Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

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.
The articles were pretty amazing, usually with two full pages inside the paper, replete with photographs of lost buildings.  From the first article:
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.

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.
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.

Apparently, ten years after the publication of the Squandered Heritage series, Chicago hasn't changed much (actually they do have the fabulous bungalow preservation program, see the 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.

“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.
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.

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.

This is on Delafield Place NW, on the 1300 or 1400 block.  I don't know for sure, but it's likely that the building on the left used to look like the building on the right. It was recently renovated.  Typically, houses of this style (wood-framed Italianate) are two stories high.

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.

Photo of 3823 Morrison Street NW.

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.

Yes, 3823 Morrison Street NW needs work, but preservation generally costs less than new construction and keeps more money in the local economy because more money is spent on labor than materials, which are usually sourced non-locally.

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.

A shot of the Morrison Street house shows it's identical in form to its next door neighbor.  Photos by Mary Rowse.

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At 3:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is all nice but when the local historic preservation junta- the CHRS- allows a perfectly good facade to be torn down- on C street se. between 8th & 9th streets- and at the same time fights transit, bicycles, density and pushes for parking over preservation- this is high time to call for a renewal of the historic associations which have been completely taken over by elderly NIMBYs and kooky eccentric people who put suburban mindsets over historic preservation. Young people are not welcome. Their brand of HP clearly is not working. I have also seen a number of pop ups allowed in the "historic district"- so money and lawyerly consdierations seem to trump design considerations. We need a pure historic preseravtion assoication not a NIMBY circus comprised of pro parking maniacs.

At 8:08 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Someone said something about confusing development with economic activity, and that was pretty profound.

Buildings should be a depreciating asset, and land an appreciating one. But even in DC I suspect the building and improvements are almost always worth more than the land.

I also get the argument that the streetcar era city got the city "Right" and we have to save that. But looking at the picture of Bloomingdale vs. Cap Hill Not sure why one is worse. Yes, I see the details but how is that killing the streetcar city?

IN car design they have the concept of right sizing. For instance a family car of 1960 is about the same size as a family car today. There was a lot of swelling up (most of the 60s and 70s) and too much downsizing (80s and 90s) but we return to the same size. I wonder if the same is true of housing.

At 8:26 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Also this:

At 2:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

other than the NIMBY infestation- my biggest problem with HP as we have it today is the rise of anti- aesthetics among the HP types- in other words- they no longer feel that a building is worthy if it is beautiful- and new ideals of what is worth saving have appeared to confuse the issue. Plus- some HP fanatics want any new additions to historic buildings to be blatantly modern so they can be distinguished apart- I am against this trend - strongly. If anything HP has its core in aesthetics and should not abandon it to saving modernist trash like the Christian Science monster on 16th street. Allowing that atrocity to stand while allowing REAL historic and old & beautifully made buildings to come down is a travesty. I believe we can have aesthetics and HP at the same time- and I also believe that people need to live inthese buildings and that you cannot hold the clock back. Some pop ups should be allowed- when designed with aesthetic appeal.

At 4:36 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

the thing about "modern" additions is derived from a certain strain of philosophy-thought in showing a marked difference between old and new that is derived from the "Secretary of Interior Guidelines".

The problem is that the guidelines are more focused on the individual building and not the context.

I happen to be in an e-conversation with Dennis Rockwell, a UK preservation consultant and prolific author, focused with heritage management in cities and he works on UNESCO World Heritage sites, and we are discussing this very issue, which I have written about separately quite a bit.

I agree with you (as does Notre Dame professor Stephen Semes in his book _Future of the Past_ and Rockwell) and think that DC should reorient its preservation practice that way, but it is still a minority argument in the general profession, especially in the US.

The "locals" are just repeating what they know to be the standard practice.

That being said, there are still reasons to save modernist "trash", although I'd argue that "special merit" arguments in terms of urban design can be used to puncture the veil and let the property be replaced, depending.

Just as there are reasons to allow "historic" buildings to change. E.g. to the best of our knowledge, our 1929 bungalow wasn't built with a "traditionally-styled" porch. If I ever start making money, we'd like to put a porch on. Now our neighborhood isn't designated, so this is not relevant were it in a historic district, but it is a change, even if it is not out of character.

And you might be surprised to find I am not against popups, just think that there should be a system and process to produce aesthetically compatible popups, which is what was done historically anyway. Apparently the French Empire 3rd floors we see on a lot of buildings were a way to add a floor...

At 4:46 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Cap. Hill vs. Bloomingdale -- the point I was trying to make wasn't that one was better than the other, but that they are equally beautiful and virtually identical, but that one has extranormal protections against doing gnarly s*** and the other doesn't.

2. I was never good at high finance. I don't see how in a market like DC the George style tax would make a difference.

I hate to sound like I agree with Ryan Avent and Ed Glaeser and Matt Yglesias, but they are right about unnecessary restrictions on zoning, or maybe more accurately, development capability and capacity, which prevents constructing more buildings.

The difference between them and me is that I want to do this while minimizing the destruction of historic properties, and they don't.

That's why I am probably ok with changing the height limit downtown--most of it has been destroyed anyway--because the loss in viewsheds will be made up by more taxing capacity which can be used to reinvest in the city.

It's why I am ok with building up in commercial districts and at Metro stations.

It's why I am fine with ADUs.

It's why I think there should be a transit station catchment area overlay to allow another floor or two on apartment buildings (e.g., why is the new building on Carroll Ave. in Takoma DC four stories and not five stories when it is 1.5 blocks from the Metro...

It's why I think we can selectively rebuild, replat, etc. certain areas that are undercapacity (e.g., that "empty" land that is just part of long lots on Puerto Rico Ave. NE between Taylor Street and Buchanan Street. It's the backside of lots.

It could be remade into a row of rowhouses. Now it's just "wasted" space that needs a high land tax...

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