Without remedies there's nothing you can do: historic preservation in Chicago and DC
I became a fervent historic preservationist because during the many decades when residential preferences did not favor living in center cities, preservationists were the people buying and fixing up "old" houses in urban areas, thereby stabilizing those neighborhoods, and preserving those neighborhoods for the potential of later success.
Therefore, back then, around 2000, I became convinced that historic preservation is the only real sustainable neighborhood revitalization strategy there is.
Although later I figured out that if you add transit to the mix, it can be a great combination. It's no secret that most of the successful neighborhoods in the city, those comprised of historic building stock dating from 1940 and earlier, tend to have Metrorail connections.
Early on in my involvement, I came across an amazing series of articles in the Chicago Tribune called "Squandered Heritage," about the failures of the Daley Administration to support historic preservation--many campaign donors were affiliated with companies that benefited from contracts for property demolition--even though the city had done a pretty good job of documenting neighborhoods and exemplary buildings.
- Squandered Heritage Part 1: Search and Destroy (Chicago Tribune)
- Squandered Heritage Part 2: Demolition Machine (Chicago Tribune)
- Squandered Heritage Part 3: Alternatives (Chicago Tribune)
Mayor Richard M. Daley and his administration have failed to back up the survey with the necessary protections, and in essence have encouraged the rampant demolition of buildings they purportedly had sought to preserve.The point that's important is that in order to preserve buildings, you need legal protections. Without them (remedies) you have no recourse, no ability to reshape the process.
Hundreds of buildings have been smashed to bits, carted off to dumps, buried in the ground, the shards of their decoration destroyed or sold to salvagers who peddled them to art museums, restaurants and affluent homeowners.
A simple spot-check of some of the more than 17,000 buildings listed as significant by the survey, conducted by Tribune reporters driving and walking through randomly selected Chicago neighborhoods, identified more than 200 structures that have been destroyed -- often, as further investigation showed, with the knowledge and approval of the city.
The demolished structures -- Beaux-Arts commercial buildings, Chateauesque rowhouses, Georgian mansions, Queen Anne taverns, Romanesque churches, Spanish Baroque theaters -- stretched from Rogers Park on the north to Roseland on the south, from the Gold Coast on the east to Austin on the west.
There were enough to fill a small town.
The demolitions have punched gaping holes in the city's poor neighborhoods while radically altering the character of more affluent ones.
They have cost taxpayers millions of dollars. They have been carried out by companies that stock mayoral and aldermanic campaign chests. And, in many cases, they have been done without permits, violating the law.
Historic Chicago Bungalow Initiative).
The Chicago Magazine has an article, "This Old House Will Soon Be a Vacant Lot," about the loss of a distinctive building in the Sheridan Park neighborhood (building pictured at left, image by Dennis Rodkin), and the desire by the new owners to build a 6 unit apartment building in its place (the building does have fire damage inside).
It's unfortunate that despite the great articles from 2003, the gaps in legal protections for preservation weren't addressed.
The Chicago situation is frustrating because the purchasers intend to demolish the building even if they don't get permission to build a new building, and it seems certain they won't get the permission. The owners are glad to produce an empty lot. From the article:
After skirmishing with preservationists all fall, the developers who bought this 19th-century home in the Sheridan Park section of Uptown on January 10 say they’ll demolish it soon. That’s even though they don’t expect to get approval to build an apartment building in its place.When you have the right set of preservation laws in place, including restrictions on demolition, the overall built environment can be protected from ill-advised or mendacious property owners, but without such protections, there is nothing you can do.
“I’ll knock it down and it will be another vacant lot in Uptown,” Mike Finan told me. With his wife, Liz, Finan owns and manages a portfolio of rentals in and near Uptown. They also own O’Shaugnessy’s Public House in Ravenswood. Two weeks after this house on a double city lot went on the market in August, the Finans put in a contract at the full asking price, planning to replace the 2,700-square-foot Victorian with a six-flat of rentals.
DC: better than Chicago but not perfect either. In DC, we have much stronger historic preservation protections compared to Chicago, however, they are all or nothing.
