more than I've got'.'' Or, to put it in more concrete terms, having spent nearly a half-million dollars to live in Hinsdale in the first place, Benish didn't want to put up with a hundred-year-old bathroom on a cold morning. He wanted brand-new plumbing and heated towel racks. After all, he's rich.

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