The most comprehensive survey I’ve found of historic demolition review practices around the country is a 2006 paper “Protecting Potential Landmarks through Demolition Review” by Julia H Miller for the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP).
Many communities use 50 years as the critical benchmark for demolition review Miller says. Others use a date: Built before 1945 is the trigger in Alameda CA, Weston MA and other places – now approximately a 70 year rule. A couple have a less than 50 years.
Many others only do demolition review for buildings identified by periodic surveys, or already listed on a local, state or the national register. Chicago and Montgomery County MD are examples cited by Miller as requiring demolition review only of properties already identified. Others do require review within an area larger than the historic district but less than the full jurisdiction’s boundaries. Miller cites Baton Rouge LA and Boston as doing age triggered reviews in their downtown areas.
Miller warns: “Keep in mind that the viability of this system may depend upon an applicant’s representation or a permit official’s ability to verify or accurately determine a building’s age.”
Given that dating the construction of a building is time-consuming and problematic, and that property owners will usually prefer to avoid a preservation review all the incentives work to bias the stated age down – it brings to mind jokes about women understating their age. And old codgers being several years older than they say.
But what is demolition?
The scope of demolition triggering preservation review also varies, Miller notes. Boulder CO specifies 50% or more of the roof, 50% of the exterior wall length, and any wall on public street as sufficient demolition sufficient to require preservation review. Many limit preservation review to proposed total demolitions. Some specify demolition by square footage: in New England demolitions involving >500sf are up for review. Others provide for preservation review with only 25% of a building proposed for removal, or they refer more vaguely to proposed “substantial demolition” as requiring preservation designation and review.
The criteria applied in addition to age in assessing whether a building should be designated for protection from demolition vary widely, Miller notes. But usually they revolve around three criteria: (1) the building’s judge historic, architectural and site ‘significance’ (2) whether is a rare remaining example and (3) its condition. Many focus on whether the structure proposed for demolition is on a national or state register or regarded as likely to meet those requirements.
Most commonly they need to be either on a national register or state or local listing as historically significant or already listed as ‘eligible’ potentially significant. Some add a requirement that it be judged ‘preferably preserved’ invoking a demonstrated public interest in addition to a preservationist interest in its preservation. In some jurisdictions, for example Gainesville FL the emphasis is on saving “high style” or upscale architecture.
Decisions to designate are made by a historic preservation commission, board of architectural review, historic review board or landmarks commission – the names vary but the functions are similar. In some cases the assessments of the historic review entity are merely advisory and the decisions are made by the elected council or delegates, board of aldermen, whatever the local legislative body is called.
Most jurisdictions have a health and safety exception that provides a bypass of preservation review. This produces an immediate demolition permit in cases where the structure is a hazard – for example if it burned in a fire losing structural elements or was damaged in an earthquake or other seismic event. Some apply a 50% test. If half or more of a building is already destroyed it shortcuts review.
Another variation is that preservation review and designation in some jurisdictions only provides a delay not an unlimited bar on demolition. The thinking is that a complete bar on demolition is an unwarranted ‘taking’ of property rights, and an incentive to arson or gradual demolition by neglect. The thought is that the delay in demolition will provide time to find a buyer of the building who’ll accept a covenant on the title preserving the building perhaps with some public or philanthropic monies, or to devise a scheme to move the building and re-erect it elsewhere, or else time to find a compromise in which the owner proposing demolition agrees to retention of the most significant parts of the building.
Miller laments that in many cases designation seems to depend more on the extent of public protest about a proposed designation than on its assessed historic significance.
Her report doesn’t mention any jurisdictions in which ‘sites’ as well as structures are reviewed for historic preservation in the context of demolition review.
Being eight years old now some of the detail in Miller’s report will have changed.
At the Board of Alderman and Mayor Workshop City staff preservationist Christina Martinkosky said 50 years was something of a standard age triggering historic preservation review based on the National Register criteria. It is not a quibble to note that the National Register doesn’t suggest that 50 years age be a trigger. It suggests 50 years as a minimum. In its fundamentals on how a property is evaluated it asks: “Is the property old enough to be considered historic (generally at least 50 years old)…”
Its worth looking at a variety of approaches to demolition by going to some historic preservation websites around the US, which we’ve done, and report now.
100 years is “historic” in Alexandria VA
Martinkosky said she was not aware of any jurisdiction adopting an age of more than 50 years. Actually the City of Alexandria Virginia uses 100 years as a trigger for demolition review outside the Old Town Alexandria historic district and the Parker Grey District. Their application for a demolition permit includes a provision for ‘historic preservation’ review when the building is located within historic districts regardless of age, or if it is “a protected 100 year old structure” elsewhere within the City bounds. Historic preservation review is the responsibility of a Board of Architectural Review (BAR.)
A Board of Architectural Review (BAR) reviews applications for certificates of appropriateness in the City’s architectural design control districts addressing demolition along with exterior renovations, additions and new construction. There are nine design control districts, plus a Virginia Landmarks Register and National Register properties. There is no historic preservation review for demolition beyond these.
