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Mike Bruno: On Demolition and Historic Districts

The recent request to demolish the Pure Gardener / Pure Oil building has attracted public attention. What does Geneva value?

  • 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 or Pure Oil building or Kuchera’s Service Station) and the 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 . 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 . 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 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 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.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Chuck Brown February 25, 2012 at 12:03 AM
Mike, Thank you for this most perceptive article! Your analysis of this pending issue for appointed and elected officials in Geneva should be required reading for all engaged citizens (and all seniors at Geneva High School?). Life is not simple, as talking heads would have us believe; it involves tensions between competing possibilities. Moving forward with vigor, vision and industriousness is always in competition with the status quo. How to more forward, with respect for all that is good about the world we have created in the Geneva, and the US, is a challenge. As an Alderman, I appreciate the work of your Commission volunteers (and other Commissions) in helping to sort out the competing positions before they finally reach the City Council. We must vote up or down in the final instance, after a final attempt to reach an inventive compromise, if you haven't succeeded, not for lack of trying on either of our parts! I hope some dialog on Patch may shed light on the issue, along with input from my constituents. aldbrown@geneva.il.us
Jim P February 25, 2012 at 12:42 AM
I agree with you that the property in question - a former service station that once served travelers on the Lincoln Highway - is historically significant. And I think the character of downtown would be poorer if we were to lose it. As you say, demolition is a one-way trip and once that structure is gone, it's never coming back. That said, I can empathize with Mr. Stanton. He purchased the property and I don't think his options should be limited without very careful consideration. The zoning / pork processor analogy isn't perfect. I don't think there's a concern that the bank will prove to be a bad neighbor, as much as the city would be losing something of value if the Pure Oil building is allowed to be demolished. I would hope there is a way to keep the building without causing Mr. Stanton a financial loss.
Mike Bruno February 25, 2012 at 04:07 AM
Thanks Chuck.
Mike Bruno February 25, 2012 at 04:08 AM
I was not claiming equivalency between a livestock processing plant and a bank. The point was merely to show that all of us living in ANY municipality live happily and gratefully with limits to our property rights. ...and to your point on "careful consideration"; I absolutely agree and part of the commission's charge is to recognize when there is an undue hardship to comply with preservation. There are examples to be shared (in a later column?) where the commission recognized an unreasonable burden on a property owner and permitted modification or demolition. I can say with confidence that there is no commission member who takes these sorts of decisions lightly. I believe even Mr. Stanton and his hoped-for tenant recognized this. Both stated that they thought the process was fair at the conclusion of the meeting.
Colin C. February 25, 2012 at 06:18 PM
Again thanks to you, Mike, for an excellent article. I would like to add a little perspective. Several years ago Mr. Stanton (and I agree that he has generally been a plus in Geneva) purchased the property at 317 S. Third St. (NE corner of Fulton). There is an historic house, sometimes referred to as the "Burton" house set back at an odd angle on this lot. Most of the lot is open space with trees and grass. Mr. Stanton came to the City requesting permission to demolish this house and replace it with a multi-story, mixed use building that would extend to the sidewalks on Third and Fulton. He presented the argument that the old house was in bad condition, could not be restored for a reasonable cost, and was not economically viable, even though there was a successful store there at the time. The City denied his request, he sold the property, and the current owner tastefully remodeled the house (with the City's blessing) to house her business and one of the best restaurants in the western suburbs; Fiora's. The situation with the Pure Oil building strikes me as "deje vu all over again". It may be true that this building, as it stands, cannot become profitable for Mr. Stanton, but it was his choice to buy it. If that was a poor business decision I do not think that it is incumbent upon the City of Geneva to sacrifice a part of its heritage in order to bail him out. Yes, he may lose money on this deal. I'm sorry but that's the way business goes.
Mike Bruno February 26, 2012 at 03:24 PM
Thanks Colin. It will probably be a topic of a future post about other demolition requests. The public should be interested to know what has and hasn't been allowed and how that has affected the downtown landscape. As far as property owners requesting demolition; I see those requests as being neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically bad and I don't criticize Mr. Stanton here. Such requests are simply an intrinsic part of the civic process.
Colin C. February 26, 2012 at 04:16 PM
I agree Mike. Especially in your position on the Commission you must be neutral and view each request on its own, independent merits. I think that the Commission does a good job of that. It is not an easy task and you know that no matter what you decide you will usually make someone unhappy. I respect your volunteer efforts. Some of us, however, who have no official position with the City, might just take a position and lobby for it just as hard as we can, just as a developer might. That's part of the process also. I just hope that in this matter we do not sink into the vitriol that seems so common in public discorse these days. I like and respect Mr. Stanton but I do disagree with his plan to demolish that particular building. I fervently hope that a reasonable alternative can be found. Idea: there is a vacant bank building on N. Third St. The City encourages (helps?) Mr. Stanton buy and renovate that building for the bank and other retail space? It's a better, safer location than State St. and is already set up for banking.
Mike Bruno February 26, 2012 at 04:45 PM
All fair points Colin. It would be my hope that Mr. Stanton's business is liquid enough that purchasing the vacant 3rd Street bank could be an option. I also recognize that, for a bank tenant, a more visible State Street location would be the more attractive option. If I haven't said so already; it wouldn't surprise me if the Saint Charles bank doesn't simply walk away from the Pure Oil location given the public reaction. I certainly wouldn't, as a retail banking establishment, want to come in under [what appears to be] a dark cloud. I'll leave the importance of a contiguous, pedestrian-attractive retail corridor to another discussion.
Noel G. Rooks February 28, 2012 at 05:45 PM
All excellent points. I also agree that StCB may walk away. They have invested a lot into their image as a community bank, I don't think they'd want to lose it. I would welcome them downtown, as stated perhaps into the currently vacant bank building. As stated in the meeting though, I would not want to lose this building in order to welcome them.
stix slavinski March 04, 2012 at 03:16 AM
great letter mike, but it would be nice if it could be viewed by a larger group of people, especially the ones who are still a little on the fence as to what they think about whether the building is saved from the wrecking ball.
Chad Allen Johnson March 16, 2012 at 03:48 AM
Mike, well written, Geneva is lucky to have your rational voice. Kudos to being included in the National Trust for Historic Preservation's preservation round-up. http://blog.preservationnation.org/2012/03/15/preservation-round-up-hockeys-oldest-arenas-edition/ Chad Johnson, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Mike Bruno March 16, 2012 at 04:02 AM
Ha! Interesting enough, but I don't know why I was picked up for a piece on old hockey arenas!!

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