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Thread: Are historic districts necessary?

  1. #1
    Unfrozen Caveman Planner mendelman's avatar
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    Are historic districts necessary?

    I read the article below recently:

    Are historic districts necessary?

    I have dealt with this issue myself and feel that the designation of a locale as a historic district does tend to be rather abritary and subject to the whims of the times. I think that top-down government imposed historic districts (ones where the property owners are told they will be in one) should not exist. If we are to have historic districts, then it should be initiated by 100% of the property owners, though, in general, I am against historic districts.

    What are your thoughts?
    Last edited by mendelman; 20 Mar 2006 at 3:08 PM.
    I'm sorry. Is my bias showing?

    The ends can justify the means.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian jmello's avatar
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    They are basically a form of HOA staffed by the local municipality.

    If a municipal government is concerned with the architectural integrity of a particular area, it should enact stricter design standards.

    If local property owners want to control what each other can build then they should vote to form an HOA and pay dues to operate it.

  3. #3
    Forums Administrator & Gallery Moderator NHPlanner's avatar
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    Historic Districts are an important component of a lot of towns and cities in New England. The key to a good Historic District is ensuring that it doesn't include too much, and is tied to the history of the particular community.

    Ours encompasses a total of 4 lots in town (all contiguous), all containing structures from the 1700's. There's little desire to expand the district further, though there has been talk about some of the other circa 1700's homes being protected in some fashion. I expect that we'll likely look for Historic Preservation Easements for the other properties.
    "Growth is inevitable and desirable, but destruction of community character is not. The question is not whether your part of the world is going to change. The question is how." -- Edward T. McMahon, The Conservation Fund

  4. #4
    It's a no brainer that Historic Landmarks should be preserved and protected, but unused space sholdn't have to be limited to historic design criteria. I always liked the idea of making sure that something fits the tone of the area (aka pitched roof cedar shingles in New England and flat roof adobe in New Mexico), but isn't necessessarly shackled into anchient archetecture. More of an an architectural review board than a historic district restriction.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian michaelskis's avatar
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    Historic Districts and commissions are a double edged sword. On one hand the preservation of historic structures is important to the character of the community, but I have also seen historic district commissions make it cost prohibitive and sometimes code prohibitive for property owners to renovate their homes. Additionally, I think that architectural details, accessory structures, and other characteristics should be close to the time or style of the home, but a few boards make it property specific. An example is in Kalamazoo where a historic home has a garage that is in disrepair and the property owner wanted to tear it down and rebuild. He would meet all the zoning requirements, however the board told him that if he removed it, he could not replace it because it would be original to the property.

    I personally like them if they donít get carried away with over-regulating .
    "A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. Time makes more converts than reason." - Thomas Paine Common Sense.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian Clore's avatar
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    Absolutely necessary! Without their protection, architecturally and historiy significant structures have been demolished by neglect and/or outright! Historic districts, at least in my area, are delineated by the state first and then the National Park Service, which reviews the integrity and significance of the proposed district. There is no regulation accompanied by establishment of a district, unless the local government enacts some type of legislation protecting it. Then, they can set the standards.
    There are tax incentives for commercial properties within districts as well as grants available, regardless of whether there is a local ordinance. In some cases, there is Main Street money, as well as money available for private residences.
    This is a typical hot button topic, but the main thing for people to remember is that there is NO regulation accompanying the establishment of a district.
    The economic benefit to local economies form historic preservation and tourism is astounding! Look into the Money Generator Model from Michigan and some of the results it's shown.
    Without the architecture from the past and sensitive design in the present and future, every place can become like any other......and that is a sad thought.

  7. #7
    What makes a district historic is not its age but the maturity and quality of its environment. There have been plenty of old buildings that were completely worthless and were demolished without anyone batting an eyelash about it. The reason we need to create special "historic" zones is that were are no longer able to build new towns in a way that will produce a historic character.

    The Paris renovation in the 19th century demolished large segments of "historic" Paris to be replaced with ultramodern buildings*, but once we arrived into the 20th century the whole city became a precious historic artifact. The reason was that the demolition of old buildings in the 20th century resulted in the construction of buildings that were worse and did not continue or improve on the tradition of Parisian architecture.

    The best way to protect a "historic" district is to identify the patterns that make it historic, then require that new buildings feature these patterns. There will not be senseless demolition, but old buildings that have expired their useful life will be replaced by new buildings that maintain the district's historic character.

    * If you're looking for the ultimate book on the renovation of Paris, read Paris in the Nineteenth Century by François Loyer. It shows just how much art and detail went into the city planning of the period.

  8. #8
    Forums Administrator & Gallery Moderator NHPlanner's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by jaws
    The best way to protect a "historic" district is to identify the patterns that make it historic, then require that new buildings feature these patterns. There will not be senseless demolition, but old buildings that have expired their useful life will be replaced by new buildings that maintain the district's historic character.
    [snark]Gee, wouldn't that require government regulation?[/snark]
    "Growth is inevitable and desirable, but destruction of community character is not. The question is not whether your part of the world is going to change. The question is how." -- Edward T. McMahon, The Conservation Fund

  9. #9
    Cyburbian Luca's avatar
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    Doesn't it kind of depend on what we mean by 'historic districts'?

    If by historic districts we mean areas where there are regulations as to what you can build I think that yes, historic districts are absolutely necessary.

    If by historic/lsited buildigns we mean buildings that are protected from modification/demolition to soeme xten or anoither then yes, absolutely.
    Life and death of great pattern languages

  10. #10
    I live in a historic district and I think one could argue that it is one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the country (Boston's South End). The regulations can be annoying - Landmarks can come after you if you paint your door the wrong color, but all in all, preserving the way the neighborhood looks is very important. Of course condos cost so much here that most people can't afford to live here...

