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Neighborhood monsters

McMansions have changed the landscape, blocking sunlight and views. Owners of more modest abodes are upset and ask the city for help.

By BABITA PERSAUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 19, 2002


SUNSET PARK -- You can see it flying into Tampa. You can see it from the Howard Frankland Bridge.

And you can see it from Stephanie Tannenbaum's back yard.

The mansion being built on the tip of Longfellow finger in Sunset Park.

There it rises, three stories tall.

It blocks Tannenbaum's own waterfront view of St. Petersburg. And it partially covers the sunset in Sunset Park.

The other day, Tannenbaum, using a digital camera, panned the Florida coast for fellow students in an online master's class.

The house is in the way, a classmate in Kuwait noticed.

You can see it from Kuwait.

"We live here because of the view," Tannenbaum said. "Now, I've lost why I live here."

It is called a McMansion, a monster house, a house that looms over the neighborhood. Some say it is the American dream to own such a home. Others say it is what is wrong with supersized America.

For a decade now, the McMansion debate has swept the nation -- from Pasadena, Calif., to Fairfax County, Va.

Now, the debate brews here, in South Tampa.

Her phone ringing with complaints, Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena, who represents South Tampa, has held two public forums on the topic, the lastest Tuesday night.

"I believe what we are seeing now is the very beginning," Saul-Sena said. "And I thought, 'Is there something we can do that would stem the tide?"

On a recent day, she winds her beige Volvo station wagon through mansion-lined streets of Davis Islands and older neighborhoods: Ballast Point, Beach Park, Sunset Park and Palma Ceia.

The house on Longfellow Avenue isn't the only one that "makes you crazy," she said.

There's the 7,868-square-foot house at 76 Martinique Ave., with a guard tower in front, and the 14,594-square-foot house at 934 S Golfview Ave.

There's the house at 4809 W South Sunset Drive, which fills 61 percent of a lot.

She drives by a Davis Islands mansion and gasps.

"That's so insensitive," she said.

She points to the L-shaped ranch next door.

"I know they probably feel overwhelmed."

A former urban planner and preservationist who took on South Tampa's tree issue not too long ago, Saul-Sena wants to make clear: She is not against big houses.

She lives in a big house: 3,934 square feet on Davis Islands. But it doesn't loom over the neighborhood. It is on a substantial lot, she said.

"I'm looking for peaceful co-existence of new and old," Saul-Sena said. "I'm not suggesting anything radical. I'm just saying this is a concern in our old neighborhoods as they develop. And I'd love to come up with some mechanism or formula to have new development peacefully co-habit with the neighbors who have been there a long time."

But governmental involvement?

"It is appropriate for government to get involved," she said. "It is already involved, placing requirements for safety, setbacks, height."

So far, in two public workshops, she has collected ideas from residents, examined how other cities have dealt with the issue and consulted with the city of Tampa's Zoning and Land Development departments.

The ideas range from building restrictions to architectural awards.

"It's tough," Saul-Sena said. "No one has an approach that I read and said, 'That's it. That's what we should do here.' "

* * *

When developer John Sample looks at South Tampa's future, he sees big houses.

He is among those who bristle at Saul-Sena's involvement.

"Don't kill the goose that lays the golden egg," he has said, more than once.

The golden egg. It's what makes a $100,000 house worth $200,000 or a $500,000 house worth $1-million.

Building new homes, big homes, drives up land value, he and others say.

"It creates desirability for new families to live here. If you start choking down development, then it will put the kibosh on the great strides that have been made in South Tampa," Sample said.

He said: "Yes, you are going to have one or two bad examples."

But one sweeping rule for all of South Tampa?

He calls that "crazy."

"We already have a stack of rules that tells us exactly how tall we can build, how wide, how close we can come to the property line, how tall the finished floor can be. Now, we've got to add sidewalks. What trees we can trim. What trees we can't."

Developers also have to abide by federal regulations that require them to raise new homes 7 to 10 feet above sea level to guard against flooding and hurricane damage.

That's one of the reasons new houses are so tall.

"Really what this looks like is bureaucracy getting ready to add another layer of red tape," Sample said.

His comments clash with residents, many older, in smaller homes.

Some have lived in homes 30 years -- only to lose privacy to a mansion next door.

"They look right into my living room," said Sunset Park resident Tina Anderson about the McMansion across the street, one she calls "a Titanic" for its portal-like windows.

Residents complain that developers use the federal elevation requirement as a way to add ground-floor garages, pushing houses and their vaulted ceilings even higher into the air.

