Friday, March 24, 2006

Losing Another Old House in the Community

The Edison-Norwood Times-Review is running a story in this weeks issue about another Victorian house in Old Norwood that is about to face the wrecking ball. That link is active for only a limited time, so let me quote just a bit from the article:

Time is running out for a Norwood Park home that was built shortly after the community was annexed by the city of Chicago in 1893.

The James A. Low house, 5957 N. Nina Ave., a single-family, frame residence is targeted for demolition. According to records from the City Landmarks Commission, the application for a demolition permit was put on a hold list Jan. 23, postponing a decision for 90 days.

On the Chicago Historical Resources Survey, the house is rated "orange" -- the second highest classification -- meaning it "possesses potential significant architectural or historical features."

The house, which according to the survey was constructed beginning in 1895, was also listed as "contributing" to the Norwood Park National Register District.

* * *

Alderman Brian Doherty, R-41st, said he was informed by Brian Goeken, deputy commissioner of Landmarks, that the house does not meet the criteria necessary to designate it a city landmark. Doherty called the standards "very subjective."

The Norwood Park Historical Society's Tom Spenny called the Low House an important piece of neighborhood history that warrants preservation.

He has been trying to save the Low house, but doesn't expect it to remain intact much past April 23, when the demolition hold period expires.

The story illustrates a growing problem in the City of Chicago: How do we preserve our past and our property rights both?

The article quoted Ald. Doherty on this issue:

"The city shouldn't tell people what to do with their property." Doherty said. The best way to save historic buildings, he said, is to give the property owners incentives to preserve them.

I think the alderman is entirely correct on this. But what incentives are appropriate?

There is a vicious cycle at work here: Beautiful old buildings attract new people to a neighborhood. Property values are enhanced by the newcomers who fix up or demolish run-down properties and build "McMansions" (as the link shows, this is not just a Chicago problem) -- and everybody's property value goes up. And so do the property taxes. Older folks living in the older houses may have trouble paying both the new, higher taxes and the costs of maintaining the properties. Now the one-time neighborhood gems, some of the very buildings that attracted the newcomers in the first place, are the small ones, the shoddy ones, the ones in the crosshairs of developers.

I worked for many years in the River North neighborhood. When we moved in, the area was run-down, faded, and not a place to be after dark. But there were beautiful buildings everywhere, like the Hotel St. Benedict Flats and dozens of beautiful buildings along Dearborn Street, particularly north of Chicago Avenue (we were just south). Now that whole area is a forest of skyscrapers, full of expensive condos and luxury apartments. The Hotel St. Benedict Flats has survived, although it's been threatened more than once, but many distinctive buildings have been lost. And yet: It's those buildings that helped developers sell the "charm" of the neighborhood in which they were building.

On the other hand, if you could sell your three-flat to a developer for 10-20-100 times what you paid for it -- wouldn't you take the money and run?

And that's why building owners fear "landmark" status like the plague: It prevents the owner from demolishing his building; it may prevent the owner from making all sorts of improvements. In the meantime, the assessed value rises along with the skyscrapers or the McMansions next door.

I'd like to know if we can link property taxes to landmark status; that is, if we can induce property owners to accept landmark status by offering to freeze, or even rollback assessed value on "landmark" properties. Perhaps this would supply sufficient incentive for owners to hold onto and preserve their distinctive buildings.

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