National Register

The National Register of Historic Places has been around for 42 years and includes thousands of buildings. It was designed as a speed bump for Federal highway and urban renewal programs whose clear-cut approach to development in the 1950s and early 1960s had excited opposition. It remains as powerful today as it was 42 years ago: as powerful as a speed bump.

The National Register cannot prevent anyone from demolishing anything. There. The secret is out. It can slow down any project which is funded or licensed by the federal government, and often in those cases, buildings get saved. Not always. Only local landmarks laws can stop an owner from demolishing a building. That was true in 1966 and it is true today.

So, why are people in Oak Park and Kenilworth getting bent out of shape about National Register districts? Kenilworth, a wealthy community that made the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered List thanks to a teardown frenzy, had its Village Board vote 4-2 in favor of putting the town on the National Register only to have the Village President veto it. The Board has apparently studied the facts and is overruling the veto.

Now, in fairness, many suburbs use the National Register as a gateway to local landmark status. I can remember when I was on the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council in the late 90s and lawyers from Northwestern University came out in force against an Evanston National Register district, claiming that it would eventually become a local district. Which it did, although NU had the clout to pound it into submission through gang lawsuits. Their lawyer fought the National Register for the same reason the NRA fights an assault-weapon ban, because if you allow one bit of anti-gun (or anti-development) legislation, there is no end to it.

In the real world, this is whack logic. Probably the largest logical fault is the idea that landmark district designation inhibits development. Landmark districts inhibit development the way adult use ordinances inhibit development – they drive away the fly-by-night hack-job developers. They tend to increase property values for the same reasons any exclusionary zoning does, because they require a certain level of skill and civitas in order to get into the club.

In Downtown Oak Park at Harlem and Lake Streets, an oft-stymied proposal to put the community’s most recognizable face on the National Register returned this summer, to howls from two local businessmen. This is especially funny in Oak Park, where Downtown Oak Park has struggled for 30 years, while the commercial district at Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street – called The Avenue – has thrived. The Avenue is listed on the National Register AND is subject to local landmark review.
Those are the facts, which get in the way of the whack logic.

The other fact is of course the Colt Building fiasco, which I wrote about in this blog three years ago (check the archive) which gave preservation a bad name because even though the preservationists, including me, did NOT want to save the Colt Building, some local leaders did. This gave many in the Downtown Oak Park area a negative view of preservation.

Fact: An inhibition of development in Downtown Oak Park caused by people DOING THE OPPOSITE OF WHAT PRESERVATIONISTS SAID. Fact: National Register designation offers tax incentives to owners of commercial property when they rehabilitate but HAS NO EFFECT on any demolition or building plans they have that use private funds. Fact: National Register does NOT EQUAL local landmark designation. You have to pass a law to do that.

But facts should never get in the way of whack logic. Here’s how it goes: the area is economically challenged, the owners are struggling, so we shouldn’t add regulations that make the situation worse. However much it might make sense in the abstract, the facts on the ground don’t follow the whack logic. Add to this Oak Park’s funnest fact: the Historic Preservation Commission approves permits four times faster than the Plan Commmission and Building Department. Honest. That is what the Building Permit people told me when I dropped off plans for my back porch.

Watch out whenever anyone says “It’s the principle of the thing.” Too often that is an excuse for ignoring the facts.

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5 Responses to “National Register”

  1. kenilworthian Says:

    Hi Vince,

    I found this entry via the Wednesday Journal, and as I have been directly involved in the Kenilworth National Register debates, I thought I’d answer your question about why some of us are “getting bent out of shape” here.

    It’s partly to do with the thing itself and partly to do with the process, which has been astonishingly undemocratic and quite frankly dishonest.

    When I say the thing itself, I don’t mean the idea of National Register Districts in general, but the suggestion that every square inch of Kenilworth–including hundreds of small, unremakable houses side by side with stately mansions of yesteryear and a small, decrepit, wholly unprofitable business district–belongs in one. Had our village trustees asked to nominate a few blocks of the most special buildings no one would have opposed them. By taking the extreme path (which only two other municipalities in the state have taken–and those were in the 70s) the village board raised serious questions about what its ultimate goal really is.

    You say (and I appreciate your honesty) “Now, in fairness, many suburbs use the National Register as a gateway to local landmark status.”

    But then you call opponents of this gateway drug “whack” which I have only ever heard used by Whitney Houston to describe crack. What’s with the slander? If B follows A nine times out of ten, is it “whack” to point that out? What am I missing?

    The people of Kenilworth do not have the resources of Northwestern University’s legal squad to fight local ordinances when they arrive gift-wrapped in future years, so we are fighting the battle here and now.

    You say you used to be on the IL Historic Sites Advisory Council, so you know better than I the process we are about to go through with State review, a comment period, public hearing, etc. You know that to prevent listing of a proposed district more than 50% of property owners need to send a notarized letter to Springfield within a 30 day window. The problem is, no one knows how many property owners there are in Kenilworth and the state is not going to find out–letters will be sent to taxpayers of record, which is not at all the same thing. My best estimate is that there may be 1200 to 1500 property owners, which means notaries in Kenilworth could be REALLY busy come November. But of course, if you support the process you can take it easy–no response is a “yes” vote. How convenient. But is it democratic? If I said you need not vote at all and your vote will go to John McCain, but if you wish to support Barack Obama you can–you just need to send a notarized letter of support to some State office building, would you take that lying down? No, and rightly so.

