Posts Tagged ‘preservation laws’

Why Should We Care About the Past?

November 8, 2011

Historic preservation – more properly called Heritage Conservation – has never been about the past at all. It is a decision about the future that includes physical and intangible elements of the past which a community has judged to be significant. This significance derives from their design; their history (past) as lesson, warning, or honor; the knowledge they convey by their construction; their patina and ability to define and refine shared space. The process of identifying and evaluating this significance is central to any society and any community.


it’s about community as well as artistry. why is that hard??

Historic preservation laws and regulations are guidelines – they are never prescriptive or proscriptive. They vary with every resource and they are rarely ‘precedent-setting’ because the same process applied to two resources or to two communities will never yield the same result.

When you write it like that it seems quite simple, but our minds can’t hold it well because what is consistent is not the resource or its treatment but the process of identifying, evaluating, assessing and determining the treatment.


anywhere in the world

This is the source of endless confusion and it requires you to get your mind out of the gutter of categories and nouns and into the dynamism of action and verbs.

is battery a noun or a verb in this case?

A case in point: Yesterday the Chicago Tribune had an article about a 1952 coal-powered steamship that plies Lake Michigan between Wisconsin and Michigan and dumps 4 tons of coal ash into the lake each trip. The headline “Landmark status for polluting ship?” raises the fearsome specter of landmarking and how it can flout all other rules of social and environmental order and community.

Poppycock. Humbug. Horsefeathers.

But the article unfortunately plays upon a misunderstanding of our field, especially in the U.S., that has grown up over the years. The assumption in the headline – and the first few paragraphs – is that landmark status trumps other laws, like environmental ones. You also find this assumption among building owners. It’s like preservation laws have a magical quality that makes them superior to all other clauses of the social contract.

Poppycock. Humbug. Horsefeathers. Do I need to use stronger words?

Now, if you actually read this lengthy article (thanks Trib for going back to long articles!) the truth is there. The owners of the steamer, the Badger, argue landmark status would help them in their negotiations with the EPA.

Negotiations. Landmark status doesn’t override EPA regulations or fire codes or ADA requirements or anything else. It CAN provide a way to negotiate a non-standard (I want to say post-normal) solution to those regulations. The fact of the matter is that most maritime national landmarks are museum pieces that don’t steam around the lake dumping coal ash. This particular boat has been making end-runs around environmental regulations since the 1980s and there is a separate EPA exemption being legislated even as they try the landmark status ploy. The boat merits consideration as a landmark, according to the Park Service, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it gets to keep polluting.


If I landmark the Fisk electric plant in Pilsen it doesn’t mean it gets to keep polluting. Landmarking my house doesn’t mean I have to go back to gas lights or horse-drawn carriages and landmarking an early Chicago School skyscraper doesn’t mean you have to live with one restroom per every three floors.

If you “landmark” something it means you need to follow the Secretary of the Interior’s Guidelines for Rehabilitation when you work on it. These are GUIDELINES, not rules, and they are subject to interpretation. The guidelines encourage maintaining a property in its original use but DO NOT REQUIRE IT. I can turn the Fisk plant into a nightclub or the Badger into a diesel-powered casino without affecting any landmark status either might merit.

People often hope that landmark status can help them in the “negotiations” over some other issue, and in truth, it can sometimes. But it is not a magical mystery bullet or even an arcane set of rules. They are GUIDELINES and they are ADVISORY, not REGULATORY, as the government’s own website states unequivocally.

Get into historical significance and the absurdity of the argument grows wider than the Irrawaddy in flood. If I preserve Versailles do I need to restore the French monarchy? Of course not.

the original Shwedagon Pagoda, NOT the copy in the new capital

le salon c’est moi

The whole point of saving something is so you can keep reinterpreting it and repurposing it. Nothing is static, ESPECIALLY in the field of heritage conservation, a field whose only constant is a process of dynamic change and its sensible management.

The Changing Future of Preservation

May 17, 2011

Within the last week I have been involved in strategic planning exercises as a Trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Board of the Landmarks Illinois, and besides being reminded of the facilitation and SWOT analysis I first experienced 26 years ago in a Joliet hotel (yes, that sounds odd, but trust me, it isn’t) I was also struck by some of the challenges facing both non-profit membership organizations and the heritage conservation/historic preservation field as a whole.

