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Thursday, May 25, 2006

Aldermen and the Preservation Board

Richard Nickel, the Chicago architectural photographer, salvager and preservation activist, once said that two things threaten old buildings: water and stupid men.

In what language does the prefix "alder" translate as "stupid"?

This question comes to the minds of anyone who attended Monday's Preservation Board meeting. Actions on two items from the agenda stand out as examples of the short-sightedness of the Gang of 28:

3524 Victor: David Guller, owner of this magnificent home in the Compton Hill local historic district, replaced windows, cornice and soffit without a permit. He was caught by a neighbor and had to apply for a permit. Unfortunately, his vinyl replacements don't meet the local district code and when Guller made an application for a permit on the already-done remuddling the city's Cultural Resources Office (CRO) denied his application. He appealed to the Preservation Board, which denied the appeal. Guller agreed to rework his soffit and cornice to the liking of the CRO. But he didn't want to replace the six windows on his front elevation, and somehow appealed the denial of his appeal.

How was this even possible? Legally, it's not. The city's Preservation Review Ordinance holds the Preservation Board's denial of appeal as the final deliberation, after which a matter would go to court through lawsuit. Apparently there is an unwritten exception that Alderman Stephen Conway, Guller's representative, used to secure a second hearing at last month's meeting. Guller did not appear, and the Board voted again to uphold the CRO denial. The item re-appeared this month, and Guller as well as Alderman Conway testified in support of his supposedly appropriate vinyl windows. The windows have embedded muntins and a terrible flat appearance; at the least, he could have sought simulated exterior muntins. best of all, Guller could re-install the wooden windows that he removed on the front elevation and keep his vinyl windows on the side and rear elevations (private elevations under city law). But he has thrown them out.

The Preservation Board smartly voted again to uphold CRO denial. If the matter comes up again, perhaps someone who supports CRO should file suit against Guller and Conway for abusing the process!

Forest Park Southeast Demolitions: The tides turned against 32 houses owned by Forest West Properties, a real estate corporation created by the Washington University Medical Center Redevelopment Corporation. Forest West sought demolition permits for all 32 and ended up receiving 22 permits, the staff recommendation of CRO. While last month's consideration by the Board of the same matter met with widespread resentment of Forest West's lack of a plan for and lack of communication with CRO.

This month, things had changed. Namely, Alderman Joseph Roddy's name, absent from earlier deliberations, surfaced. CRO Director Kate Shea told the Preservation Board that Roddy had asked Forest West to buy the homes and tear them down for new construction. This fact is irrelevant to any discussion of the consequences of the demolition permit, the adequacy of their excuses for seeking one and approaches to preservation planning for these properties -- but it seemed to carry weight. Never mind that only Forest West's Brian Phillips testified in favor of demolition and that four people -- Claire Nowak-Boyd, Anthony Coffin, Steve Patterson and myself -- testified at length on the problems with the application.

The Preservation Board itself was diminished by the total absence of members John Burse and Alderman Terry Kennedy (continuing his string of absences and becoming the third alderman in this story) and the departure of Melanie Fathman in the middle of testimony on this matter. Richard Callow recused himself after asking to split the vote on permits so that he would not vote on permits for buildings that a client was seeking to buy. For some reason, his suggestion did not go anywhere. So members Mary "One" Johnson, Luis Porello, Anthony Robinson and Chairman Tim Mulligan were left to vote. Johnson is the most uncritical cheerleader of the status quo on the Board, with Porello often siding with her. On this matter, they were true to form with Johnson "complimenting" Phillips from the start. Robinson was oddly quiet; he would have been a voice of reason. Mulligan opposed the permits strongly last month but endorsed the staff recommendation this time.

In the end, the vote was 3-1 in favor of the staff recommendation to approve demolition of 22 buildings, with Robinson dissenting. Testimony from opponents was mostly ignored, unlike last month when it was led to enthusiastic discussion with Shea and board members.

What a difference an alderman can make!


Anonymous said...

The Preservation Board is such a political creature. They seem to make thoughtful decisions until political issues arise.

I thought they only caved in to pressure from the mayor, but it seems now that even the aldermen have influence. Why not just have the aldermen decide these issues and save everyone the time and effort of pretending the preservation board matters.

Anonymous said...


Interesting post, but you lost me a little...

Re. the 3-1 vote, are you reporting that the board voted to approve or deny the demolitions?

Last to anony #1, yes, you get it! The aldermen run the show.

The system is designed for them support each others plans, no questions asked, otherwise face being "voted off the island".

Michael R. Allen said...

I edited the post to clarify.

The Board voted 3-1 in favor of the recommendation to grant 22 demolition permits.