Historic Preservation Policies

Sep 11, 2013

Historic Preservation Policies

The following strategies were taken from the CMAP Teardowns strategy report:

Renovation Zoning

A local non-profit, Preservation Chicago, proposes a unique set of "renovation zoning" requirements for potential teardown properties. According to this group, "this new classification is to encourage the preservation and renovation of existing housing in neighborhoods that value their older buildings but do not meet the higher standards necessary to qualify as a designated Historic Landmark District" (Preservation Chicago, 2005).

While renovation zoning has yet to be adopted by any local municipalities, it presents a novel concept – applying two zoning classifications to one parcel. Older buildings to be renovated would be given greater zoning flexibility than those properties that are slated for demolition. According to Preservation Chicago, this would restrict the size of redevelopment projects, while not preventing additions and renovations to a community's existing structures. A description of the policy is online at: http://www.preservationchicago.org/policy/renovation.html

Neighborhood Conservation Districts

Like Renovation Zoning, neighborhood conservation districts (NCD) present a useful tool for communities with a distinct historic character, but no formal claim to (or public support for) local landmark status. NCDs attempt to preserve the character of an entire community rather than focus on the design of individual buildings. This helps prevent new construction that is incongruous to the established structures of a neighborhood while not being so rigid as to suffocate development.

NCDs are often implemented as "overlay districts," or special zones that are subject to additional land-use regulations than the underlying zoning code requires. Often, they are drafted in conjunction with a city's comprehensive plan, and seek to protect a unique resource like a watershed, natural area, or in the case of NCDs, community character (Church). Developers and property owners in an NCD must first adhere to the underlying zoning ordinance, and then abide by the guidelines of the overlay district.

While local historic landmark districts are regulated according to specific criteria that are unique to each district, properties in NCDs are usually addressed more generally. This can be a key point of contention between those favoring design flexibility and those demanding historical integrity (Stipe). Some other key differences between NCDs and conventional preservation districts, as outlined in a study of NCDs for Brookline, Mass, are as follows:

  • NCDs allow the public to determine what characteristics of a neighborhood should be preserved (and how strictly), instead of relying on the framework of the Secretary of the Interior's Standards or the language of a local landmark ordinance.
  • NCDs emphasize collective neighborhood attributes rather than the details of individual buildings.
  • Buildings in NCDs are less often the subject of thorough architectural design reviews. Instead they are evaluated by their size and orientation relative to the rest of the neighborhood.
  • NCD reviews are typically left to local planning staff instead of formal, volunteer-staffed historic preservation commissions (Duffy, 2005).

There are many other variables within the NCDs themselves. Some are mandatory, and others are incentive-based – occasionally both. Some are reviewed by municipal staff, and others are reviewed by volunteer boards (the former tends to be more popular and effective, according to the literature). According to the Brookline, Mass. study, "Incentives for neighborhood conservation fall into two main categories – financial benefits and relief from zoning restrictions. Financial incentives include outright grants, tax credits for rehabilitation work that meets local requirements, and in some cases freezing property tax assessments for a period of time. Zoning incentives may allow for a reduction of required setbacks" (Duffy, 2005).

While gaining in popularity throughout the country – and in cities downstate – NCDs have yet to catch on in the Chicago metropolitan region. According to the Brookline study, Lake Forest once considered establishing a NCD, however, the North Shore community has not done so to date. There is a push by some preservation experts to establish these districts locally. They believe that neighborhood conservation districts would effectively maintain much of a community's character, while not being so restrictive as to be unpalatable to owners of historic property or the community at large.

Community Surveys

As stated previously, community character is difficult for municipalities to define. Sadly, many communities do not discover what makes them unique until demolition and redevelopment have relegated those traits to the local historical society. Therefore, some of the interview respondents recommended community surveys. These surveys would quantify the architectural styles, types of local business, open space, and many other attributes that define a community. The tally could then be used to better inform public policy and decisions regarding demolitions and new construction. In the 1980s, Chicago commissioned a survey of its historic resources in what was fittingly dubbed the Chicago Historic Resources Survey (CHRS). (City of Chicago) The CHRS evaluated every city building constructed before World War II, detailed its historic or architectural contributions and imbued it with a color designation. From red to blue, the colors correspond to the buildings level of historic importance. While this survey is stunning in its breadth (17,371 properties were initially identified as having potentially significant qualities) and level of detail (each "historic" property has a corresponding write-up that details the history, architect, and often, the community context of the building), it is often given only token consideration in zoning and demolition decisions. A recent ordinance requires a 90-day demolition delay for all "orange"- rated properties, but this often is not enough to stave off the wrecking ball. Information on these programs is available online at: http://www.ci.chi.il.us/Landmarks/CHRS.html.

Permitting Review or Delay

A major point of intervention for municipalities to prevent the demolition of an unprotected historic resource is during the permitting process. Depending on the size of a municipality, the growth rate, and its attitude toward development, the process for submitting, approving and processing a demolition permit can vary significantly. The length of the permitting process can give municipalities and residents time to meet with developers and properly review their proposal and its impacts on the community. A demolition delay sets up a longer permitting process and requires a teardown to be reviewed by a building review commission. This strategy requires developers or homeowners to put more planning into the teardown, and can help to counteract the effect that teardowns have on community character by providing time to ensure that interested parties are notified and that the new house is in character with the existing housing in the neighborhood.

In 2003, the Chicago City Council passed a 90-day delay on demolition permits for structures deemed "significant" (rated orange or red) in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey. According to the city, the ordinance will "provide time to explore development alternatives" when a non-landmarked, historically significant building is threatened. It also helps ensure that neighbors and preservationists are informed of potential demolitions before the bulldozers arrive. Structures that present clear health and safety hazards are exempted from the ordinance (City of Chicago, 2003).

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