    Residents in Kenilworth, including me, have gathered 15% of registered voters’ signatures to place a question on this November’s ballot. We had to because repeated, informal attempts to get the Board to place an official question on the ballot were ignored. Once the citizens’ petition was registered in April, we asked the Board to wait until the results were known before sending the application to the State for review. They voted in May, 4-2, to send it immediately. Had the President not vetoed their decision Kenilworth would already be on the National Register by the time we vote in November. Talk about a slap in the face!

    You sound like a reasonable guy, Vince, and you are clearly well-informed about Oak Park goings on. We have friends there and have followed that story with interest. You also recognize that the crazier fringe of preservationists can poison the waters and feed opposition to reasonable preservation measures. Well, isn’t it possible that this is the case here as well?

    Thanks, and have a good day.

  2. vmichael Says:

    There is a very long discussion needed to answer the question about including the entire village – in fact I am submitting a book manuscript on the subject of historic districts this week that delves into the question. To boil it down, the National Register was designed for historic districts and it was designed to include small, unremarkable, and even decrepit buildings. (I do not accept the argument that a building’s condition or age has anything to do with the success of any business it contains.) The idea – which I argue in the book manuscript came from Greenwich Village – was that the historic district was in fact a proactive planning tool designed to improve the area over time. Hence the logic in Kenilworth is exactly that – the National Register district improves or implodes the small unremarkable ones and brings them up to the level of the others. Historic districts are a zoning mechanism that have historically been used to exclude underperforming owners and unwanted new development.

    The question of 50% owners objecting is a little academic – there are lots of properties “eligible” for listing that aren’t officially listed because the owners objected. From a registration point of view, there is no difference – they are equally significant. From a review point of view, there is no difference – both listed and eligible properties would be reviewed by any federal project by law. Neither, of course, would be subject to any local review for private projects. The only difference (this is fun) is that the “eligible” properties can’t use the tax credits or the Illinois Property Tax Freeze.

    thanks for reading my whack blog.

  3. kenilworthian Says:

    Hi Vince,
    I appreciate you taking the time to reply. I am afraid I don’t follow your argument about the NRD “improv[ing] or implod[ing]” the crappier houses and bringing them up to the level of the mansions. Have you ever been to Kenilworth? The mansions are pretty awesome and the crappy houses are, well, pretty crappy. A 7 mil lakefront estate brought level with a 500K 800 sf bungalow in disrepair? How does that work?

    The crappy bungalow already benefits from its association with the mansion given that the local schools are excellent and you get an outsize cache from the Kenilworth address. Putting both on an equal footing historically adds no value at all, since few upscale families want to live in the 800sf bungalow as is. If you stress the historic value of the place, how you don’t want it torn down as it is important to the fabric of the community you scare away many potential buyers of the land and devalue the dirt.

    You see Vince, the owner of the 8,000 sqft mansion can always gut and add on to make a showcase home–and if we give him a chance to freeze his assessed value in the process he will take advantage of it and pass his costs along to his neighbors. So how does that benefit the bungalow owner? His taxes are rising, he can’t sell his devalued historic house, he can’t add on because the FAR has been reduced–he’s pretty well screwed.

    It’s interesting that you cite Greenwich, which is currently embroiled in an absurdist passion play as to whether a perfectly hideous hospital can be torn down to build housing and an updated, usable hospital. If that is the model for Kenilworth I think we will take a pass.

  4. vmichael Says:

    Thanks for the input. I think the distinction between National Register and local zoning is being lost here, and it is partly my fault. The National Register IDEA of an historic district came in part from places like Greenwich Village but in fact Greenwich Village is a local district and thus can potentially prevent a building being torn down. A National Register district in Kenilworth carries no such regulation.

    Local historic districts are like zoning – National Register districts are not. National Register has no impact on FAR. The 800 sf bungalow owner can tear it down if there is a National Register listing. They can also add as many sf on to it that local zoning allows. If an 800sf bungalow is somehow “contributing” to the district, then they can’t tear it down if they want to take the tax freeze. But they can still tear it down.

  5. kenilworthian Says:

    Thanks for the quick response. I do get the distinction between local and NR districts. This debate has been going on for a number of years here in Kenilworth and a few stalwarts (like me!) have gotten well up to speed on the particulars.

    As you said in your initial post, however, NRDs often become local districts, and while the Kenilworth Board denies any interest in going in that direction, there is copious evidence that that is the end goal. It may take a few years, but there is nothing to prevent it happening.

    I think if you understood how undemocratic this process has been you might be more inclined to sympathize with my position. It is a hard thing to convey in a few paragraphs. If, after a reasonable and balanced discussion of the options a majority of my neighbors voted in favor of the whole village becoming a National District, most people (myself included) would accept that and move on. That some of our officials object strongly and have fought tirelessly to prevent that simple vote from happening speaks to their fanaticism and has raised many, many eyebrows in town.


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