They worry about the toll big houses will take on the old water and sewer systems in South Tampa. They worry about trees being uprooted for mansions and wildlife being scared away.

They worry, even, about water runoff from the big homes, which cover increasingly wide expanses of soil.

"Where is that water going to go?" said Wofford Johnson, president of the Sunset Park Area Homeowners Association.

"It's going to go to the smaller homes."

* * *

When the house on Longfellow is completed, it will have a glass elevator. Outside, two stone staircases will lead up to the second story main entrance, which will be flanked by 20-foot tapered cast stone columns, according to blueprints.

The house will have a tile roof, a pool on a raised deck, five bedrooms, five bathrooms, two powder rooms, two playrooms and an exercise room with a rubber floor. It will have a two-story lanai and a third-floor balcony.

Its living room will have two fireplaces; its "dream room" overlooking Old Tampa Bay, mitered glass.

Total living area: 7,809 square feet.

Total floor area, including decks and garage: 16,400 square feet.

The ground level is a garage.

The builder had to go up 10 feet because of the flood regulations. The house is 35 feet on top of that -- the code limit -- which doesn't include the two chimneys.

The house takes up 51 percent of the lot.

It is being built by Bobby Alvarez, known for his palatial estates in Avila, north of Tampa.

The home is owned by Brandie and John L. Puls Jr., who made their fortune in the medical industry. They own several companies and recently sold First Florida Insurers, a health care insurance company.

The Pulses were raised in Tampa. They have two children, ages 1 and 6, and consider themselves homebodies.

"We are like that," Brandie Puls said. "We are very family oriented."

The Puls moved into the one-story, brick waterfront home at 5138 W Longfellow Ave in 1994. Despite ad-ons, the 3,968-square-foot house didn't serve their needs.

But they loved the area, living on the water. So they razed the one-story home.

"The location is phenomenal," said Brandie Puls, 39.

In building the new house, their goal was to utilize space effectively.

"We said if you are going to go up so many feet" -- raising the ground level -- "you might as well utilize the space below it," said John Puls Jr., 42.

The only direction to go was up.

The couple had tried to increase their lot size, by asking neighbors on either side if they would consider selling.

The Puls wanted a yard for their children.

It came up casually in conversation, recalls Joe Gilbert, next door neighbor.

He said he and his wife, Valorie, retired college professors who have lived on Longfellow since 1985, see the Pulses' home as a natural evolution of the neighborhood. They were not offended by the offer to buy.

"People stop by all the time, write unsolicited letters -- 'We will pay you cash,' " he said.

* * *

Tuesday night, the people came, nearly 100 strong.

Saul-Sena, after all, had invited their opinions.

With folded arms and firm jaws, they filled a conference room at the Jan Platt Regional Library.

Easels went up. Markers squeaked on poster board. The city's land development manager, Thom Snelling, talked about big houses, including the one on Longfellow.

"I don't have an answer for you," he told them.

Almost everyone chimed in.

Laverne Myers complained about "monster homes."

Judy Rothburd griped about "Godzilla" homes, including the one near her with an elevated pool deck.

"Talk about losing your privacy," the Sunset Park resident said.

"They look down on everybody."

Davis Islands resident Jim Moore walked up to an easel that held a diagram of 76 Martinique.

He pointed out the home's gigantic air conditioning platform.

"And this is my bedroom window," he said incredulously, still pointing. "It is right outside my bedroom window."

The audience sighed in empathy.

A developer rose. Wayne McClain of Keystone Properties had an idea:

Maybe the city just needs to enforce the codes already in place and not make new ones.

Arnold Hubbard, who lives on Mariner Street, said new codes would only keep home buyers away from South Tampa.

"They aren't coming to South Tampa to live in a ranch-style home," he said. "They want to live here, and they want to live here in a modern home."

Mary Shoti Volpe looked on the bright side.

"I would rather have a McMansion next to me than a dump," she said.

After two hours, the library prepared to close.

Only the meeting, not the matter, concluded.

"It is obvious, more conversation has to take place," Saul-Sena said.

She promised another meeting and a search for fairness.

"We all live here together," she said.

Some, a little more closely than others.

- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

* * *

Everyone has an idea about how to keep large houses from overwhelming smaller ones. Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena has collected a few.

Among them are these:

  • Limit the "footprint" that a house can leave, controlling the ratio of house to lot.
  • Lessen the bulk of three-story homes by reducing the third floor perimeter.
  • Don't allow ground floor levels to exceed recommended heights.
  • Limit special variances on homes that are already large.
  • Require a special review for especially large houses.
  • Give design awards to homes that are built with neighbors in mind.

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