The wooden front porch is all that's left of the Victorian-style cottage at the corner of Holden and Elm streets. And, if all goes to plan, that front porch is the only thing that will remain when a massive, three-story home is erected around it, an awkward relic of a time when bigger wasn't necessarily better.
Consternation over development in one of Raleigh's oldest neighborhoods—Oakdale this time—is nothing new. But in this case, because Oakdale isn't a designated historic district, residents have no legal recourse to mitigate a design they say could be a jarring spectacle on a street dominated by well-preserved cottages and bungalows.
Neighbors of the century-old home formerly at 602 Holden St., one of the oldest on the street before it was torn down in December, say they're dismayed at developer Jay Beaman's plans to build a bulky new house that will consume most of the lot and tower over the old one-story homes around it.
"After establishing all hopes and aspirations for what was to come, attempting to limit my judgment and genuinely welcoming neighborhood improvements, I have concluded there could not be a more ham-fisted, clumsy, inelegant, disrespectful, noisy, over-compensating and amateurish solution approved for construction," a resident wrote last week on the neighborhood's private Facebook page.
"Too bad these precious neighborhoods aren't treated with more care," another neighbor added. "Big and bulky is not beautiful."
Unlike those who live in Oakwood, Boylan Heights, Mordecai Place and other old Raleigh neighborhoods, Oakdale residents don't have the protection of a locally or nationally designated historic status to shield them from outsized development that doesn't mesh with the neighborhood's character. They could only ask Beaman to build something that would be a better fit.
After speaking with the developer this weekend, Jon Zellweger, an architect who lives across the street from the property, says he's not hopeful.
"[It's] simply a sign, when taken along with the 50-plus new homes on the Tiny Town site," Zellweger told the INDY in an email, referring to a nearby neighborhood of small World War II-era houses demolished last year, "that development pressure has come to Oakdale."
Beaman did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Like Oakwood to the south, Oakdale was part of the area first known as Mordecai Grove, a plantation owned by the prominent Mordecai family; in 1877, the Mordecais began selling off their property. According to Karl Larson, a longtime Oakdale resident and local historian who publishes the blog Goodnight Raleigh, Oakdale evolved over three different periods of construction. A handful of homes were built from the 1890s through the 1910s; most of the bungalows were built during a construction boom in the 1920s; and a third wave of building happened after World War II. Many of these homes were cottages, one-story, single-family, few much bigger than 1,500 square feet.
A 1914 edition of the Sanborn fire insurance maps shows a home at 602 Holden St. "So we know for a fact that [the cottage] was built before 1914, and it was probably built back in the 1890s," says Larson. (Wake County real estate records indicate the cottage was built in 1917.)
The former owners, who had lived there for 20 years, sold the cottage to Beaman Building and Realty last October for $320,000. Neighbors thought Beaman was merely gutting the inside—until one day the roof was suddenly gone.
In the early 1990s, Oakdale was designated as a Neighborhood Conservation Overlay District, which limits the height of new construction to 35 feet and requires a minimum 15-foot setback from the street, unless a builder is preserving an old structure's original footprint. At 34 feet, 9 inches, Beaman's planned house edges under the maximum height allowed.
Since Oakdale isn't a historic district, there is no approval process for new construction—and ultimately no way for the city to delay or prohibit demolition.
"Historic designation allows for a one-year delay," Damien Graham, the city's public affairs director, told the INDY in an email. "Obtaining a demolition permit can be completed in a day. Going through the process of making a building a landmark, particularly over the owner's objections, is a long-term process. There is simply no way the city can use historic-preservation tools to protect an old building if the decision has already been made to tear it down."
Under the city's Unified Development Ordinance, demolition can only be forestalled in historic districts, of which there are two, but not in NCODs.
In response to what Larson calls "the first major intrusion" into the neighborhood in his 25-plus years of living there, working with the city to make Oakdale a historic district seems like a logical next step.
City Councilor Russ Stephenson says he's suggested such an idea to Oakdale residents, but hasn't yet "had the opportunity to gauge neighborhood sentiment on this."
"Most neighborhoods feel safe and comfortable until something they find unappealing happens," Stephenson says. "Then, people are motivated to say, 'Do we want to protect ourselves from more of this happening?'"
"I think it's time we took up the cause," says Larson. "The 602 Holden Street debacle might just be the catalyst to move forward in that direction."
This article appeared in print with the headline "When bigger isn't better"