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It Overtakes a Village

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The typical village brings to mind cozy cottages and comfortable homes, not faux castles with stone exteriors. And some of the residents of The Village, an East Memphis neighborhood sandwiched between Poplar and Southern, want to keep it that way.

Residents of The Village asked the City Council to approve the neighborhood as a historic conservation district last week. Under the proposed guidelines, additions and new construction would have to stylistically match existing structures.

"They don't want houses that scream out 'I'm new,'" said Councilman Jack Sammons. "So often, in America, our homes are our savings accounts."

John Rainey, The Village resident who spearheaded the effort, said they chose the historic conservation designation because it would control the size and setback of each home but would still afford property owners flexibility.

"The rules are extremely lax. They do not control paint colors or routine maintenance," he said. "We do not want to stop development, but we want architects to design homes that fit within the character of the neighborhood."

But the City Council voted against the measure 9-4, with members citing concerns about a lack of solidarity in the neighborhood and that homeowners might not understand the ramifications of the guidelines.

Councilman Brent Taylor advised the villagers to look for other alternatives.

"I have just seen too many horror stories requiring little old ladies to tear down siding they paid to put up," he said. "Many times, the community isn't aware of what they're getting."

But residents of the neighborhood say they have a clear idea of what they don't want to get. Six older homes already have been demolished and replaced with much larger houses. Residents worry that there are other homes on large lots that could be additional candidates for teardowns.

"The thing that brought this on was a developer coming in and tearing down several homes and building new houses," said Rainey. "Those houses are beautiful in their own right. They would look great in Collierville or Cordova but not in our neighborhood."

Rainey has lived in The Village for 24 years and estimates that the average house in the neighborhood is about 2,500 square feet -- certainly not small by most standards -- while the newer ones are double that size.

"To get 6,000 square feet on a lot not built for that, they're building the houses much taller -- which we object to -- and much closer to the street," said Rainey. "There are some houses now where when you step out on your front porch, the view is the back of your neighbor's garage."

It may be small solace, but The Village isn't the only middle-class community feeling squeezed by humongous homes.

In November, 60 Minutes did a segment called "Living Large," about how smaller, perfectly good houses were being torn down all over the country to make way for "McMansions." Developers who were interviewed said that what was once considered a large house -- perhaps 5,000 square feet a few years ago -- has recently grown to about 8,000 square feet. And people who once might have bought an 8,000-square-foot home are now in the market for 12,000.

Cornell economics professor Robert Frank said on 60 Minutes that larger homes create a trickle-down effect in a community.

"People at the top have been building much bigger houses. People who are just below the super rich, well, maybe they wanted to build bigger but were afraid it would be unseemly to do so. Now there's this 70,000-foot monster above them. That clears the way for them to build 60,000 square feet."

For now, some residents of The Village still don't accept that bigger is better. They plan to continue lobbying council members, hoping to change their minds before the minutes of last week's meeting are approved.

"This was a two-year process for us. Over that time, I went to eight meetings downtown," said Rainey. "We were given two minutes to make our presentation to the City Council. I understand a time limit, but I thought two minutes was a little short.

"We estimate that there are 15 to 16 candidates for someone coming in and tearing down the house and building a new one. If that happens, The Village as we know it will cease to exist."

And in yet another neighborhood, a man's home will -- almost literally -- be his castle.

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