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Thread: Including vacant property in a historic district

  1. #1
    moderator in moderation Suburb Repairman's avatar
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    Including vacant property in a historic district

    We have five historic districts established in our city. For each of these districts and their surroundings, we have a historic resources survey of structures. We use this document heavily when considering Certificates of Appropriateness, district expansions, etc. There are several vacant properties that are adjacent to existing districts or in reasonable proximity.

    Has anyone performed an analysis of vacant properties just outside a district for inclusion in the district? These are properties that my training in planning tells me should be in a district, but I don't have much historic preservation expertise--at least not enough for our city attorney to be totally comfortable without some back-up. If anyone could suggest some resources, articles, etc that discuss considerations for including vacant property in a historic district, I'd love those as well.

    We want to create an official study of vacant properties in our city close to historic districts to justify including those properties in districts when appropriate. I don't want to be in a position where an otherwise reasonable proposal to include a vacant property in a historic district gets shot down because I don't look like an expert on paper.

    "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

    - Herman Göring at the Nuremburg trials (thoughts on democracy)

  2. #2
    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    What would the purpose of including vacant land in the Historic District be? If you are looking to ensure that development on these lots fits with existing historic built fabric, for example, you may run into the issue that, because restrictions on building on that lot may differ from, say, across the street, land value may be inflated and there may be difficulty in selling/developing the land. Just to consider the implication sof such a move. FWIW.

    I don't know a lot about this issue either, only that I live in an Historic Overlay District. There are some vacant lots in the area, but most of these are subject to zoning as outlined in the local Sector Development Plan (and thus are not part of the overlay) which does include some requirements intended to tie new structures in with massing, setbacks and facade details of the historic homes. But, of course, new buildings will not be "historic" and so, it seems, the rules that regulate modifications to these buildings should not be part of Hist Pres. How would Hist Pres issue Certificates of Appropriateness for facade details of a structure that is not actually historic, but designed to be in keeping with historic structures?

    This is a confusing one...
    The purpose of life is a life of purpose

  3. #3
    Cyburbian beach_bum's avatar
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    Would your historic district include design guidelines? I tend to lean towards an overlay with vacant property unless its a 'historic landscape.' I mean the purpose of a a historic district is to preserve the buildings and structures right? Design guidelines with in an overlay could be effective in your situation and could direct any development of those lots to a style that is compatible with the district.

    Another thought-if those vacant lots could be available for the relocation of historic buildings in the area, then just putting them inside the historic district is maybe ok. Are these national regisister districts or local ones? Tough call...
    "Never invest in any idea you can't illustrate with a crayon." ~Peter Lynch

  4. #4
    Very difficult situation, since vacant lots at the periphery of a historic district do not contribute to the district and thus, under strict reading of state enabling legislation (all of which vary, of course), should not be included in the district. Our enabling law allows the creation of conservation districts in which only new construction, demolition, or relocating a structure requires approval but provides existing property owners all the rights they currently enjoy without further restriction (e.g., the vinyl window salesman can continue unimpeded). Would your state enabling legislation allow an overlay district with similar protections?

  5. #5
    moderator in moderation Suburb Repairman's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by beach_bum View post
    Would your historic district include design guidelines? I tend to lean towards an overlay with vacant property unless its a 'historic landscape.' I mean the purpose of a a historic district is to preserve the buildings and structures right? Design guidelines with in an overlay could be effective in your situation and could direct any development of those lots to a style that is compatible with the district.

    Another thought-if those vacant lots could be available for the relocation of historic buildings in the area, then just putting them inside the historic district is maybe ok. Are these national regisister districts or local ones? Tough call...
    Our local historic districts are done as overlay districts. Two of the districts are National Register and it is possible we may nominate one of the other ones as well, though not in the immediate future.

    The reason to include the vacant property in the district is like you said Wahday, concern about ensuring it fits the historic fabric. Also, part of the thought process is to encourage relocation of existing historic buildings from somewhere else into the district when appropriate. There's two sides to this coin though... Design-wise, we don't care so much about whether it reflects a 1920s Craftsman, but are more concerned with rythm along the street, garage placement, relationship of porches to the facade, voids to solids, etc. However, this plan might make the properties more developable as it would likely encourage reduction in the conventional setbacks to match the neighborhood and provide sufficient protection to make the neighborhood more receptive to the zoning change that would be necessary for a property to redevelop in a financially feasible manner.

    Here's an example of what we are facing: a three acre property had a historic structure, but was just outside the district (a screw up from long ago). Our Commission decided to pursue including it about a year ago, but it was destroyed by fire. The property is surrounded by historic district on three sides. The study we were using focused on the structure present on the property with no mention of the value of placing the property itself in the district even if the structure wasn't present. Now that the structure is gone, the property owner isn't as cooperative.

    Our certificate of appropriateness addresses renovations, alterations, additions and new buildings within a historic overlay district. It may function very similar to your Sector Development Plan in that regard, wahday.

    It certainly is confusing--I've had to scratch my head on this for a few days trying to come up with how to even word the question. I hope this is making sense.

    "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

    - Herman Göring at the Nuremburg trials (thoughts on democracy)

  6. #6
    Cyburbian
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    Contributing vs. Non-Contributing

    If this is a National Register Historic District, a certain percentage (over 50%, I believe - need to double check) of the properties within the district boundaries need to be Contributing or Key Contributing properties/structures. Unless these vacant lots were the site of an historical event or have archaeological significance related to the district, they would be considered a Non-Contributing property.

    This may be the reason they were never included in the district - in order to keep the balance of Contributing and Non-Contributing properties.

    Like a previous poster stated, you may want to look at state enabling legislation. Kansas is pretty unique in requiring a review of exterior alterations to properties within the 500' of a State or National Register historic property or district (the "environs"). This review is not as strict as the review for actual historic structures, however it does prevent hideous atrocities from encroaching on the historic district.

    You may want to consider a local ordinance requiring some sort of review for properties adjacent to, or within a certain number of feet of an historic property or district.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian
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    missing teeth

    The vacant lots in historic districts are often described as the missing teeth in a smile. Of course, the false tooth isn't ever going to match exactly but you sure do hope it fits comfortably and doesn't stick out like a sore thumb. This is why vacant parcels are included in historic districts every day.

    In your situation I would look closely at where you would put the boundaries of the district today if no designation was already in place. Where did the developed area extend to during the period of significance? Are there natural or topographic boundaries? Are there large scale non-contributing parcels creating a visual boundary? Etc.

    If you can show why this parcel- and any others that should have been included to start with- should be designated then the grounds to revise the designation should be clear.

    If you don't find it to be a clear property for including in the designation, then regulations for development of all properties contiguous to or within so many feet of a designated property would be an excellent way to go. With community support doing both would be even better.

    Good Luck.

  8. #8

    Study Vinegar Hill

    Vinegar Hill Historic District
    http://www.nyc.gov/html/lpc/html/home/home.shtml

    Use the Search LPC using the link above and you will come up with several documents on Vinegar Hill

    It was the first district in the history of the LPC to include vacant land within the district. It has been several years since my involvement. But, a former LPC Commissioner I taught with suggested to me that it was a matter of curiosity regarding the role the commission might play in reviewing a proposed development. New Yorkers are adventurous that way...

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