One of those challenges is in the realm of membership. Membership has dropped at both organizations, and it has aged. It seems the 19th and 20th century pattern of the membership organization is being either eclipsed or remodeled. There was a lot of talk in both board retreats about reaching out to younger generations and wondering whether younger generations will join as members or simply be affiliated and affinitized (not a word) via social media and social networks, depriving the old membership organizations of a fundamental pillar of their existence.

As usual in the shifts and spasms of changes to our social economy, the fears are probably disproportionate. Membership was always important in preservation because it had a political policy implication as well as a revenue source, but in fact the revenue source was never primary. Arguably membership numbers had more impact on policy than income. The National Trust plan for the 21st century (from a few years back) called for “engaging” a million people, and while we aren’t there yet, as I reported in the last blog entry, the Trust has been relatively adept at engaging social media and the interwebs.

This doesn’t translate into traditional membership and thus there is a drain on income, but at the same time it could translate into MORE engaged people, which would have a positive impact on the public policy side of the equation. Plus, you can click and donate pretty easily on the Trust website, either in general or in specific advocacy cases. So too with Landmarks Illinois, although I pushed for a more fluid site. I also suggested PRESERVATION FLASH MOBS! (run with it).

The real issue for 2011 and the real shift is this: the most significant aspect of our technological progress over the last two decades has been the shift to user control, to individual control. I resisted (go back five years in this blog and you can witness some of that resistance) a lot of technological changes like cell phones and MP-3s and digital photography because I saw a diminution in quality. Of course, quality has improved, but the pattern of technological progress actually follows an initial shift to lower quality. Why?

I remember talking to a printer about a decade ago about people choosing to do their own printing via digital technology rather than going to a traditional offset press. He responded simply: People are happy to exchange quality for control. I can hold 10,000 MP-3 songs in the palm of my hand and choose when and how I hear them, so who cares if the treble is tinny and the bass is thunky and the mid-range has vanished? I can design my invitations all by myself and control the process, so I don’t mind the thin paper and bleeding lines. The hard drive on my desk the size of my hand holds more photos than a 6-foot tall shelving unit behind me, so I don’t mind the fact that I lose a few bits of information each time I open that jpg.

The answer of course, is that you need to have a web presence that allows user INPUT and control. The internet is NOT a new method of disseminating information, it is a new method of social interaction, and websites that act like information newsletters or annual reports are used once and disposed. The brilliance of the Partners in Preservation program the National Trust does with American Express is that it is all about interaction. Landmarks Illinois saw similar interaction when its 11 Most Endangered list was put up for public voting via internet (which landmarks did people really want to save?). And there is no dearth of models for monetizing websites, although the challenge for not-for-profits with comparatively low numbers of engaged public is daunting.

The point I pushed to both organizations was this: it is not a matter of figuring out how to engage the next generation: every older generation makes the same mistake of trying to identify what it is about the next generation that is significant, relevant and then tries to build a bridge based on those parameters. Don’t. It won’t work. The whole point of any generation is that it is a network, and that it MUST DEFINE ITSELF and you must accept that part of how it defines itself will be in CONTRAST to your generation. You can’t change that equation for love or money or even genius.

What you have to do is allow each generation ACCESS to cultural heritage conservation, historic preservation, or whatever they want to call it. Don’t fret that they don’t value it – if you found intrinsic social and human value in it, they will too, but they won’t find it the same way you did. Its patterns and modalities will change. Its definition may change. Our job as the older generation is to give the next generation INPUT into the field and be patient and agile as they change it, grow it, and make it relevant for themselves.

The second challenge to our field lies in a point National Trust President Stephanie Meeks made in Austin in October: We need to stop being perceived as the people who saw “no.” This stems from the fact that in the 1960s and 1970s national and local preservation laws were passed all over the country, and often these laws seemed too architectural and arcane for the average person to understand. And even though both the National Trust and Landmarks Illinois are private organizations that have NEVER (ever) had any regulatory power or role, the perception remains.

When I did my dissertation under Bob Bruegmann, he challenged me to write a history of preservation without reference to any laws, and suggested that people were probably preserving buildings and neighborhoods long before there were any preservation laws. He was right. You can find that phenomenon in Greenwich Village in 1910 and in 1935 and in 1955 long before laws went into effect there in 1969. You can find it in Old Town in Chicago in 1925 and 1949 and 1968 long before laws went into effect a decade later. I was in Seattle for the National Trust meetings and I sought out buildings Barry Byrne had designed with Andrew Willatzen between 1908 and 1912 and with the exception of one teardown for a weed-filled lot, each of the houses and buildings I found were remarkably well preserved and well cared for even though they were a hundred years old. They had no infelicitous additions or alterations I could see, despite the fact that Seattle has succumbed to anti-regulatory paranoia, people were preserving century-old Prairie style houses.

