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Tulsa Teardowns Trend

The National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference came to Tulsa, and with it, lots of opportunities to volunteer and learn more about our community.  Preservation happens at the local level.  The Tulsa Foundation for Architecture is hard at work

  • saving our historic places,
  • revitalizing neighborhoods and downtown,
  • advocating for good preservation policy, and
  • educating the public on several key historic preservation issues affecting Tulsans right now.

One of the most pressing issues currently is the “Teardown Trend.”

This is defined as the practice of purchasing and demolishing an existing house to make way for a new, much larger house in its place.

It may seem simple and harmless, but teardowns can totally transform the streetscape of an established neighborhood and destroy its character.  The loss of contributing structures within a historic neighborhood is serious especially when they are replaced with massive, out-of-scale new houses, referred to as “McMansions.”

This threat to community character is seen in the

  • removal of trees,
  • elimination of backyards, and
  • the reduction in sunlight – all affecting the livability of the neighborhood.

Teardowns also alter a community’s economic and social environment by

  • reducing the number of “starter” homes and
  • driving out moderate- and fixed-income residents.

Teardowns are harmful to the environment because they

  • ignore the value of the embodied energy in existing houses,
  • generate huge amounts of debris and waste in the landfill,
  • reduce the tree canopy, and
  • increase pressures on existing infrastructure.

To better understand this phenomenon, I will explain what is driving this trend, where and why the teardowns are occurring, and suggest methods to tame the trend.

There are 4 factors generally at work in the spread of teardowns:

1.       Real estate prices have increased making it more feasible to demolish an existing small house and replace it with a larger home that will command an even higher price.  The lot on which the small house stood has become more valuable than the original house itself.

2.      The size of the average American has more than doubled since the 1950s – now nearly 2,500 square feet.

3.      Zoning and land-use provisions in the Tulsa Comprehensive Plan are inadequate and woefully out of date, last revised in 1970.

4.      People want to live in Midtown – closer to the City Center and a nice alternative to the long commute to the soulless southeast Tulsa.

Where are the teardowns a problem in Tulsa? Most often they occur in desirable areas where there are good schools and other public or scenic amenities nearby like Utica Square, Woodward Park/Tulsa Rose Garden, Cherry Street, Swan Lake, and Brookside areas where one can shop, eat, and enjoy after-hours and weekend entertainment.  The public and private schools in those areas include Lee, Eliot, Marquette, Monte Cassino, and Cascia Hall.

What can communities do to tame the teardown trend?

Be proactive and develop relationships with your city councilors and community groups who can help in setting goals and assessing the pros and cons of infill development.

There are many approaches – no single tool solves every problem, but a combination of strategies can work most effectively.

Here are 2 approaches either currently in effect or being considered for inclusion in my district:

1.      Historic Preservation Overlay Zoning:  this is a special zoning classification that adds development and design constraints to the underlying zoning for specified historic districts.  The neighborhoods draft the guidelines themselves and vote as a neighborhood to enforce these guidelines.  The local enforcement agency is the Tulsa Preservation Commission, a part of the City of Tulsa.

2.      Conservation Districts:  this is a hot topic right now – one that promotes the overall character of the community rather than identifying the specific historic fabric (details like original windows, doors, rooflines, and the integrity of the architectural style).  Massing and setbacks are key in conservation districts.

There are a number of other regulatory tools that could be implemented in managing the teardown trend in Tulsa, but only time will tell if they will be incorporated.


In 2002, the National Trust for Historic Preservation identified 100 communities in 20 states that were experiencing teardowns in historic neighborhoods.  In May 2006 there were 300 communities in 33 states.  By March of 2008, that number has increased to nearly 500 communities in 40 states.

The New York metropolitan area is the epicenter of the teardown epidemic, with New Jersey ranking first in the nation in the number of places experiencing significant numbers of teardowns.

Major concentrations of teardowns are occurring in and around Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, New York City, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Tulsa, and Washington, DC.  According to the National Trust.

  • It’s time to get involved.  Join the TFA;
  • volunteer your time and talent to
  • preserve Tulsa’s historic neighborhoods, revitalize downtown, and
  • plan proactively with a vision for the future that includes the rich cultural heritage of Tulsa’s past.