Strategies to Address Teardowns

Sep 18, 2013

Strategies to Address Teardowns

Different municipalities have taken different approaches to mitigating the effects of the teardown trend. Some of these steps have been more successful than others. This section will highlight a variety of strategies that have been employed.

Redevelopment Guidelines

By limiting the dimensions of structures for teardown sites, local governments can ensure that redevelopment is congruous with the surrounding community. As mentioned above, setback and FAR discrepancies between old and new structures account for the majority of neighborhood complaints in communities experiencing teardowns. By tightening zoning restrictions and design guidelines, many municipalities have prompted greater symmetry in teardown redevelopments, and eased the tension that has long been an undesirable consequence of the trend. Design guidelines can go beyond dictating size. Certain building materials and architectural styles can also be required by these regulations, further minimizing a teardown's effect on community character.

With near unanimity, the respondents to our interviews deemed redevelopment guidelines the most effective strategy in regulating teardowns. This was, in part, because they are often more comprehensive than other strategies, and also because they are typically the most binding.

Lake Forest has drafted an extensive "workbook" that outlines the city's stringent building scale requirements and the processes to calculate them. (City of Lake Forest, 2005) Lake Forest also requires developers to undergo a series of public hearings and design review board meetings to ensure that their designs fit with the greater community. One caveat of the design review board is that without clear criteria and authority, the process can become an ineffective formality. According to an official in Lake Forest, this was largely the case in that city until more specified review guidelines were written into code and better conveyed to the community. For more information on Lake Forest's program, please visit:

Would this regulation be feasible or desirable in your community? If implemented, what effect do you expect it would have?

Teardown Fee or Tax

A tax on the demolition of a house is a preemptive strategy that occurs at the permitting stage, before the house is demolished. This tax can pose an economic disincentive to the process or create public funds for affordable housing or municipal services. Thus, this tax can be aimed at mitigating the effects that teardowns have on the housing and income mix of communities as well as on municipal infrastructure.

Highland Park developed the first demolition ordinance in Illinois, which carried a $10,000 teardown fee, with money going into an Affordable Housing Trust Fund. (Highland Park Illinois Community Land Trust) While proven a highly effective way to either deter teardowns, or counteract their effects, such ordinances often require home-rule authority, a distinction held by fewer than half the municipalities in the region. For more information on this program, please visit the program website:

Would this regulation be feasible or desirable in your community? If implemented, what effect do you expect it would have?

Permitting Review or Delay

A major point of intervention for municipalities 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 teardown can vary significantly. The length of the permitting process can give municipalities time to meet with developers or homeowners, properly review teardown applications and review the design of the new house 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 2006, the entire Village of Kenilworth was placed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's ‘Most Endangered List' due to the prevalence of teardowns in this community. This, coupled with an outcry from preservationists and community residents, prompted Kenilworth to enact a 9-month waiting period on demolition permits and form a building review commission to review those permits. The commission has the ability to delay issuance of a building permit for teardowns involving a building of "historic and/or architectural significance," and to use this time to "develop alternative plans to save buildings of special importance." (Kenilworth Ordinance No. 885) While a positive step, critics emphasize that the building review commission does not have the ability to enforce recommendations and that deferring to the commission in the first place is only voluntary. Also, the strategy focuses attention on buildings of ‘historic and/or architectural significance' but does not address other homes that may be in good condition but become teardowns.

Would this regulation be feasible or desirable in your community? If implemented, what effect do you expect it would have?

Stormwater Ordinances

Municipalities may also find it useful to use stormwater ordinances to regulate teardowns' characteristics. According to the aforementioned study of teardowns' effects on stormwater flows in Downers Grove, such an ordinance would include requirements about the following:

  1. Maximum percent impervious on lots
  2. Strict setback requirements
  3. Maximum yard slopes
  4. Restrictions on altering topography
  5. Site plan submittal requirements, including a stormwater management plan, prepared and sealed by a registered professional engineer
  6. Maintenance of adequate overflow routes

Also according to that study, "It is also imperative that a thorough plan review be completed and site inspection be performed to ensure that construction meets the new requirements. Special permit fees can be assessed that specifically address teardown/rebuild activity" (Pond et al, 2007).

Would this regulation be feasible or desirable in your community? If implemented, what effect do you expect it would have?

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 extant structures. A description of the policy is online at:

Would this regulation be feasible or desirable in your community? If implemented, what effect do you expect it would have?


Changes in the demolition process for teardowns could help to mitigate the effects of teardowns on the environment. This change does not have to be a burden and can in fact save developers money on demolition costs. "The demolition process is usually constrainedbecause developers are on a tight timeframe and so the demolition process is done in one swoop, which results in higher landfill fees and missed opportunities."(Power, 2003) However, by considering "deconstruction" ideas, changing the demolition process can save developers and builders a significant amount of money by taking advantage of material specific recyclers and tipping fee savings.

According to the National Association of Homebuilders, "Deconstruction is actually a new term to describe an old process—the selective dismantling or removal of materials from buildings before or instead of demolition."(NAHB Research Center) The process can increase recycling in the demolition process and decrease the amount of construction waste that goes into landfills, but also can be used as a vehicle for community and economic development. "Construction and Demolition Debris (C&D) recycling is one of the most important aspects of [the sustainable building] movement… In providing materials to local vendors and processors, job site recycling creates employment and economic activity that help sustain local economies." (Lennon, 2004) This strategy is most effective when supported by the public through incentives and requirements, such as requiring a certain percentage of construction waste to be recycled.(NAHB, 2001) Deconstruction cancut down on the vehicle miles traveled of construction materials as the old materials can be reused in near proximity to their former location.

Municipal and state laws can help push the recycling and reuse of the materials from a teardown. For instance, Massachusetts has "proposed regulations that will ban the disposal of asphalt paving, brick, concrete, metal, and wood from solid waste handling facilities." (Boston Society of Architects, 2004) These types of state laws can help to drive the market for the recycling and reuse.

Would this idea be feasible or desirable in your community? If implemented, what effect do you expect it would have?

Conservation Districts

Not to be confused with the racially-charged conservation areas of urban renewal, neighborhood conservation districts (NCDs) are a way to maintain community character without the rigidity of preservation districts.

According to a 2005 study in Brookline, Mass., "Neighborhood Conservation Districts provide an additional regulatory tool for preserving the character of established neighborhoods and unique areas of communities from inappropriate development. Of the many NCD-type regulations around the country (NCDs are sometimes called by other names), the central shared rationale for their adoption has been to provide a more flexible and tailored approach to protecting areas not typically considered "historic." While many of these areas would meet the criteria established by the National Park Service and State Historic Preservation Office for designation, many preservation commissions, let alone the general public, would view not them in this light." (Larson Fisher Associates, 2005)

NCDs generally fall into three categories: advisory, mandatory (often requiring formal review and approval), and incentive-based. Some communities also have a combination of these. According to the Brookline 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." (Larson Fisher Associates, 2005)

While gaining in popularity throughout the country, 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.

Would this regulation be feasible or desirable in your community? If implemented, what effect do you expect it would have?

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 historically 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:

Would this regulation be feasible or desirable in your community?  If implemented, what effect do you expect it would have? 

Concluding Questions

Below are the overall questions that were raised for discussion at the beginning of the document.

CMAP has no regulatory authority over issues like teardowns, but can give advisory recommendations and promote best practices. What should CMAP's role be in addressing the issue of teardowns?

What would be the overall effect of regulating teardowns in your community? What positives and negatives would come from this? What regulations, if any, would be most appropriate?

If teardowns were regulated by municipalities across the region, what would be regional positive or negative effects be?

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