Reporter’s Notebook The Disposable Neighborhood

In Piano, quick-hit developers and transient buyers have combined to build a new kind of city. The problem? Shoddy developments might one day be manufactured slums.

ROBERT HOPSON SCRATCHES HIS GOATEE AND LAUGHS. “Now this is cheap,” he says, turning a slow circle in the living room of a new house off Legacy Drive in Piano. Hopson, a specialist in custom home remodeling, disdains nearly every interior feature of the red-brick home, model number 226R.

“Everything about this is cheap,” he says. “There’s almost no molding. The windows are aluminum-the cheapest you can buy.”

Welcome to Briar Meadow II. a 200-unit tract development in America’s fastest-growing community. A quintessential Piano subdivision. Briar Meadow’s streets bear decidedly inapt names (Clearwater Court, Skyline Drive); the houses are tedious replications of one another; and the air is filled with the buzz, rap. and whir of raw shelter assembly out on the prairie.

But to focus on the poor construction, as Robert Hopson does, or to decry Briar Meadow’s vapid architecture, is to miss what is really occurring there and elsewhere in the suburbs. These houses are not built to last, and most of the people who will buy them couldn’t care less. Here off Legacy Drive, anew residential concept is being born-the disposable upscale neighborhood.

Who would want to live in one of these mass-produced houses, with their cheap windows, particle-board cabinets, and bottom-of-the-line appliances? Corporate gypsies, for the most part, upwardly mobile junior executives at nearby J.C. Penney or EDS or Frito-Lay who plan to live on Clearwater Court or Skyline Drive for five years or less before their career paths lead them out of Briar Meadow, and probably Piano, too.

The more important question for the city is, what will they leave behind?

Jeff Witt, the long-range planner for the city of Frisco who held the same job in Piano for 2/2 years, fears a manufactured slum. “1 was always concerned with the housing stock in Piano,” he says. “You have people who don*l want to invest in their houses. Ultimately, you have a very expensive deteriorating structure.”

Make that structures. Last year alone, 3,145 houses were built in Piano, an average of almost nine new completions every day. Almost three-quarters of the Piano houses built so far this year are more than 3,000 square feet. In five years, 90 percent of the city’s land will be subdivided. For now, those figures spell good news for builders and real estate agents, and for the city’s tax base. But in the eyes of craftsmen like Hopson, the boom is only a precursor to an inevitable decline. The biggest residential success story in North Texas is poised to become a development nightmare.

Hopson, founder of Homeworks Restoration & Design, has been remodeling custom homes in Dallas for five years. Plump, with a boyish face and a smooth Mississippi accent, he looks a little like a young Bob Vila, cable TV’s guru of home repair. When we walk through the doorway at 3720 Lowrey Way, a 3600-square-foot house that sells for $272,990, the normally subdued Hopson grows agitated.

“There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors here,” he says. “Everything is new and shiny, but that doesn’t mean it’s not cheap.”

As we move from the living room to the kitchen to the bedroom, Hopson points out all the deficiencies and explains that in order to sell a house this large for this price, builders have to cut corners on virtually everything. The framing may be okay, he says, but the finish-out is horrible. The kitchen countertop is laminate. The kitchen cabinets have the cheapest hinges available. The vent over the oven is a thin sheet of flim-sy alloy, and the tile floor is made of ceramic that feels like plastic. The stairway spindles are painted unevenly.

In the master bath, Hopson stops. “I could sell these houses all day long. If I were a Realtor, I’d say, ’Look at these privacy windows.’ But I wouldn’t tell you they were acrylic. I’d tell you how we built the man’s vanity a little higher than the woman’s. But I wouldn’t point out how the mirrors above them aren’t hung evenly.*’ He points to the three mirrors that line the wall, and the slight downward slope from the right comer. And the cabinets in the bathroom, Hopson says, opening and closing one under the taller vanity, are the lowest quality you can buy.

Throughout the house, it’s the same story-wherever the builder could save a penny, he did. The particle-board shelves in the master closet will warp as soon as someone spills a glass of water on them. Hollow-core doors are so thin a swift kick could easily bust a hole in one side. The living room light fixtures are flimsy but polished, among the cheapest you can buy. The fenceposts are landscape-grade lumber, the same kind you might use as a border for your flower bed.

Hopson seems genuinely surprised at the extent of the house’s deficiencies. He stops in the foyer and shakes his head before we leave. “From the light fixtures to the cabinets to the floor fixtures, everything is cheap,” he says. “Everything.”

