As McMansions invade, Excelsior faces an identity crisis

As old homes are torn down and new ones rise in their place, some feel the character of Excelsior is being exiled.

As old homes are torn down and new ones rise in their place, some feel the character of Excelsior is being exiled. Hannah Jones

Welcome to Excelsior.

Just past the stretch of quirky downtown shops -- there’s Tony’s Barber, with taxidermied animals peering out from behind the window, and Leipold’s Gifts and Antiques -- you see bold arch with capital letters: “PORT OF EXCELSIOR.” Beyond lies Lake Minnetonka, still shingled with patchy ice while empty docks wait for lake weather.

The homes here are what you’d expect -- mostly old, mostly charming. Here a splash of Easter pink siding, there a gable reaching for heaven, with the gentle touch of time gone by in the small nicks and faded colors.

If you search Zillow, there are 11 properties for sale in Excelsior. They range from empty lots worth $150,000 to a $2.5 million five-bedroom on the lakeshore, where you could hear the lapping water from your bedroom. “Rare opportunity in one of Lake Minnetonka's most sought-after communities!” the description reads. The house has been family-owned for 60 years.

“We have a lot of large homes in town, and have always had large homes in town,” says Excelsior resident Terry Rossi. She lives not far from the lake in an old residential area known as the Village. It’s not outlined on any map, but people who live in Excelsior know the Village. It’s like Stars Hollow in Gilmore Girls or hundreds of Thomas Kinkade paintings smashed together.

The Village is full of homes where a middle-to-upper-middle-class families of four could share a comfortable – if intimate and occasionally messy – life together. They’re houses where you would guess the floorboards on certain steps creak, and the upstairs movements of moms, dads, kids, and pets could be tracked by a roving sigh through the ceilings.

But you’ll also see a few new things if you’re driving down George or Lake Street these days. They’re the new arrivals, the sprawling homes popping out of the old-town scenery.

They’re the kinds of places you’d suppose an orthodontist would live, or maybe a corporate veep who likes to boat. Parts of them look old-fashionedish. There are gables. There are columns. But there are no mildewed treehouses out back. Time and the elements wash off easily.

If this were a diorama instead of a living, breathing community, one would guess these pieces came from a newer set -- a bit less classic, a bit more plastic.

You will also notice the little signs that crop up on street corners, which say in another set of capital letters: “PROTECT EXCELSIOR.”

The Protect Excelsior campaign is a movement as undefined but generally understood as the Village. It got off the ground last August, Rossi says, but it’s something the neighbors have been talking about for years.

In the past few years, a number of Excelsior’s old homes have been torn down. Some were so old that repair was impractical or impossible.

The new homes arrived in their place. They’d tower over the others right and left. Neighbors would suddenly find themselves living in shade. The new homes didn’t match the look or the feel of the Village.

New homes are not unprecedented, Rossi says. Nor are big houses. But lately, things seemed to be changing all at once. In the past five or six years, she says, things have started to feel different around town.

So last August, a few folks on George Street got together and formed a loosely associated movement. The Protect Excelsior group wanted more regulations on building permits. They wanted bigger setbacks and height restrictions. They wanted smaller footprints. Maybe even create a Neighborhood Conservation District, as Stillwater has done, to protect the essential character of the Village.

Rossi says most aren’t against new construction altogether, though there may be some in the bunch who more closely align with that sentiment. Mostly they just want a more controlled plan for Excelsior’s aesthetic future.

“Excelsior has always been known as a quaint community,” Rossi says. “It gets to be that things change so much that a place stops being itself.”

They handed out signs over the next few months. They set up office hours in the library to talk about the Old Excelsior-New Excelsior problem. Rossi wrote a letter to the City Council asking for additional standards for new homes.

“Housing size can be significantly restricted, for the greater good. Market forces do not always win in communities that take action to protect themselves,” she wrote.

In January, the City Council put a moratorium on issuing building permits. They had until May to figure out how to handle this. They appointed a task force.

“I think the Protect Excelsior movement has good intentions,” says Bed Stedman, a member of the task force. He gets it. They want to protect the “small-town feel” and the charm of the place.

But these old homes are crumbling, and something has to go up in their place. There are already zoning rules, he says. There are already setback rules. How much should government control the way homes look? Especially for the sake of something as nebulous as “charm”?

“We want to get more single families moving in,” he says. “I don’t know how much further the City Council should go.”

The task force is still working toward something like a compromise -- a few more height restrictions or setback restrictions -- but it’s been difficult to find a solution for a town that’s already architecturally diverse.

Yes, Rossi says, a lot of people are feeling a little prickly. It’s common for towns struggling to identify what they are and what they’ll become. Old, cherished places are becoming popular, and popularity is changing them.

“Possibly it’s completely unrealistic,” Rossi says.

Still, people have their signs. They bump into each other at the Kowalski’s. They talk in their driveways. And they know what they want their town to look like.