At Landmarks Illinois we talked about trying to link to Sustainability, which was another part of our Seattle meeting – seeing the Trust’s Preservation Green Lab there, which is run by a real estate developer, and here is a sign from another real estate developer (and good friend) who is building a new glass highrise downtown.

Sustainability, like natural area conservation, has become an embedded ethic in society that no amount of Koch Brothers funding can unseat. How can preservation achieve this? Part of the answer lies in those Byrne and Willatzen houses, and understanding that the houses on my block – which are gloriously preserved – are preserved MOSTLY because people want to and only secondarily because there are regulations. Regulations can’t preserve the buildings on my block – or those Seattle Prairie houses. They can keep them from being torn down. But there is a widespread ethic that values their design and their age value and their history and backs up that value with the investment of money and time and energy.

I first spoke at a National Trust conference in 1993 and the topic was how do we get preservation to happen in inner-city neighborhoods. I did a 15-year history of how historic preservation was happening in inner-city neighborhoods in Chicago. My conclusion? The question was wrong. The preservation was happening: our job was to support and assist community groups that chose preservation and rehabilitation as means to community revitalization. You don’t have to create them, you just have to find them.

(Amazing side note: I just pulled out the outline of that speech from a folder. In less than a minute. Damn I’m organized!)

So the answer to this second preservation challenge is remarkably similar to the first: you have to be willing to cede some control. You have to believe that the aesthetic, historical, cultural and place-based values you hold, are also held by others. You have to be willing to tack to the wind and trust that changes in how the field operates will not undercut those values.

You have to be willing not simply to CHANGE your organization,
but to let it BE CHANGED. And that takes a bit more courage.

Vagueness and Landmarking

December 23, 2009


AND THE HAMMER OF JUSTICE COMES DOWN

Earlier this year a Chicago lawsuit hobbyist with lots of money and neighbor-management issues got the Illinois Appellate Court (“Precedent? We don’t need no stinking precedent!”) to strike down the Chicago Landmarks Ordinance based on its “vagueness,” so naturally someone else thought they could pull the same sort of isolationist garbage elsewhere, namely Seattle.

They just LOST BIG TIME. Read about it on PreservationNation:

Turns out the Washington Court of Appeals rejected the “vagueness” challenge by recognizing the OBVIOUS: Landmarking is a process that encourages the preservation of historic sites, districts and structures, based on the criteria that those sites, districts and structures possess. This is not vague, it is entirely specific: you cannot detail what needs to be preserved in all situations because each sites, district and structure has its own individual characteristics that make it significant. Landmarking treats buildings like individuals, not categories.

The court said it better than I can, explaining that the supposedly “vague” standards, “gain specificity from application to a particular landmark and particular proposal.”

Or even better, they noted that because “each landmark has unique features and occupies a unique environment, it is impracticable for a single ordinance to set forth development criteria or standards that could apply to every landmark.”

This is what I have been saying all along (see my post “Appellate Nuttiness” on January 31, 2009).

Now, I understand that people, and even judges, are more comfortable with absolutes and doctrines and everything being the same. But everything isn’t the same, or I could use my Epson printer inks in the Hewlett Packard, but I can’t.

Turns out a vagueness challenge is one of the first things you learn, sort of a Lawsuit 101. See Gary Cole’s blog here.

Here is what the court said:

“The doctrine of vagueness does not require a statute to meet impossible standards of specificity”

The crude medicine of basic zoning and building codes offer predetermined absolutes and specific standards: you must set back 5 feet, you are limited to this square footage, you are required to have this many exits, etc. Everything is the same and every building is treated the same, and you know what is going to happen before it happens and there is no vagueness. It is the sort of straightforward rules and procedures one needs to successfully operate a pre-school day care facility.

But for grownups, the world has nuances.

People are individuals, not numbers.

Communities are individual as well.

Oak Park does not equal Evanston and Palo Alto does not equal Santa Barbara and Mystic does not equal Marblehead and Nashville certainly is not equivalent to Knoxville.