This house at Briar Meadow is not unique. Throughout Piano, developments are filled with production homes that, as a matter of simple economics, are poorly made. Communities like Spring Ridge, a 70-house development off Legacy Drive, feature houses made with profit margins- not longevity-in mind. And though these developments bear regal names-Legacy Hills, Bradford Estates, Hunter’s Glen- they are uniformly bland. Nearly all the homes look alike, with red-brick facades, steep-pitched roofs, small yards, and cookie-cutter landscaping. (Each home in Briar Meadow comes with exactly two trees and 35 shrubs.) And while Briar Meadow isn’t among the city’s most expensive developments (homes here range from $190,000 to more than $270,000), even the upper-end neighborhoods suffer from cost-cutting. At LakeSide on Preston, a development with great cachet by local standards. $600,000 homes come with aluminum windows and nearly treeless yards.

IT ISN’T ONLY CUSTOM BUILDERS LIKE HOPSON who see a looming problem for Piano’s housing market. Local architect Frank Welch, FAIA, says the design of developments such as Briar Meadow is riddled with problems. “Those Piano things are the scourge of popular architecture,” he says briskly. “They’re so pretentiously arrogant in their presentation. It’s a very loud language-all that height and all that roof and the entrance hall that’s supposed to make you fall to your knees…. These houses strive for some cachet of good breeding and wealth. It’s all symbol. It’s empty.”

Jeff Witt knows that for many developers-and the city agencies responsible for monitoring them-such questions of aesthetics are inconsequential. He says the city “has been on automatic pilot for some time. When development is booming, everyone’s attention is focused on that because that’s where the money is. In order to retain people and keep that reputation, they’re going to have to be able to retain that infrastructure.”

Witt isn’t optimistic about the city’s chances of doing that. And unlike many civic employees, he doesn’t speak in bureaucratic platitudes. “Within the last decade we’ve seen most of middle management dissolve,” he says. “The resale of these houses is going to be a serious concern.”

Witt says that the irony of the looming problem of shoddy Piano housing is that it is a direct result of the city’s incredible growth and success. Perhaps the biggest reason the city has been able to attract some of the best companies in America is the affordable housing. Developers who erected hundreds of homes a year and kept unit costs down could sell for cheap and still maintain a solid profit margin, and employees transferred from Los Angeles or Phoenix or Boston were amazed to find 3.000 square feet for $250,000. The waves of migratory rich moved to North Texas, and, in a state where unions have always been weak, the work of laying bricks or installing carpentry-jobs traditionally performed by trained, unionized craftsmen-was done by workers with no specialized training. Although cheap labor almost always equals cheap workmanship, all the elements necessary for an unparalleled building boom were there: an abundance of low-wage immigrant workers, low interest rates, and great schools. The race was on.

According to Witt, the problem probably won’t be evident until homeowners try to sell their houses. By then, the newest development with the flashiest marketing campaign will be attracting the high-dollar buyer, and the only candidates left will be more transferred employees, people who want a temporary house until they move again. A cycle has been bom. and the one missing ingredient is that which keeps a community solid: reinvestment.

“There’s going to have to be some reinvestment,” Witt says. “Certain citizens perceive Piano as the new Highland Park. But Highland Park didn’t get to be Highland Park by resting on its laurels.”

What distinguishes a town like Highland Park is, in part, the diversity of its homes. It is a community that, while prohibitively expensive for most, feels unique rather than manufactured. Briar Meadow, though, feels like what it is: a manufactured neighborhood. It is yesterday’s tract development morphed into an overpriced trailer park tor today’s corporate nomads. Like the street names that conjure images of woods and water that don’t exist here, the architectural design of the development is rootless. No marketing semantics can make it otherwise.

“I always chuckle when I see these signs for ’custom homes,’” Witt says. “Basically, you’re checking off options on a number of different floor plans. That’s not a custom home. That’s a tract house with options.”

But the people don’t seem to mind-yet. The polish and sheen of new amenities take some time to wear off. Until then, the air remains abuzz with the sound of construction, and the streets are lined with cement mixers. More than anything, what’s being built here is an idea that has, for the most part, served the city well. But the halcyon present is every day inching its way toward a precarious future.

Jeff Witt, for one, is worried about that. “Plano is perceived as a very affluent town,” he says. “It’s a nice ZIP code to have. But that perception can change very quickly.”


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