This project reconsiders planning and construction possibilities for the first-ring post-suburban neighborhood of Levittown. When treated as flexible, rather than sacred ground, first-ring suburban lots can be rezoned to include the accessory dwelling structure. Allowing additional dwelling space on existing lots gives homeowners options to accommodate extended family or to earn additional income through renting. Redefining traditional notions of setback, orientation to the property line, density, and infrastructure create a community that offers more options to the homeowner.
UNTAPPED ECONOMIC POTENTIAL
A renovated Levittown house on a quarter acre of land sells for around $400,000. The convenience of the commute into New York City and good school systems keep the demand for this area high. Because of the one-dwelling rule, homeowners have no way to benefit monetarily from their property unless they are willing to sell their homes and move away from the community.
HIGH PROPERTY VALUES PREVENT BUYING IN
The average young person who grew up in Levittown cannot afford to buy a home in the neighborhood. As a result, children are unlikely to return even though the community offers young families many benefits and conveniences.
The population of neighborhoods like Levittown is rapidly aging. With increased home operational costs associated with aging, these homeowners in particular are looking for ways to obtain revenue from their high-value land without having to move. Many are also looking for opportunities to have their children close at hand to act as their caregivers.
ORIGINAL INTENT OF LEVITTOWN
In 1947, William Levitt announced his plan to raise 2,000 houses on a field that once grew potatoes. His development provided paved streets, sidewalks, a community center, and minimal landscaping. By 1951, Levittown and surrounding regions included 17,447 homes constructed by Levitt and Sons.
He did not provide for driveways, garages, sheds, or fences. The land was left open and boundary lines existed only with the department of taxation. Fences were not permitted according to the original covenant.
RIGIDITY OF THE LEVITTOWN PLANNED RESIDENCE DISTRICT
The Town of Hempstead Zoning Ordinance Article XV, covering “The Levittown Planned Residential District,” written in 1975 and still applicable today, states:
“Due to the fact that originally Levittown was planned and developed as a whole community, piecemeal intrusion on scattered parcels by development will change the physical character of the residential areas and reduce open space. This new article is designed to prevent any future deterioration to this stable community.”
However, the rigid ban against multiple dwelling units has prevented the community from adapting to changing social conditions, including the aging of its own original population.
An original 1947 Levitt house – with many updates – would be on the market today for roughly $400,000. Originally, the homes were 750 square feet of living space with an unfinished attic on 1/4 acre. This house sold for $7,000 to the original homeowners.
By 2011, the houses have been so built up that even the “dormers have sprung dormers” (Rosenbaum, Ron. “The House that Levitt Built,” Esquire, December 1983). “Mini”-mansions envelop the original Cape Cods and reach out and up to the setback limits.
The proposed design recalls the horizontal fence line that it replaces. The living space is contrasted against the solar tower loft. The initial investment can be quite small, with a simple studio space or family recreation room.
The Build a Better Burb competition suggested that projects focus on sites and parcels that are underdeveloped or abandoned. This project considers the setback zones along the rear yard lines as an underdeveloped zone that warrants further investigation.
A — When Levittowners first moved in, they signed an agreement not to hang laundry on weekends or to erect fences. Both of these acts were contrary to Levitt’s vision of a coherent community. But today, every yard is marked and guarded by a variety of 6-foot fences. These fence lines (diagrammed in red) are the first place to begin the investigation for living in the setbacks.
B — In Article XV enacted in 1975, setbacks were defined as: front yard 25 feet, rear yard 25 feet, side yards aggregate 15 feet with no side yard less than 5 feet. Homeowners cannot construct anything other than garages or sheds in these setbacks. The land area available for expansion and development is limited to the white zone surrounding the original footprints.
C — In the proposed design, the 25-foot rear yard setback would become the new legal ground for homeowners to develop accessory dwelling units. Rather than restrict 5-foot side yard setbacks as off limits, now homeowners could construct an access drive to the rear yard. This frees almost 10 feet in each side yard for the existing home to expand. This is space currently being taken up by garages and driveways.
Family 1 – An older couple builds themselves a retirement apartment on the back of their lot and invites their daughter or son’s family to move into the larger original home. Having younger neighbors or younger family members close by can be very useful – both to provide a social network for support to care for the older generation and/or to provide babysitting help to the younger generation.
Family 2 – A working couple builds a studio rental and offers reduced rent to their full-time nanny. In a few years they plan to provide housing for exchange students.
Family 3 – A young affluent couple buys the home and adds a studio in the rear as an investment property. They rent both properties, but plan to move to Levittown once they have a baby.
Family 4 – A young family builds a rental apartment and uses the income to defray the cost of their overall mortgage.
Family 5 – A large family needs more space and builds a playroom at the back of their lot. When the children go off to college, the space is converted to a rental and the income helps pay for tuition.
FENCES WENT UP – THEY MUST COME DOWN
Article XV explicitly permits six-foot fences along the backyard property lines. This is a modification of the original rules and has changed the character of the original neighborhood dramatically.
The appearance of fences on nearly every lot makes visible the strong desire for personal control of one’s site in the midst of sociological and architectural changes. Six-foot tall property fences, closed venetian blinds, and manicured lawns marked by alarm systems, pesticide, and electric fence flags demonstrate that Levittown has a diminished capacity to function as an open community.
ACCESSORY DWELLING UNITS GAIN IN POPULARITY
The concept of the Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) has taken hold across American over the past decade. The Santa Cruz ADU Development Program is perhaps the most well-known: in 2003, city officials created the program to make it easier for homeowners to create a separate housing unit attached or adjacent to their house.
Santa Cruz believed that through development of ADUs, the community could minimize the impact of population growth and also help homeowners supplement their mortgage payments.
“The ADU Development Program is designed to encourage development of small-scale neighborhood-compatible housing and to discourage the proliferation of poorly-constructed illegal ADUs. At the same time, construction of ADUs promotes infill development and sustainable land use patterns, resulting in transportation patterns which in turn reduce pollution.” (cityofsantacruz.com)
FROM YARD TO GARDEN
Fencing off an entire yard creates a large space that is difficult to maintain and is likely to be relatively unexciting without an enormous amount of additional landscaping installed by the owner.
By defining smaller garden spaces that have immediate relationships to the interior spaces, owners can reduce maintenance while increasing use value.
A ONE-BEDROOM DWELLING WITH MANY POSSIBILITIES
A 1,000 square foot one-bedroom dwelling could be constructed and installed for about $100,000. Because parents already own their land, an accessory residence like this presents an option to have children move back to the neighborhood. As the young families grow, this unit can be expanded with a kit of prefabricated parts. Alternatively, parents could move into this smaller home and the growing family could inhabit the street-front residence.
BUILDING WITH A KIT OF PARTS
Through a carefully written specification for construction, the new Accessory Dwelling Units can be designed to provide a consistent neighborhood character. More importantly, they can be regulated to achieve the most stringent environmental protocols. Highly insulated walls, passive solar heating, and rooftop solar arrays will offset the impact on the energy grid. Permeable pavement, rooftop gardens, planting beds, and native plantings will assist with storm water management.
The desire for private outdoor space is why most people find the suburbs desirable. However, the fence is not the only way of demarcating and forming private outdoor space. Landscape walls, sectional changes, and plantings can also create outdoor rooms with a private character.