- Author's note: In the interest of full disclosure, I (Mike Bruno) sit on the Historic Preservation Commission for Geneva, IL. The opinions here are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the commission or the city of Geneva.
Most Historic Preservation Commission reviews do not draw too much attention …and for good reason. Often, these are comparative yawners such as requests to replace signs, roofs and driveways. These often can be approved by city staff, freeing the property owner from appearing before the monthly meeting of the commission. Even new additions, can sometimes be approved without an appearance before the HPC if it is small and is not (or barely) visible from the street or on a “non-contributing” structure.
Only occasionally does something decisively draw the public’s attention, and the demolition of an iconic, historic property is among them.
Witness 502 W. State Street in downtown Geneva. (a.k.a, The Pure Gardener or Pure Oil building or Kuchera’s Service Station) and the recent petition to tear it down to accommodate a bank drive-through.
Let me begin with the fact that I am, in important ways, a fan of property owner Joe Stanton. To be clear; our relationship is purely professional and, other than bumping into him at local businesses, our interactions have been solely through appearances before the HPC. Mr. Stanton is a long-time, visible property developer and, I would suggest, a net contributor to Geneva.
That said, there is necessarily a dynamic between a developer and a municipality that might sometimes have competing goals. A developer wants to, naturally, maximize/optimize the economics of his or her properties within the boundaries set by local ordinances. This process typically plays out where a compromise is reached where property rights are respected for both the owner and the neighbors/community. I believe that Mr. Stanton is sincere in his desire to make Geneva a better place.
On that matter of property rights, let’s all recognize that all property owners live happily within the limits set by civic ordinances. If ConAgra wished to tear down your neighboring homes and build a pork processing plant, they would not be allowed to do so. I think it is safe to say that you, the neighboring property owner, should be unendingly happy that local ordinances preclude livestock processing in a residential neighborhood.
Historic preservation ordinances (which I consider a kissin’ cousin of zoning ordinances) work in the same way, but at a different conceptual level. Just as the community has defined zoning ordinances to protect the value of surrounding properties, historic preservation ordinances protect other features that the community has deemed valuable.
As I have said before and has been confirmed at every community survey, the historic downtown is at or near the top of things that are valued by our residents and is central to our community identity. Moreover, it has been empirically shown that zoning ordinances and historic preservation ordinances protect and enhance the value of ALL properties. Historic preservation ordinances are not some radically new and onerous set of restrictions laid down upon some Utopian, restriction-free terrain. They are an incremental extension of restrictions that we, as a municipality, have agreed upon to protect for one another. No one may profit at the expense of another.
A key point in the Secretary of Interior standards for Historic Preservation is the premise that “Each property will be recognized as a physical record of its time, place, and use.” There are few buildings that more clearly evoke a time and place than the distinctive blue and white cottage-style structures built along our nation’s (pre-interstate) highways in the 1930s.
It’s hard to imagine today, but if you wanted to drive to California, you had to use a meandering system of two-lane highways. Our very own State Street was part of the historical and iconic Lincoln Highway and was as important as the famous Route 66 (even if Nat “King” Cole didn’t sing about it). The post-war interstate highway system marked the end of that era and the preeminence of that network of roads.
Our own Pure Oil building is as visually iconic as we have in Geneva, and it still gazes out on our own nationally iconic Lincoln highway. If we are setting bars for what we, as a community, would permit for demolition, no higher bar comes to mind than the one that would be set for this building. This building may be THE “Pure-est” embodiment of a Geneva historical resource celebrating our nation’s burgeoning mobility of the 1930s, when attendants checked your oil and air, cleaned your windows, and 50,000 miles on the odometer was a really old car.
Opponents of saving the building seem to fall into two camps and appeal to property rights and economic hardship.
To property rights: Some of the push back comes from those who say, “It’s Mr. Stanton’s property and he should be able to do anything he wants.” On its face, that seems to appeal to a non-existent ideal. Just like the example above about zoning ordinances and meat processing; nobody can do anything they want. There are ordinances that bound all of our property development to protect neighbors and the community. Mr. Stanton, more than most, well knows these bounds in the historic district, and I know he approached this project with his eyes wide open.
To economic hardship: This is the most compelling case to be make here and a valiant effort was made on behalf of his hopeful banking tenant to convince the HPC that it was unduly expensive to make the Pure Oil building economically viable. To be sure, a building of this size does pose challenges but, again, the building was purchased knowing everything about the district and it was obviously iconic.
Moreover, he presently has a tenant in that building who has publicly expressed interest in staying and there are many examples of adaptive re-use of these quirky gas stations. (I acknowledge that Mr. Stanton has made unspecified efforts for this and other of his tenants during the economic downturn in the form of rent reductions and forgiving missed payments. Further indication that he seems to be a stand-up guy.) Mr. Stanton has indicated that he cannot sell the property because, given the housing market, it would go for a “fire sale” price. It should be considered that maybe he can’t get the necessary rent or sale price, not because the property is too limited through preservation ordinances, but because the economy and real estate are in a bad place.
This is where we test the mettle of our elected city officials. Should Mr. Stanton appeal the denial of his demolition request to the full City Council, our elected officials will have to demonstrate whether it supports what the community has clearly said it values. It is easy to be a good citizen when everyone is fat and happy with a strong economy.
It is harder when economic conditions force these unpleasant choices to the table. Demolition is a one-way trip. Just because the economy is down does not make a property less historically valuable. It is not the role of city staff (or a volunteer commission) to make a less-lucrative investment in land speculation somehow more lucrative.
The free market puts these risks on the investor, and the city is not obliged to change its values to benefit one property owner … even a stand-up one.