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No McMansions in Elm Heights!

August 17, 2011

The son of the benefactors of Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music is waiting to see if the city will give him the go-ahead to build a massive mansion on several lots in the Elm Heights neighborhood, almost a stone’s throw from the university campus. He proposes to tear down and/or massively remodel two existing houses and would relocate a third house (a 2-story home). His property, including the three affected houses and two vacant lots, covers at least a quarter of the entire block. The proposed new house will be huge, with seven bedrooms, a music room for recitals, a garden room and a library, surrounded by landscaped grounds. There are a number of super-sized homes like this already in Monroe County but they are mostly situated in gated enclaves or secluded on large estates outside the city limits. This would be the first genuine McMansion within Bloomington corporation lines.

Plans are currently on hold while the city’s Historic Preservation Commission ponders the decision. Their purview is narrow: they may not address whether the proposed house will be appropriate in style and scale for the quiet residential neighborhood; instead they must decide whether they will forbid the demolition of the two houses that will be affected, on grounds that they are historic. (The two homes are inconspicuous and date only to post-WWII.)

We’ve all read about McMansions in other cities, but until one comes to a neighborhood near you, you tend to not pay attention. Bloomington has had several cases of neighborhoods objecting to new homes on grounds that the style does not fit in, but this is the first time that size has been an issue. And it’s size, not historic preservation, that this is really about. No one doubts that David Jacobs is a pleasant fellow who deserves to live in the kind of house he can afford. But does he need to tear down two homes and relocate a third in order to build a home large enough for chamber music ensembles?And does he need to do this right in the core of Elm Heights, side by side with ordinary homes from the 1920s-40s? Many are asking why Mr. Jacobs can’t simply buy himself a large wooded estate somewhere around the perimeter of the city.

The neighborhood is afraid that after Mr. Jacobs is done with the house, it will be deeded to Indiana University. IU is not a good landlord to have next door to you, or across the street (see my earlier blog) and this fear of the university encroaching upon a core neighborhood is not unreasonable. An entire quarter of a block is being affected, after all, and three residences are being removed from the tax base and replaced with one whose real value to the city is unfathomable. It’s a sure bet that were this projected house to be placed on the market in the future, very few buyers would step forward to express interest. Purchasers of mansions prefer wooded views and spreading lawns that extend in all directions, and don’t care to be shoehorned into a residential neighborhood along with — shudder! — ordinary people on all sides.

Along with the Elm Heights neighborhood, I am concerned about the scale of this proposed house and I feel that when Mr. Jacobs’ use of the home has ended, the university will be the only possible purchaser or legatee. Because this core residential neighborhood will be impacted by removing three good homes and replacing it with something whose scale and value are so out of keeping with the rest of the neighborhood, I am opposed to its construction. This is one of the most politically charged decisions that the Historical Preservation Commission has ever had to make and it’s no wonder that it asked for an extension of the deadline while it gathers information and considers the matter. But at the end, there may be no realistic way to prevent this McMansion from being built.

(The images with this blog were lifted from the Herald-Times web page. See


From → Houses

  1. Carrol, I’d like to send an e-mail about this to someone, but I don’t know whom I should address–the mayor? The planning commission? There should be a way to protect neighborhoods from demolition of homes that enables the building of superscale residences. Could you post the e-mail addresses of key persons to contact?

  2. Contacts:
    Plan Commission: 349-3423
    City Council,

    Here’s info on the city’s historic preservation “demolition delay” ordinance, under the rules of which the Historic Preservation Commission is currently pondering the question,

    I do not know whether Mr. Jacobs has appeared at a meeting of the Elm Heights neighborhood association, nor do I know whether he has made attempts to meet and placate his future neighbors. If he has done all these things, and if the immediate neighbors and the neighborhood association have all given his project their stamp of approval, then I will immediately shut up and stand back. But I have deep inner reservations as to the ultimate wisdom of McMansioning Elm Heights, or any other neighborhood for that matter.

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