The streets wind casually through the normal-looking subdivision, making it difficult to believe anything could happen here, save for kids riding bikes and homeowners cutting grass.

The streets have names such as Liptonshire and Leaside and Lakemere, and the homes that line these streets are modest, comfortable split-levels and ranches, hardly the stuff of which magazine stories are made.

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Yet the L Streets, as they’re known among the local real estate community, could be the setting for one of the biggest changes to affect Lake Highlands in decades. That’s because the houses in the L Streets are some of the least expensive in the area, as well as some of the oldest and some of the smallest. That combination makes them perfect candidates for teardowns.

In fact, builders and homeowners have already done a handful of teardowns – buying an older house, tearing it down, and building a bigger one in its place – in selected locations. But neighborhood groups and real estate experts expect to see more over the next couple of years, and the L Streets could very well be where the activity begins.

In this, Lake Highlands will be little different from East Dallas, Preston Hollow, the Park Cities, Oak Lawn and Uptown, where teardowns are a common part of the real estate market. Where many are hoping that Lake Highlands will be different is in how our neighborhood manages teardowns: finding ways to avoid the ill will and bruised feelings that have plagued the process almost everywhere else.

“Is it coming today? No. Is it coming tomorrow? Probably not. But is it coming? I certainly think so,” says Marcel Quimby, a Lake Highlands resident who is a member of the National Historic Trust’s board of directors and an architect who specializes in historic preservation.

“Now, it may be five years, but it’s just a matter of time until they cross Northwest Highway, and we have the same sort of discussion they’re having in the M Streets.”

National trends / Teardowns have been a serious business in Dallas for much of the past decade. They started in the Park Cities and Preston Hollow in the mid-1990s, crossed Central Expressway to the M Streets in the late ’90s, and have spread across East Dallas toward White Rock Lake, mostly south of Mockingbird.

“There are all kinds of reasons for this, but from a real estate perspective, it’s a lot like any inner-city area across the country, whether it’s Philadelphia, Baltimore, Houston or Atlanta,” says longtime builder Gage Prichard, whose Gage Homes handles 15 to 18 teardowns south of Northwest Highway each year.

“Every city has this kind of redevelopment going on. The older housing stock becomes obsolete, and it’s time to find a way to redevelop it that makes economic sense.”

Typically, that means buying a lot with an older house that is too small by today’s standards – less than 1,500 square feet with two bedrooms and one bath – and replacing it with a house that meets contemporary needs. Usually, that translates into 2,500 square feet and at least three bedrooms and two baths.

The other part of the equation is economic. Builders and homeowners must be able to buy the old house cheaply enough so that it makes sense to put up a new one. Generally, in Dallas this means paying between $150,000 and $200,000 for the house and lot and putting up a new house worth between $350,000 and $400,000. These prices, though, are relative, rising substantially in more expensive neighborhoods. In the Park Cities and parts of Preston Hollow, for example, teardowns can cost two to three times what they do elsewhere.

In this, Dallas is no different from much of the rest of the country. Teardowns are a national movement, says Jim Lindberg of the National Historic Trust, who helped write his organization’s white paper on urban teardowns (although, interestingly, they are a suburban development in many other places). In Denver, they’re called scrape-offs. In northern California and the Pacific Northwest, where teardowns have been fueled by high-tech money, they’re called – disparagingly – starter castles.

And, for the most part, teardowns are looked at with scorn. There are many reasons for this, say those who have studied the development, ranging from the legitimate to the irrational:

  • Aesthetics. Virginia Tech’s Robert Lang, one of the top authorities on teardowns in the U.S., says much of the backlash against teardowns may be a reaction against wealthy people who are perceived to have poor taste. And there is little doubt that some teardowns look hugely out of place, resembling the McMansions that so outrage their critics. Teardown homes often are too tall or too wide for the neighborhood and usually don’t match the style of other houses, with garages in the front or brick facades on a street of stone or stucco.
  • Culture clash. Long-time residents say they live in a neighborhood because they appreciate the area’s atmosphere, history and the like. Newcomers who do teardowns, say a variety of urban experts, choose neighborhoods to avoid long commutes, and so have less reason to preserve atmosphere and history.
  • Economics. Do teardowns boost property values? No one knows for sure, but those who oppose teardowns are convinced that an ugly, oversized brick house with a two-story front entrance in the middle of a street of 1930s bungalows isn’t going to help.

“Whenever you’re dealing with people’s homes and property, the debate is going to very contentious,” Lindberg says. “People invest so much in their homes, they don’t want to see anything that could possibly hurt it.”

What about us? / Can the same thing happen in Lake Highlands? There are signs that it might.

“Do you think six teardowns is a trend? Well, I do,” says Ebby Halliday Realtor Jan Stell, ticking off a half-dozen instances in the last year where someone tore down one house to put up another. That’s not up to par with the pace of teardowns in Preston Hollow or East Dallas (depending on ZIP code, teardowns in those parts of town may have accelerated by one-third in each of the past two years), but it still seems like a sign of things to come.

“Look what Lake Highlands has,” says Kathy Hampton, a neighborhood Realtor and builder who has done teardowns in Preston Hollow. “We’re inside the loop, there is easy access to downtown, LBJ and Central Expressway. We’re just very well suited. And don’t forget we’re in the Richardson schools, and that’s still a big plus.”

Yet much of Lake Highlands is not especially suited for teardowns. Most of the homes are too big and too new to fit the economic template. It’s one thing to scrape a 60-year-old 2-bedroom, 1-bath in East Dallas or even a 40-year-old 3-bedroom, 1-bath in Preston Hollow. But it’s probably prohibitive to purchase a 3-bedroom, 2-bath built in the 1980s in Lake Highlands to tear down.

Enter the L Streets. Traditionally, this has been the least expensive part of our neighborhood, starter homes for couples and families who want to live in Lake Highlands but can’t afford more expensive areas. Its homes typically start in the low six figures and are smaller than 2,000 square feet – that’s teardown territory.

Stell says several prospective buyers have contacted her about doing a teardown in the L Streets, but she advised them against it. She isn’t sure it’s sensible to build a house that will be more than twice as expensive as every other house on the block. The rule of thumb has always been to own the least expensive house on the street, not the most expensive.

But, Stell says, she isn’t sure how many of the old rules still apply in today’s market.

“I wouldn’t scrape a house like that,” she says, “but I can see somebody else doing it.”

And if that happens, will the same sorts of problems plaguing Preston Hollow and the M Streets in East Dallas afflict Lake Highlands? So far, the handful of teardowns that have been done – on Nimrod, for example, in Oak Highlands – don’t seem to have antagonized the neighbors. Most of the houses match others on the street, and construction doesn’t seem to have been a major problem for the neighbors (no workmen at 7 a.m. on Saturday or trucks blocking driveways).

In addition, Lake Highlands has few classically historical homes, it’s not yet as trendy as the M Streets, and residents are more concerned about other issues, such as sub-standard apartment housing, the quality of public education and the lack of retail.

“It’s going to be interesting, because as a general rule people in Lake Highlands don’t have the sort of backlash against development as people do in other parts of Dallas,” says Robert Nelson, president of the Lake Highlands Area Improvement Association.

“I can’t say we’ve even spent much time talking about it. We are more concerned with finding a way to tear down the apartment buildings and replace them.”

Still, if and when teardowns come, Nelson says his group will be ready. One possibility: Guidelines to pass on to builders, detailing how far homes should be set back from the sidewalk and the rear of the home, height restrictions, and the like.

Until then, there is little to do but watch and wait. And keep an eye on the L Streets.