Posts Tagged ‘Kenilworth’


October 16, 2008

Kenilworth, Illinois is a lovely suburb on the North Shore of Chicago with the world’s largest collection of George Maher Prairie houses and a cornucopia of other architectural and planning delights. It also made the National Trust’s Most Endangered List because of teardowns. That is rare notoriety in a nation beset with teardowns. You gotta have something goin’ on to be one of the eleven most endangered sites in the United States.

So, the village came up with a clever plan: list the town on the National Register of Historic Places. This adds NO regulation to homeowners and provides NO protection against teardowns, but addresses the media embarassment. It also would allow ONLY THOSE HOMEOWNERS WHO WANT TO to take advantage of the Illinois Property Tax Assessment Freeze program. Upside without a downside.

A clever political solution, but it still encountered some of the most vociferous opposition ever. Why? Apparently they see the National Register as a first step toward local designation. While that could be true in Oak Park, it isn’t true on the North Shore. Wilmette listed two districts on the National Register and passed a law requiring a super majority of 75% of homeowners should Wilmette dare to try for local designation. Kenilworth has passed a similar law barring itself from pursuing local designation. Besides, it is a completely separate action requiring a completely separate political process. National Register designation offers NO SHORTCUTS to local designation. Getting local designation would still require the SAME political process it would without National Register designation.

But that wasn’t enough for the Kenilworth opposition who can see a slippery slope even on flat dry ground. (By the way, they need a cute name – when Winnetka went through this a generation ago, the opposition — funded by a major real estate developer — was called WHOA – Winnetka Homeowners Association, I think. Maybe they could be Kenilworth Opposition (KO), or Tenacious Kenilworth Opposition (TKO), or Kenilworth Protests Against Conservation (KPAC) or even Kenilworth Teardowns Embrace Liberty (K-Tel).)

So there was a League of Women Voters Forum with Wilmette preservation chair Kevin Kirkpatrick, architectural historian Susan Benjamin, myself, Village Clerk Bob Hastings and National Park Service jefe Paul Loethar to explain this. Kirkpatrick did the best, explaining that there is NO prohibition against demolition or alteration caused by National Register designation and NO cause-and-effect with local designation. He had a good analogy: Just because you go to high school doesn’t mean you need to go to college. And just because you want to avoid college, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t graduate from high school.

When I was asked why we didn’t talk about the downside of National Register designation I offered the only downside I could think of: “It would make it more difficult for the federal government to put an airport in the middle of town.” And that is true – it wouldn’t be impossible, but more difficult (and expensive). Upon reflection, I thought of some more examples. Remember, ONLY FEDERAL GOVERNMENT PROJECTS can be reviewed under National Register listing.

National Register designation will make it more difficult for the Federal Government to put any of the following uses in the Kenilworth Historic District:

Public housing project
Urban renewal (requires slum and blighted designation)
New subsidized housing projects
Interstate highway
Federal prison
Military base or munitions plant
Harbor or canal project
FBI training facility/shooting range
Federal office building
Construction of FEMA trailer encampment for flood victims

Is KPAC pursuing any of these for their homes? If so, that would explain their opposition. Otherwise, their logic is whack.

Added thought: National Register would also trigger state review, so if the state were to try to place a state facility in the historic district, there would be a review. I will let the homeowners decide which state facilities have the potential of replacing their homes with other uses.

National Register

August 7, 2008

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.