Zoning Committee moves to protect Chicago landmarks from deliberate neglect

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A neglected house in Old Town was the impetus for Ald. Brian Hopkins to push an ordinance that makes it tougher for owners of landmark properties to neglect them on purpose in order to sell the property for redevelopment. | Google Streetview

Owners of Chicago landmarks who deliberately neglect their buildings to justify demolition and a lucrative land sale to developers would lose their incentive under a crackdown advanced Thursday at the behest of an Old Town alderman.

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) championed the ordinance — and pushed it through the City Council’s Zoning Committee — to appease the Old Town Triangle and East Village Associations.

The driving force was the recent case of an Old Town house in a landmark district. Hopkins contends the owner “intentionally allowed that structure to decay and degrade into a state where, the claim was, demolition would be the only remedy.”

“For a developer, any time there seems to be an opportunity to do a tear down or to build something new, the price goes up significantly and the offers start coming in,” Hopkins said Thursday, refusing to provide the address of the Old Town home because the case is still tied up in court.

“So, if you’re sitting on a landmark property that might be on the fence in terms of its viability and developers come along and whisper in your ear, the kind of money that they’re offering is very tempting.”

Hopkins’ ordinance would make that more difficult.

It would slap daily fines as high as $2,000 against owners of buildings with “compromised exterior, structural or defective elements.”

If an administrative hearing officer determines that the landmark building fell into disrepair because of the owner’s “contributing acts,” the buildings commissioner “shall not issue a permit for new construction on the applicable zoning lot for a period of two years.”

A Circuit Court judge could impose an even longer moratorium on new construction — for “up to ten years,” the ordinance states.

The Old Town Triangle Association and the East Village Association have been swimming upstream to preserve the “historic charm” of a neighborhood with rising property values filled with landmark buildings where developers would much rather get rid of the old and replace it with bigger and taller structures.

“Especially over the last couple of years — we’ve seen a number of issues tied to landmarks and landmark districts being destroyed or coming to a point where they were determined by the Department of Building to be unsafe,” Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, told aldermen.

Miller called Hopkins’ ordinance “an important step forward” to preserve Chicago landmarks that he called “cultural and world treasures.”

Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy for Landmarks Illinois, said she, too, has been “very alarmed at the uptick in what we have seen as intentional neglect” to landmark buildings in recent years — “especially in those landmark districts where we know that real estate values are increasing. … Several owners have intentionally allowed properties to deteriorate in the hope of profit. We do hope this amendment will help deter that trend,” she added.

Veteran community activist Allan Mellis, a historic preservation advocate, noted that Chicago’s newly-created “Landmark Opportunity Bonus Fund” will provide money for “historic building restoration” across the city.

“That is the carrot. In order to put additional pressure, this is the stick,” Mellis said, referring to the penalties included in Hopkins’ ordinance.

“Hopefully, this carrot-and-stick approach will result in better protection of our historic landmark buildings.”

Hopkins argued that landmark preservation is particularly critical in a city that was literally rebuilt from the ashes.

“This is really the Second City after the Great Chicago Fire. We don’t have a wide inventory of structures that existed prior to 1871. So many of them were destroyed. It makes historic preservation even more important,” Hopkins said.

That’s particularly true in Old Town, the alderman said, where property values are driven, in part, by the sense of “historic charm.”

“It just looks like a really special place. And one of the reasons it’s a special place is because it does have a higher concentration of older buildings. That needs to be preserved just to keep that quality of life that attracts people to Old Town in the first place,” he said.

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