Being a Good Neighbor Builder

This is an extended version of an article that was originally in the CityScape column of the November 2018 Voice Newsletter.

One of my favorite sayings is “The more things change, the more things stay the same”.  As an example, at first glance, it would seem that there is too much construction going on around town these days in Carmel-by-the-Sea.  But, let’s look back in time.  Santiago Duckworth sold the first 200 lots in Carmel City in only 6 months in 1889 and had sold 300 more by 1895.  That’s a lot of activity in an embryonic town!  Due to a number of factors, but mostly because the railroad didn’t come over the hill from Monterey as hoped and a 5 year depression that began in 1893, things slowed down.

Just before the turn of the century, however, James Devendorf picked up the ball from Duckworth and, in 1902, formally filed a revised subdivision map and started building the refreshed vision of the Carmel we now live in.  By 1920, there were 638 residents.  Picking a random month that year, records at City Hall showed a turnkey craftsman board and bat cottage was permitted for $200 with move-in scheduled for 30 days.  That same month, 18 houses were permitted from $200 - $5,000!  The longest move-in time was estimated at 6 months, which eventually turned into 8 months.  These timeframes were possible because many homes were single wall construction and built with virtually no formal regulations and no planning and building department.  Despite this, many of those houses still stand today.

Keep in mind that Ocean Avenue was paved in 1922 but the rest of the town still had dirt roads.  Despite this, the population grew to 2,260 by 1930.  Just think about that.  Over 1600 more people and the infrastructure to support them in only 10 years.  Can you imagine the amount of construction activity that was going on before the advent of motorized vehicles and paved roads at a time when our only police officer was still riding a horse!  Given that there still wasn’t a formal planning department you have to acknowledge the incredible vision of these early property owners, builders, and activist citizens to keep this activity under control and allow us to enjoy the town we have today.

Fast forward to 2018 and a Village that is pretty much built out.  One of the last vacant lots recently sold for about $1.1 million so, from now on, new construction will mean the elimination of one of those homes built back in our development heyday.  Somewhere along the way, building in our village shifted away from quaint cottages to 2nd or 3rd “mini-mansions” for the wealthy.  With modern building codes, planning commissions, and historic resource boards, the projects required to build these homes became much more complex and time consuming.  The typical non-trivial project now takes about 8 months for approval alone and from 1 - 3 years from construction start to move-in.

In 1910, there would have been just a few workers, maybe even one, on a project.  Now, an army of sub-contractors, with large trucks, tractors, and trailers take up entire neighborhoods.  As locals we know that every street in Carmel-by-the-Sea, including downtown, is residential.  Started in the era of horse and buggy with dirt roads, our Village clearly wasn’t designed to support these large-scale construction projects.  When writing this article, I became very impressed that the houses could be built at all on those steep hills with dirt roads and without motorized vehicles north of Ocean in the late 1800’s.

Given the current situation, what can prospective homebuilders and contractors do to minimize the challenges in modern-day Carmel-by-the-Sea?

  1. Live the design first. I have to say this is easier said than done, but it’s really cheap to think.  Kick around your ideas as long as you can before you officially start the project.  The overall project should be well thought out because making changes along the way causes delays and increase costs.  Architects need time to document the changes, structural engineers can be backed up for months, and the changes must be approved by a very busy planning and building department.  Changes have to ripple through many pages of the plansets which can be over 1/4” thick, the city change fees start adding up, and the hours spent by contractors also mount.

  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Talk to the neighbors that will be impacted.  Once again, that’s easier said than done.  Recently, our architect found out that someone living 3 blocks away had problems with one of his projects!  There are many different opinions on this but, in the end, it seems prudent to meet with obviously affected neighbors and share as much information as possible before the project begins.  Make them a “partner” in your project and walk them through your plans.  Getting their feedback early can avoid surprises, improve the sense of community, and you might even improve your design.  The litigiously minded will do what they are going to do whenever they find out and they might be angrier if they are surprised rather than involved early.

  1. Contractor Becomes a Neighbor. During a project, your contractor literally imbeds themselves in your neighborhood for a year or more.  They, in essence, become more of a neighbor than the 70% of homeowners that don’t live in Carmel full-time.  Make sure your contractor thinks like he’s a neighbor, not an outsider.  Many Carmelites have done one or more construction projects and know the drill.  It will impress them when you maintain a clean work site, don’t park in “their” parking spaces, carpool or disperse trucks so not all activity is in front of the job site, and don’t leave their dump-run trailers parked on the street.

  1. Hours Matter. While the City allows contractors to work from 8 am to 6:30 pm, try to schedule louder activities such as sawing and jack hammering after 9 am and before 5 pm and, try to not work after 4 or 5 on a regular basis.  It’s also good to inform neighbors when extra loud activities are going to take place or when large trucks will be present.  Only work on Saturdays when it is absolutely necessary.

  1. Shhh! Remind workers that their large trucks, especially diesels pulling trailers, cause obnoxious noise.  It is critical that they drive mindfully which includes accelerating slowly and driving with a “soft foot” under 20 mph in town.  Encourage them to buy quieter, right-sized vehicles for our Village.

While it always seems that things are getting worse and the situation is untenable at present, when you look around Carmel and see the large hotels, complicated commercial buildings with “secret” passageways and underground parking garages, and large houses sitting near small board and bat cottages, we realize this feeling has been felt by our Carmelites for a long, long time.  It seems that, despite the constant drum beat of the CRA and it’s predecessors to minimize project size and development in general, the City will continue to approve significant and complex projects that will be long-term compared to the 30 day move-in’s from the “old days”.  Let’s all work together to make sure that homeowners, developers, and contractors partner to keep Carmel a desirable and pleasant place to live.

To view the brochure that the CRA and CarmelCares put together to point out important points about design and construction in the Village click here. You can also pick up a copy of the printed brochure near the Planning Desk at City Hall.

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