Within Chicago, the Villa does not equal Wicker Park and the landmark review process will not follow the same path on an Astor Street Georgian Revival that it will on a South Shore Foursquare.

Landmarking is a PROCESS, and reviewing changes or additions to landmarks is also a PROCESS, and the rules are defined individually for each landmark. Every Chicago Landmark, when designated by the City Council, includes a list of significant architectural and historical figures so that every owner knows what is important about their building. But what is appropriate for a bungalow may not be for a Queen Anne, and vice versa.

Here’s one for individualism. Thanks, Washington state.

WEDNESDAY UPDATE FROM SAIC HPRES STUDENT MITCH BROWN:

“Connor is denied on each and every count. I hope the good judges of Illinois’ Supreme Court read the decision.

Deprivation of substantive due process – NOPE, landmark preservation is a legitimate state interest.

Regulatory taking – NOPE the safeguarding of the public interest in legitimate in this sphere (they got RFRA wrong)

Hidden indirect tax, fee – NOPE even had the SLPB required the stipulations Connor’s alleges (which they didn’t) it would’ve been in the service of mitigation in protection of the Ordinance 11022.

Wrong application of the Law 20 – NOPE as the hearing examiner properly applied SMC since under SMC and Standard 9, Connor’s proposal would adversely affect the landmark and there were alternatives available. Connor’s argument rests on his insistence that the “owner’s objectives” are not subject to review (who is this guys lawyer!?) “A party who purchases a property subject to agreed upon landmark controls cannot thwart those controls by defining his objectives under SMC entirely in terms of the return he wishes to make on the property” (hearing examiner with court concurrence)

“The Landmarks Preservation Ordinance is impermissibly vague because it does not tell me exactly what I can do with my property” – REJECTED – Can Conner ascertain the requirements for an acceptable project? – YES – The LPO contains both contextual standards and a process for clarification and guidance as to individual sites.

LPO and Ordinance 11022 describe specific features to be preserved with corresponding contextual standards for application.

“The doctrine of vagueness does not require a statute to meet impossible standards of specificity” I like this one the best.

“Clear Error” NOPE – Court reviewed hearing examiners review which was based on publicly passed Ordinance 11022, not the Report on Designation used by the Board.

Scope of the Designation? Is the site protected? Connors – ” ‘Satterlee House and Satterlee Residence’ is proof the city council intended only the house and not the site to be recommended…!”

Lets all hope Hanna and Mwroka’s cases are as ham-fistedly argued as Connor’s was.

Weekend Update

February 2, 2009

Quick hits:

1. Another detail about the landmarks ordinance strike-down: the plaintiffs (and no one plaints like these whingers) represented two landmark districts where there had been previous attempts to downzone. This makes the decision slightly less nutzoid – perhaps they thought they were following takings precedents focused on the character of government action. It is still an incorrect decision – those precedents focused on unfunded government programs replaced with regulation, not two types of regulation – but this expains why Jack Guthman was quoted in the story, since he loves to say that landmarking is sneaky downzoning. Landmarking is a planning tool like zoning, but when it comes to districts, landmarking has never achieved the same effect, which is why Brooklyn Heights, Old Town, Astor Street, Mid-North and Ukrainian Village were downzoned AFTER they were landmarked. Because when you are trying to limit new development, you need zoning. Landmarking you need when you are trying to save buildings, which is what was happening in Arlington-Deming (who lives there, I wonder?) and East Village.

2. Thursday night I went to the Solemn Benediction and reception at the Shrine of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, which is the former St. Clara/St. Gelasius in Woodlawn, a Chicago Landmark. They have done a lovely job sprucing up the old church and rectory and they are working to build their events programs, congregation and fundraising. Here is a quick view of the place, which still needs a ceiling, although I like the view to the structure. http://www.historic-landmark.org.
st-gel-int099s

3. Saturday was Windsor, to the Academie Ste Cecile International School, originally the Holy Redeemer Seminary, one of the most significant works by Prairie School architect Barry Byrne, a redesign of the monastic plan that a visualist like Le Corbusier could not achieve.
ascis-towr-chap-vw
We first visited in Summer 2003, and school leader Mlle. Therese Gadoury has been kind enough to request my input on her architectural plans since then, which was the reason for my visit. They did a sensitive addition recently and are now planning another dormitory and eventually a concert hall.
ascis-addition-twr
A final view of the chapel, solemn and modern.
ascis-chap-vieww


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