Cary confronts its sameness

Staff WriterMay 5, 2007 

— It took the residents of Remington Oaks Circle a while to adjust to the sameness of their block. They had to use small cues to tell their homes from their neighbors', such as the stonework on the garage.

"I've pulled into my neighbor's driveway many times," said Debbie Davis. "One time I even put my key into the door. I was like, 'Why is the key not working?' "

It is one of the oldest complaints about suburbia: The houses look the same. Urbanites laugh about it, academics write about it, and folk singers wail about it. Now, developers and suburban planners are getting into the act.

Cary planners are drawing up anti-monotony rules that would require builders to vary the look of new homes. The Town Council will consider them later this year. Should it approve them, the town would join a small group of communities in Arizona, Illinois and elsewhere demanding architectural variety in new neighborhoods.

"I think it's good to discuss," said Councilwoman Jennifer Robinson. "If we don't improve the distinguishment of some of these houses we may have to start painting the numbers on the curb."

The proposal has caused worry for those who find economy in monotony. Builders cut production costs by limiting construction options. That gives buyers a chance to get a bigger home or a place in a nicer community than they might otherwise be able to afford.

"They may think it looks nice, but in practicality it's going to create some challenges," Tim Minton, head of the Home Builders Association of Raleigh-Wake County. "My concern is they're going to be pushing people out of Cary over time."

Debates over the looks of suburban neighborhoods have raged since suburbia's boom began after World War II. Scoffers have been around almost as long as the houses. They even have a theme song: Malvina Reynolds' 1960s ditty "Little Boxes," which describes "little boxes made of ticky tacky" where people are "all the same."

At the heart of the controversy is a speed-building technique still in use today: replication of a model home. Towns started banning cookie-cutter construction in the 1970s, though no community in the Triangle has gone that far yet. Before Cary started studying the idea, the last mention of anti-monotony rules came in a 2002 Wake County draft report on growth management options.

The push for more variety in Cary runs slightly counter to the town's mandate for brown-tinted sameness. This is a place where McDonald's cannot display its golden arches above the road and homeowners associations regulate residents' home colors, mailbox choices and height of fences.

"It's good and it's bad," said Ray Kouzel, 38, who lives with his parents on a cul-de-sac of 17 nearly identical brick homes. "Everything's beige, and everything's the same shade, but that's a good thing to me. Having some uniformity to the neighborhood keeps everybody from doing something really outrageous."

Town planners have decided against a strict anti-monotony code. Instead, they have drawn up a proposal that would require neighboring homes to vary in color, design or height, among other things. Development industry representatives who reviewed the draft rules this week did not object much, in part because most builders already do that.

"There are some communities now in Cary that if you had been drinking, you wouldn't know which house was yours," said Jerry Turner, a development consultant. "The development community doesn't want that."

It remains unclear whether such a rule would actually ensure that all new homes in Cary would be easily distinguishable from their neighbors. Builders in the only other place in the state with anti-monotony rules, Cabarrus County outside Charlotte, just started building the first subdivision under the regime. In Carol Stream, Ill., outside Chicago, the anti-monotony rules have not prevented motivated builders from putting up cookie-cutter neighborhoods, according to Village Planner John Svalenka.

"To the trained eye, they're pretty monotonous, still," Svalenka said.

N.C. State University architecture professor Paul Tesar said the best way to make suburbia a more varied place may be to give it time. Residents eventually will settle in and make renovations. Saplings will grow into big trees.

"I'm not sure whether dictating variety is the right way to go about it," he said. "It will still seem sort of fake and artificial as well."

Change is likely to come, no matter what. Levittown, N.Y., the most famous of the early cookie-cutter subdivisions, has turned into a showcase of suburban variety after six decades of paint jobs, renovations and homegrown architectural customization. It's the immutable law of suburbia: The houses cannot stay the same forever. The people inside them are too different.

Staff writer Toby Coleman can be reached at 829-8937 or toby.coleman@newsobserver.com.

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