5-Dec-23 – Stunned by the recent demolition of well-preserved 19th century buildings torn down to add a side yard for a neighboring property, five neighborhood groups recently hosted representatives of two nonprofit architectural preservation organizations to learn about the benefits of landmark districts.
The groups – Lincoln Central Association, Mid-North Association, Ranch Triangle, Sheffield Neighborhood Organization, and Wrightwood Neighbors Association – are also concerned about DePaul University’s proposal to tear down a group of buildings along Sheffield Avenue.
He says his organization has worked with Landmarks Illinois and aldermen over the years to preserve historic buildings in Lincoln Park and get the city to consider a broader landmark district. There are currently five major landmark districts within Lincoln Park, along with block districts and corner districts.
A landmark district is a collection of historic buildings within a designated area that contribute to neighborhood character through history, economy, architecture, art, or culture. A neighborhood district protects an entire neighborhood, not just specific buildings.
Landmark designations are recommended for protection from demolition by the nine-member Commission on Chicago Landmarks and must be approved by the Chicago City Council. The commission is also responsible for reviewing any proposed alteration, demolition, or new construction affecting individual landmarks or landmark districts. There are currently about 60 landmark districts in Chicago.
The federal government also recognizes neighborhood historic districts on its National Register of Historic Places, which seeks to preserve districts considered worthy of preservation due to their historical significance or artistic value.
The federal designation often helps residents qualify for tax incentives. It does not, however, actually protect a building from demolition.
“It’s just tragic to see these structures demolished one after another in the Sheffield National Historic Register district,” said Miller.
While the Chicago landmark designation “has teeth” and protects historic buildings, Miller says the federal designation “just offers all sorts of incentives to sort of encourage a property owner to do the right thing.”
“At the end of the day, the federal designation allows the property owner to still do whatever you want,” he said. “This lack of protection is how yet another building within a federally-recognized district gets demolished.”
Kendra Parzen, Advocacy Manager of Landmarks Illinois, said neighborhood groups remain an important part of the community development process.
Designation restrictions affect front of building only
According to Miller, some people reluctant to support a Chicago neighborhood district are concerned they will be limited by what they can do with their own property.
“When it comes to landmark districts, we’re really only talking about the front elevation that you see from the street,” he said. “You can still add on to your roof. You just have to set it back. You can still add on to the back of your house. The designation does not go inside your house. You can paint the inside of your walls chartreuse if you choose.”
Landmark designation, says Miller, is “really about saving facades and saving the look, the feel, and the spirit of your street and neighborhood.”
Being designated a neighborhood landmark district by the city, he says, often results in increased investment in an area. And he says preservation of historic buildings has helped make Chicago a tourist destination.
“We’re America’s city of architecture and are known as such around the world,” said Miller. “And yet, for some reason, we continue to demolish these great buildings. And often, the buildings that replace the historic buildings are second-rate buildings.”