New-Old Infill Housing

The Kinsman House moving along NE MLK
The Kinsman House moving along NE MLK

By winter Eliot will have new infill housing that is as old as the neighborhood.  Let me explain.

The call came in mid-2007, “Want to move another house?  I have a lot and we can go 50/50.”  The Kinsman house was built in 1908 near NE 7th and Broadway and was recently used as an annex to the Mountain Shop.  It is a large building – and tall.  Unfortunately, the available lot in Eliot was 10 blocks away down tree-lined streets.  So the first order of business was to find out what route had both the width and the fewest trees.  Next we tried to discover what the City’s tree trimming/cutting policy was for house moves.  Six months and a letter to the Mayor later, we finally got a response, “We won’t tell you until you have your building permit.”  Thus began the first of many Catch-22 situations we had to resolve.  Although the City’s building move process is better than is used to be, it is still poorly implemented.

In the absence of a prompt response to our questions, we decided to locate the building behind two existing homes we own that were several blocks closer just off MLK.  That route left plenty of room for the house to pass between the trees in the sidewalk and median.  It reduced the number of trees that would need to be trimmed or removed.   After giving up and reconsidering several times, we finally had answers we thought we could trust and permits in-hand.  By now it was spring and the move schedule kept getting delayed by City staff who were on vacation, had a wedding, Rose Festival, etc., etc.  Finally, the stars aligned and a fine Sunday in June 2008 the building was moved.

The move was delayed for almost two hours because a company had strung internet cables on power poles without required permits.  Since the owners of the lines were unknown, none of the utility crews would relocate them.  Finally one of the contractors working for one of the utilities took it upon himself to move the wires.  The next hitch was a street light that was just a little too close.  City crews were able to tip it out of the way enough for the house to pass.  Then came the trees; unfortunately, the months of delays caused by the City meant the move happened after the trees along MLK had leafed out and couldn’t be bent out of the way.  The trade off at that point was to radically trim mature trees along the sidewalk, cut down six young trees in the median, or demolish the building and send 20 acres worth of wood and 20 tons of debris to a landfill.  The small trees lost.

We anticipated the tree removal and had reached an understanding with city staff about replacement options.  Unfortunately, an observer along the route, not knowing or our agreement, took it upon himself to call the Mayor and each council person to make a stink about “unauthorized” tree cutting.  The staff commitment was overruled by a timid councilman and instead of the $2,000 we agreed to, we ended up paying almost $15,000 to replace the trees.  That is more than it would have cost for the lumber to build the house!  The good news is that this payment allowed the City to replace all of the trees in the median (over half of which had been mowed down by vehicles at no cost to the drivers).  In theory, our payment is supposed to include 3-years of maintenance so the new trees should be well established.  The bad news is the controversy produced new rules about tree cutting during house moves that will make it even more difficult to preserve old homes in the future.

We were lucky the controversy didn’t erupt until the next day as it was very dispiriting.  But the rest of the move proceeded as planned.  We were fortunate to have the cooperation of the three adjacent landowners to the lot where we moved the house.  Each was willing to let us cross their property from MLK.  It took the better part of the next day to move the house into the backyards of two homes fronting Thompson, where it sits today.

The building has since been repaired inside to restore it for residential use.  The entire building is newly weatherized to standards in excess of current building codes including use of rainwater for toilet flushing.  The new basement is being converted into a two bedroom apartment.  Because it is at ground level, it was designed to be “adaptable” for the mobility impaired, including a barrier-free shower, wide doorways and halls, etc.  An open house is planned once construction is complete, as yet unknown.

During the course of the project we have answered a host of questions about building moves.  Here are answers to some of the most common.  It is not cheaper to move a house than to build new.  This project will cost almost twice as much, but a lot of those costs are due to the delays, design issues and permits that don’t normally apply to new construction.  The reward goes beyond saving a fine old home. In this case, the building provided a unique setting for fine woodwork and unusual stained and lead glass windows.  During the move and restoration process we met many of the former tenants of the building.  Most were overcome with emotion when they found out the building was being saved.  Preserving their memories and personal history is priceless.  Further, siting an older building in Eliot conserves the historic character of the neighborhood for all residents.  It provides new residential options for people wanting to live in Eliot that fits the character and fabric of the neighborhood.  It is evidence that infill need not look like a refrigerator; boxy, sterile, and utilitarian.   Finally, it reduces urban sprawl.