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The riddle of the pop-up palace

When a “McMansion” sprouts on the lot next door, is it a bad thing?

By Susan Taylor Martin
Published January 30, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG — William Reidy has grown used to the questions as passers-by gawk at the mammoth structure being built next door.

“It’s certainly an attention-grabber,’’ said Reidy, a marine contractor. “I’ve had a lot of people ask me if it’s a condominium.’’

In fact, it’s a single-family home, but one that dwarfs Reidy’s low-slung house and many others along Bayou Grande Boulevard in northeast St. Petersburg. Soaring more than 35 feet above street level, the new waterfront house is as tall as some suburban office buildings.

The owner, a restaurant developer, calls it his dream home. Others call it a McMansion.

Throughout the Tampa Bay area, a growing number of people in smaller, older houses find themselves living in the shadow — literally — of new multilevel, multimillion dollar dwellings. The appeal of waterfront living has combined with tough federal flood insurance requirements to drive up the cost — and size — of homes on the water.

McMansions — so-called because of their McDonald’s-like ubiquity — are also going up in inland urban areas as buyers seek spacious digs close to work, entertainment and shopping. And as McMansions become more prevalent, so is the concern that they hurt the scale and character of established neighborhoods.

“The way I feel about it, I could not put into decent words,” Charles Wisner said of what he calls “that monstrosity”’ — the three-story, 5,800 square-foot house under construction next to his on St. Petersburg’s Coquina Key.

“If it were in a place where there were big mansion-type homes, it would be a very nice, appropriate home,” said Wisner, a retired chaplain. “But coming in an area where there are just one-level homes, it’s totally out of place.”

Sandwiched between that and another new McMansion is the 1,700 square-foot house that Joe and Deena Hopkins have lived in for 17 years. When they first moved in, they could sit in their backyard and see the wide-open expanse of Tampa Bay a few hundred feet away.

Now their view is totally blocked by their neighbor’s starkly modern home with its high, warehouse-like walls and elevated swimming pool deck.

“It’s horrendously ugly,” said Hopkins, a retired Honeywell engineer.

Across town in Causeway Isles, Mary Ann Helton said she is thankful that the hedge of palms she planted years ago is now tall enough to provide some privacy from the McMansion next door. She’s not looking forward to construction on the vacant lot to her east, where another behemoth will soon go up.

“I’m going to feel a little bit closed in,’’ said Helton, a widow who moved to the area 14 years ago. “Some people are really distraught that the neighborhood has changed so much.’’

Of course, the plus side is that Helton and others have seen their own waterfront homes rapidly appreciate.

A few years ago, vacant waterfront lots in St. Petersburg could be had for less than $200,000. Now they can run $1-million or more, and developers want to maximize their investment by building the huge, striking houses that well-heeled buyers expect.

“You can’t put a small home on a waterfront lot, it just doesn’t make any sense,’’ said Jorge Echarte, owner of Just Gorgeous Homes, a luxury builder. “For a lot of these clients, price is not a problem and they want to do something that will do justice to the beautiful lot they have.’’

Some McMansion neighbors welcome the trend.

“It doesn’t bother us at all,’’ said Linda Faircloth of the soaring structure with a bell tower next to her 1956 home in Tampa’s Sunset Park. “It’s absolutely beautiful, the people are so nice and it just increases the value of our property.’’

Prime waterfront land is so desirable that houses once considered spacious are torn down to make way for truly palatial residences.

On Tampa’s Davis Islands, one seller is asking $2.25-million for his 3,400 square-foot home on Hillsborough Bay. He suggests knocking it down and replacing it with one like the 10,000 square-foot house going up next door.

Among those who say some McMansions look grossly out of place is Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena. In her own Davis Islands neighborhood, “what were previously yards and gardens are now homes,” she said.

“Some of these changes have been done with great care and they are considerate of their neighbors. Others are not.”

Saul-Sena bemoans McMansions that seem to cover “every last square inch’’ of the lot, blocking sunlight and subjecting neighbors to the racket from huge, noisy air-conditioning condensers. Zoning codes allow developers to put up super-sized houses on substandard lots as long as they get City Council approval.

But, as Saul-Sena says, it’s hard to legislate taste and style.

“What I would love is to educate the public more about good design, so that when they’re spending a couple of million dollars on a house they would make choices that are more sensitive to the scale and landscaping of the existing neighborhood.”

In St. Petersburg, the often jarring contrast between McMansions and older homes is because many of the latter were “built much smaller than what the law allows,’’ said zoning official John Hixenbaugh.

“The regulations haven’t changed since the ’70s — people are just building larger.’’

McMansions on or near the water can also look taller than they really are because of flood insurance requirements that living areas be a certain number of feet above so-called “base flood elevation.’’ In a low-lying area like Shore Acres, that level is 9 feet and houses can go another 35 feet above that.

Proposed changes to St. Petersburg’s zoning codes would require roof lines to be lower so McMansions don’t appear so tall.

“That was to try to get a handle on the massive scale of these new houses,’’ said Derek Kilborn, a city planner.

“When you’re driving down a street and see an old ’50s one-story ranch next to a three-story McMansion-type home it can visually have an impact on the neighborhood.’’

That’s the case on Bayou Grande Boulevard in Shore Acres, where Gino Cagno’s enormous new house draws frequent stares. Cagno and ex-wife Janet have owned the lot, with its stunning view of Weedon Island, since the ’80s.

“I sat on it for 20-some years and I always said that one day I would build my dream house,’’ said Cagno, who developed several bay area Arby’s restaurants. “That view is probably one of the best in St. Petersburg.’’

The house is made almost entirely of concrete and built to withstand Category 5 hurricane winds. Its 5,000-plus square feet include three bedrooms, five bathrooms and two kitchens — because “cooking is a hobby,’’ Cagno said.

With construction now in its third year, he and the neighbors eagerly await the finished product.

“Eventually, I’d like to see something beside scaffolding and Dumpsters,’’ said Debra Sanford, a Tampa Electric manager who has a 1,600 square foot house directly across the street.

Some people living next to McMansions complain about the loss of privacy, but Cagno’s neighbor to the north, Bill Reidy, doesn’t expect any problems. “They’ll be so high,’’ he said of the Cagno home, “they can’t see in.’’

That might not be the case for long. Because Reidy’s property has the same spectacular view, he’s thinking about building a larger house, too.

Times researcher Angie Holan contributed to this report. Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

[Last modified January 30, 2007, 20:59:01]

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