  11. #11
    Quote Originally posted by NHPlanner
    [snark]Gee, wouldn't that require government regulation?[/snark]
    Of course, and if you paid any attention to anything I've ever said, you would find that I actively encourage this.

  12. #12
         
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    We have several districts here and I am the City's Preservation Planner. I think this City does a reasonable job in protecting our districts without going over the edge. Our main purpose is to preserve what we have while still allowing for growth of the area. I have to admit, there are times in the residential areas I think we are much too hard on home owners, however, they chose to buy in an historic district, we have beautiful structures still standing because of these rules and if someone doesn't like it, perhaps they should move. I mean after all, I imagine the charm is what attracted them to the area in the first place.

    I think designated historic districts are a good thing, I think they are necessary in many cities. I am happy to work with a Commission like the one I work with, I think they are reasonable and looking at the big picture. I think trying to preserve something that is not worth preserving, just for preservations sake is ridiculous, and at the same time removing historic features of historically significant structures is also ridiculous and should not be permitted.

    Preservation is necessary in some instances, it provides education, sense of community, economic development for cities and tourism industries and most often stunning architecture.

  13. #13
    Cyburbian jmello's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Jaxspra
    I have to admit, there are times in the residential areas I think we are much too hard on home owners, however, they chose to buy in an historic district, we have beautiful structures still standing because of these rules and if someone doesn't like it, perhaps they should move.
    What about older, possibly low-income, homeowners who bought there before the historic district was established?

  14. #14
    First, there are two types of historic districts: National Register and local. National Register is mostly honorary for a property owner, though income producing properties can qualify for a 20% tax credit for certified rehabilitations. Otherwise, National Register districts provide protection from federal or federally supported projects. Owners of properties listed in the NR can demolish their property or otherwise substantially alter it without any special permission.

    Local historic districts are usually enacted by the legislative body and vary widely in what and how they regulate all manner of changes visible from public rights-of-way. Sometimes National Register districts are also local historic districts.

    jmello: older, possibly L-I, homeowners should be pleased to have their properties included in a local district. Local districts tend to have stronger property-value growth as opposed to non-districts, and they hold their value better in downturns than non-districts. Some states also have a built in property tax abatement that protects homeowners who rehabilitate from the increase in AV, instead spreading it out over as much as 5 years.
    Je suis Charlie

  15. #15
    Cyburbian jmello's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Gedunker
    jmello: older, possibly L-I, homeowners should be pleased to have their properties included in a local district.
    I was thinking more about an old lady who cannot afford to paint her home colonial white every 5-10 years and instead would like to use vinyl siding, which is forbidden by the local historic commission. There are plenty of other examples, especially in the South End of Boston mentioned above.

  16. #16
    Quote Originally posted by jmello
    I was thinking more about an old lady who cannot afford to paint her home colonial white every 5-10 years and instead would like to use vinyl siding, which is forbidden by the local historic commission. There are plenty of other examples, especially in the South End of Boston mentioned above.
    Leaving aside the damage that installing synthetic siding does to a historic structure, for half the cost of the vinyl, she could get the house painted, invest the rest at 4.5 percent so that she'd be able to afford paint a second time 10-years out.
    Je suis Charlie

  17. #17
         
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    Quote Originally posted by jmello
    What about older, possibly low-income, homeowners who bought there before the historic district was established?
    Our City offers matching facade grants funds up to $3,000.00. While this may not be a lot of $$ it would most likely cover any element of maintenance the board would be likely to require, such as wood handrails as opposed to vinyl, etc.

    We are very fair with our citizens (IMO), each structure is done case by case and if an applicant absolutely could not afford to do something necessary that we required, we would work with them.

    I understand where your coming from and that does come up here often, as the guidelines were only established in '98 (districts longer than that) so often the property owners get upset. I do my best to make the process run smoothly and have had very few problems in the past 6 years.

  18. #18
    Cyburbian jmello's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Gedunker
    Leaving aside the damage that installing synthetic siding does to a historic structure...
    Hah, he said "synthetic siding"....lol

    Are you aware of how elitist that statement sounds?

  19. #19
    Quote Originally posted by jmello
    Hah, he said "synthetic siding"....lol

    Are you aware of how elitist that statement sounds?
    I do believe this is the first time in 20 or more years anybody has accused me of that. I'll leave it at that.
    Je suis Charlie

  20. #20
    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    I am in the be leery of historic district designation. My parents live in a place where everyone decided that it should become a historic district. It turns out everyone was also making major improvements (adding square footage, addressing old garages, updating windows). When word got out about how combersome it would be to help maintain the value of the property due to how stringint the codes were, everyone thought otherwise. Incidently this neighborhood was built in the 1920's to 1940's, and the homes while nice, are not mansions (my parents home may be 1,600 square feet tops), nor are they architecturally signficant. There are plenty of neighborhoods like this in Detroit or its inner ring suburbs.

    I side with those who want to limit government intrusiveness into their own personal decision on what to do with what they own.
    We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes - Fr Gabriel Richard 1805

  21. #21
    Cyburbian thinknik's avatar
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    Yes, for our town, they are necessary.

    We have six local historic preservation districts and each one controls for different issues depending on the characteristics and preservation goals of its district.

    Property values rise at a higher rate in these districts than outside of them. The city's review board is specifically prohibited from consideration of costs of alterations, demolitions or new construction. I am confident in my opinion that our local economy would suffer immeasurably if we did not have these protective overlays since it is heritage tourism driven.

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