- Author's Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I (Mike Bruno) sit on Geneva's Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). Opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the postition of the HPC or the City of Geneva.
It seems our fair city has a spate of acute historic preservation issues. Most recently, two historic properties that lie outside of Geneva's treasured historic district are the subject of deliberations by two separate governmental bodies. These bodies seem to be tacking toward demolition of those structures.
The subject properties are the Coultrap school building on Peyton Street and the Cetron building on Richards Street. These are (or will be) owned by the Geneva School District and the Geneva Library District respectively.
It is not the point of this missive to discuss the relative merits of either of those buildings (though I have already written on the Cetron building here). Rather, I wish to discuss language in our existing ordinances that give the community an avenue to protect any building within its boundaries should the citizenry be sufficiently motivated and a case for protection sufficiently compelling.
I refer to "local landmarking" which, in a nutshell, can be applied to a property outside the historic district and put it within the purview of the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). Once landmarked, exterior changes that require a city permit would have to come before the HPC for review before that permit can be issued. ...and demolition requires a city permit.
Some residents outside of the HPC have already expressed interest in the landmarking process for the Coultrap building, and it has made me [re]ponder what it means to the community and the property owner to be landmarked ... at least in terms of protecting a property.
Some of you may recall that in August\September of last year there was a public and boisterous discussion about the language in city ordinance that specifically states that no owner consent is required for a community or even an individual citizen to landmark a property or properties. I spoke my piece before the Comittee of the Whole (which is a completely different and wholly separate body than the City Council ... except it is all the same people and they meet in the same place. Don't ask.) You can scan down to Exhibit C on page 9 to see what I said.
In the end, the City Council voted to maintain the existing language not requiring owner consent because it was not a real threat, supported preservation, was consistent with our city identity, its removal addressed a problem that didn't exist, and could cause us problems down the line. This "no owner consent" landmarking language is perceived to be the "nuclear option" by many and reading it (especially out of context) it seems uber-Draconian; that any citizen could swoop in and influence the zoning\restrictions on your property. That seems really scary. "Can't my neighbor stop me from putting up the new garage on their personal whim?" a hypothetical property owner might say. "Probably not" is what I say.
First, the process of establishing a landmark is fairly time consuming, costs are shouldered by the petitioner, and a real, compelling case needs to be made that the subject property is genuinely historic and valuable. There are somewhat objective standards that set a pretty high bar as to what will be considered for landmarking. These standards might include architectural integrity, notable architect\builder, important historical event, etc. What is NOT a compelling argument for landmarking is for the petitioner to say they really, really, really, really like the subject building. Likewise, saying that change\demolition to the building would be really, really, really, really annoying to the petitioner.
Second, landmarking is not a large, irrevocable, scarlet "NO" on any property or project. In the case of a building threatened with demolition, it simply means that a thorough analysis of preservation\re-use must be undertaken prior to the permit being issue. If the case can be made that the property cannot be viable under the present or potential owner, then demolition would likely be approved ... landmarked or not. The city nor the Historic Preservation Commission sees little value in a vacant, derelict building ... historic or not.
What concerns me with Coultrap and Cetron is that the School Board and Library Board members, respectively, may have made up their minds without exhausting re-use options. Will the citizenry take such an initiative to make sure that the buildings aren't destroyed in haste? I would prefer a civil dialogue between those boards and those affected rather than unilateral landmarking action, but I would support that action if that were necessary to make sure adaptive re-use were thoroughly and thoughtfully considered. The School Board, to its credit, is hosting two public meetings to discuss the future of Coultrap. (Unfortunately, committments keep me from attending either of those meetings.)
So, will the public pull out the "nuclear option"? They can't because one does not exist. Will the public make sure that re-use options have been considered? Time will tell, but they will have to make a serious case. Will landmarking save a Coultrap or a Cetron? It's not a guarantee, but at least you have an option be sure that preservation options were exhausted first.
Information on the landmarking process can be found on the city's website.