In historic districts, there is a lot of protection. In undesignated neighborhoods-- many of which are no different than the designated neighborhoods in terms of the age and quality of the building stock--there are no protections whatsoever (* with one exception, sort of, see below).
These rowhouses in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of DC (pictured above) have no historic preservation protections--and a building in the middle is being reformulated with an addition significantly out of character compared to the rest of the row--but are otherwise comparable to designated houses in the Capitol Hill neighborhood (image below).
Basic preservation protections should be in place for the entire city. In undesignated neighborhoods the likelihood of demolition, new construction, tear downs, erzatz additions (pop-ups, etc.) and otherwise crappy stuff is much more likely to happen.
I have been arguing that we need to extend design review and demolition protections across the city to otherwise unprotected areas using the concept of the cultural landscape and the idea of heritage areas since DC's competitive advantages are related in large part to the historic nature of its built environment ("Historic preservation builds value, and is central to DC's competitive advantage as a unique place for residents and visitors").
But there isn't much support for it on the part of the development industry, the planning office, and the younger set seems to deride the idea too. "Citywide historic review is not the answer to ugly pop-ups" in GGW criticized the entry where I proposed the idea, "Changing matter of right zoning regulations for houses to conform to heights typical within neighborhoods, not the allowable maximum."
The attempt to assuage some of my concerns (triggered by earlier concerns about H Street, see "Demolition, demolition by neglect, and the need for better laws and processes in DC") was addressed in the proposed update to the DC preservation law in 2004-2005, but the proposals to extend demolition protections to undesignated areas were eliminated from the final legislation.
Frankly, I think the provisions were to mollify me and scare the developers, who with those provisions deleted from the bill, were less likely to oppose other elements of the legislation.
3823 Morrison Street NW and the Chevy Chase neighborhood. Even in very highly priced neighborhoods like Chevy Chase, where in the 1/15/2014 editions, the Current Newspapers are reporting on a situation very similar to that of the property in Chicago's Sheridan Park neighborhood ("Chevy Chase neighbors battle raze application"), where a small-time developer wants to tear down a large building and build an even larger one, there is no guarantee that property owners care much about historic preservation.
I've done some "back of the envelope calculations" and in most scenarios, it's more profitable to renovate the building than construct something new, unless (1) you use very cheap materials and/or (2) create a duplex.
Either will have debilitating impact on neighborhood character and the architectural coherence of the built environment.
Preservation and restoration is likely the best choice, but there are no "remedies" in place to push the property owner "towards" "making the right decision."
Conclusion. In places like Chicago or St. Louis (see "Razing of St. Louis theater sparks calls to change demolition laws" from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch), preservation protections need to be systematized.
In places like DC, which seemingly has strong preservation protections, preservation protections need to be extended to cover evident gaps and lack of protections for equally deserving properties and for design review more generally (see the blog entries "More on design review" and "Baltimore has better design review requirements (for large projects) than DC" about the debacle of a glass facade apartment building to be constructed in the Chevy Chase neighborhood).
* In DC, there is one potential remedy to ward off demolition of an undesignated building, and that is to file a landmark nomination.
But it is almost impossible for individual buildings to meet the criteria for being designated as a historic landmark, whereas it's very easy for such properties to win protection as a "contributing structure" in a neighborhood historic district (see "Historic preservation isn't just a designation, it's also a tool of revitalization").
This is from another old blog entry from 2005:
Criteria for Evaluation (from the National Register of Historic Places website)**
The quality of significance in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture is present in districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects that possess integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association, and:
A. That are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; or
B. That are associated with the lives of persons significant in our past; or
C. That embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; or
D. That have yielded or may be likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history.
** Usually Criterion C covers the creation of historic districts. The criteria used in DC are slightly different, but derive from the NR criteria.________________________
The other is the preservation of the nexus of place, architecture, and social, cultural, and/or economic history. This as you know is the basic justification of the creation of neighborhood historic districts. The average building in such a district doesn't merit designation on its own. What matters is the power and beauty and coherence of the whole.