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.