River Forest




winslow house river forest

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

I guess River Forest hasn’t had enough teardowns yet because the Trustees are pretty uncomfortable with the idea of a preservation ordinance. The proposed ordinance is the typical weenie milquetoast kind that places like Kenilworth or River Forest propose. While it allows designation of landmarks, it requires owner consent, which sort of defeats the purpose. The owners who would consent are not the ones causing the trouble.

What River Forest leaders fear is the idea of a preservation ordinance, not the reality of one. Reality is much more everyday, like the familiar experiences of thousands of communities that have had such ordinances for decades.

You also hear a lot about private property rights. This is an idea too, with no foothold in reality. It is a Karl Rove issue: sounds good; seems important; has absolutely no impact on your daily life.

The purity of the roperty rights idea is abridged the second you allow electricity, gas, water, sewer, telephone or cable lines onto your property. Any law dude will tell you that property is a bundle of rights: the right to use; to buy or sell; mortgage or subdivide; build or demolish. Preservation ordinances often (but not always –there is no always in reality) restrict the last of these, while zoning ordinances restrict the first and third and the market restricts the second. If people were really concerned about their abstract rights, they would get rid of the zoning ordinances that restrict the height and use of their property.

Zoning has, throughout its history, had a much more dramatic impact on property values than preservation. In 1957 Chicago doubled the allowable density downtown and a few years later New York City was zoned for 16 million people. Talk about government largesse.

The market is even wilder. Wicker Park became a National Register district about 1980 and a Chicago Landmark district about 1990, but could not compete with the tripling of real estate values that happened in undesignated Bucktown – just across the street – in 1987.

Preservationists are fond of pointing out that historic districts improve property values, although some could argue that they simply recognize areas where the value has started to increase due to rehabilitation. A bit of a chicken and egg problem.

The real issue in River Forest is that some people have made a killing flipping property and some other people who think they might don’t want to miss their chance. Same thing is happening in Lincoln Park’s Sheffield, and it is getting very ugly there. I mean UGLY.

But windfall property profits are also more idea than reality. The people who actually make a killing are the real estate hustlers, and the current crop has taken a page out of the 1960s blockbusting book. Back then, you bought two houses on a block for twice their value, sold them to African-Americans and then bought every other house on the block for half its value, and then resold it to African-Americans for twice what they paid. White flight was much more profitable than integration, at least for the hustlers.

Teardown mongers do the same thing, without the racial aspect. Overpay for one or two houses on a block, knock them and build some oversized Playmobil Palazzo and sell it for two million to get all of the neighbors thinking: hey, I could make a killing.

By the time half the block is done the ambiance that the original McMansions borrowed their value from is gone, and so are the hustlers, who have taken the money and run to the next town.

The truth about blockbusting and teardowns is that the neighbors never make the killing, only the hustlers. But the IDEA of making money makes the neighbors – and The River Forest Trustees – think preservation is going to take their money.

Who is getting taken here? Who are the professionals?

It is a shame, because River Forest has some gems, and not just the Prairie School and Frank Lloyd Wright but also local luminaries like the Buurma Brothers. Better go look at them soon, because the hustlers are circling.

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