It was a strange night at City Hall. If you recall last week’s meeting, we were told that the vote to uphold the Historical Preservation Commission’s decision to deny a demolition permit for the Pure Oil Building would prevent the matter from reaching the City Council meeting the following week. But not so fast. The City Council has to make that decision.
But you thought the City Council already made that decision. Shows how much you know. When is a city council not a city council? When it’s a COW, of course, COW being Committee of the Whole. So now we needed a resolution to uphold the decision the City Council, I mean COW, made last week. The resolution was described as a vote affirming the decision the City Council, I mean COW, made last week. But it’s not really affirming that decision, just that a decision was made. So the City Council unanimously resolved that they, I mean COW, made a decision last week.
That led into a motion to reconsider that decision. Except that Robert’s Rules of Order normally require that a motion to reconsider be made at the same meeting the motion being reconsidered was made. So if the City Council was reconsidering the motion they just made, then I guess it would have to be a motion to reconsider whether they made a decision last week. But it turns out the motion to reconsider was actually to reconsider the decision to uphold the HPC decision made by the City Council, I mean COW, last week.
Confused? I am. Anyway, we learned that the historic preservation ordinance allows the petitioner, Joe Stanton, to appeal the HPC decision to the City Council. So why did he appeal the HPC decision to the City Council, I mean COW, last week? I don’t know. Who’s on first?
After several false starts and some confusion about what the council was voting on and what the results were, we finally got through this part of the agenda and got to the part where the petitioner pled his case. Joe brought a banker and a real estate agent to help bolster his cause. The appeal was based upon the first standard of the rehabilitation guidelines from the Secretary of the Interior and the technical and economic feasibility of the “project” according to those guidelines.
Only there was no actual project, from what I could tell. The council was not supposed to consider the proposed bank. So we had some theoretical project for some theoretical use and some theoretical costs for that project. Since this theoretical project would not provide any theoretical return and would therefore not pass muster for bank financing (no more no doc loans), the petitioner argued that he had met the burden of proof for the first standard of the rehabilitation and economic and technical feasibility. The first standard of rehabilitation (key word rehabilitation), by the way, says that “a property shall be used for its intended historic purpose or be placed in a new use that requires minimal change to the defining characteristics of the building and its site and environment”.
The petition was for demolition of the building, which seems to be an extreme form of rehabilitation. Kind of like execution. So I’m confused about just how the standards of rehabilitation apply. And to add to the surreal atmosphere of the evening, the mayor retained his composure and Bob McQuillan said something I agreed with and so did the mayor. Actually two things.
The first was about working things out and extending the olive branch so there is no winner and no loser in the situation. The second was about how there are 10 City Council members and probably 10 different ideas about what economic and technical feasibility is. I’ve been thinking that we didn’t have a good handle on this concept, either.
As I listened to Dick Untch try to explain how the first standard of rehabilitation and economic and technical feasibility needed to be addressed, I realized how true this was. Joe has his idea of what technical and economic feasibility is and how that should apply to the first standard of rehabilitation and I have mine, which is somewhat different.
You see, I feel that the rehabilitation standards address how the historic aspects of the property should be preserved during the process of rehabilitation. In the preface to the Standards of Rehabilitation, it states that “rehabilitation is defined as the act or process of making possible a compatible use for a property through repair, alterations, and additions, while preserving those portions or features which convey its historical, cultural, or architectural values."
Many of the improvements to the property listed in Joe Stanton’s letter to the HPC do not apply to the defining features of the property that the guidelines address. Things like bringing in new electric service, HVAC improvements, and compliance with ADA requirements do nothing to preserve the historical aspects of the building. Those improvements, as well as sprinklers, smoke alarms, and building code requirements should really be considered a cost of doing business when your business is renting commercial space.
I don’t see these kind of improvements and compliance with regulations as being covered by the rehabilitation guidelines. All of these factors may make the cost of a project prohibitive, but they cannot be construed as requirements for historical preservation.
I guess that what I learned from this process is that we may need to plug a few holes in our ordinance. Demolition needs to be addressed as a separate issue and held to a higher standard. Economic and technical feasibility need to be defined in terms of rehabilitation of the historical features of a property. Economic hardship needs to be addressed, as well as property owner financial distress. We need experts to help property owners with rehabilitation projects both in terms of design and financing. We may need some form of public financing to help owners adapt historic properties to commercial purposes. We need to be committed to historic preservation and to making it work to the benefit of property owners and the public.
Last night’s meeting had a lot of high and low points, but in the end I think the City Council made the right decision. It also showed that there are a lot of good people in Geneva, who are committed to preserving Geneva and making it work.
I hope that the process spawns some new creative alliances to help create a long-term solution to the problems of historic preservation, because that is a large part of the character and charm of Geneva and why so many of us are proud to call Geneva home.