The District of Columbia requires proposed demolitions to be reviewed for Historic Preservation Review Board approval for buildings within DC historic districts (currently 25) and landmarked historic buildings outside those districts. The DC government recognizes National Historic Landmarks within the District, all on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition it has its own DC Inventory of Historic Sites.
It has has no mechanism for historic review of non-landmarked or non-inventoried buildings outside the historic districts.
Howard County has three historic districts, the major one being in the unincorporated Ellicott City. Another is Lawyers Hill, Elkridge. Historic preservation is under the County Department of Planning and Zoning. It sends demolition proposals to a Historic District Commission for approval or rejection, and also all applications that might affect approximately 1,000 designated or landmarked properties listed on a Howard County Historic Sites Inventory.
The preservation officer also checks if the structure proposed for demolition is being surveyed for designation as a historic district or addition to the county historic sites inventory. It may be referred to the Commission for an advisory opinion or a hearing of the Commission to allow, or deny demolition.
There is no trigger age in Howard County for historic preservation demolition review.
Baltimore has 33 historic districts with historic preservation regulated by a mayor-appointed Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) and staffed out of the City Department of Planning. About 12,000 properties are regulated in the historic districts, some of which are City designated, the others being National Register districts . On addition Baltimore City has close to 200 landmark properties. A ‘demolition application packet’ shows historic preservation (CHAP) approval is needed for properties in designated areas and landmarks, but there is no provision for preservation review outside those areas.
No specific age is not mentioned as a consideration for designation in Baltimore’s manual “Historic Preservation Procedures and Design Guidelines.”
Historic preservation review in Philadelphia is the responsibility of a Philadelphia Historical Commission (PHC.) Its review and regulatory powers are over “designated historic resources” – established historic districts and registered historic buildings. It does not have the power to review applications to demolish buildings not designated historic, but it does have the power to designate districts and buildings.
Its ten criteria for designation have no reference to the age of the building.
Historic preservation in New York is under a Landmarks Preservation Commission which regulates building including demolition in 111 historic districts and 20 district extensions in process of being added. As in Baltimore there is no historic preservation review for buildings not landmarked or within an historic district or proposed historic district extension.
Age doesn’t seem to figure much in designation in New York City. Indeed some of the fiercest fights are over use of preservation to maintain the ambiance of buildings 30 or 40 years old, with critics of ‘preservation’ saying it has become in large part a political tool for NIMBY obstruction and gentrification.
Boston’s historic preservation regulators also make little reference to a particular age except for demolition delay, which is administered by a Boston Landmarks Commission with staff from the Environment Department of the City. They have the most extensive delay ordinance we’ve come across in that it covers buildings (but not sites) throughout the City over 50 years of age and all landmarked buildings and all buildings in historic (known as Design Overlay Districts.)
Boston’s historic preservation meets with more public support given that:
- it regulates only the portion of the building visible from a public right of way recognizing owners rights to shape the non-public portions
- the boundaries of nine separate preservation districts are drawn to cover higher income
- landmark designation of buildings is quite selective
‘Demolition’ triggering preservation review in Boston is defined as removing the whole building (emails with City press officer), whereas Frederick’s definition covers any removal over 25%.
The nation’s oldest preservation city, Charleston SC until recently used 75 years as the trigger age for historic review of demolition proposals in an area adjacent to their historic district:
“The (Board of Architectural Review, the local preservation regulator) reviews all demolitions of buildings 75 years of age or older on any structures south of Mount Pleasant Street, and any demolitions (regardless of age) within the Old and Historic District. In addition, the BAR has jurisdiction over all structures included on the Landmark Overlay Properties list.”
But Charleston’s Guidelines also specify 50 years as the age to trigger demolition review adjacent to their historic district:
“The BAR has demolition review of all buildings in the Old and Historic District, of buildings 50 years or older south of Mount Pleasant Street, and of any buildings located within the City’s Landmark Overlay properties.”
Queried about these different trigger ages the BAR preservation planner Erin Stubblefield told us 50 years is now the current requirement. (Frederick is not the only place with messy contradictory Guidelines!)
The Charleston preservation planner says demolition review covers about 7% (8sqm of 110sqm) of the City. 93% is outside the area requiring historic preservation review for all buildings over 50, she estimates. (emails with author)
COMMENT: The board of aldermen are split on the City staff proposal that their power be expanded to review 50-year and older structures and their ‘sites’ citywide. This would be done under an amended demolition review ordinance. At the first mayor and board workshop meeting July 16 the staff push for citywide power of historic review was supported by Aldermen Michael O’Connor and Kelly Russell while Aldermen Phil Dacey and Joshua Bokee expressed serious doubts. Alderman Donna Kuzemchak didn’t state a position. Although his own staff are its major sponsors the Mayor, Randy McClement expressed himself personally very troubled by it. He was keen not to move for a vote on the expanded HPC powers until there had been plenty of time to thoroughly explore the implications.
Some of the concern centered on the 50 year trigger and how this will bring huge swathes of the city under HPC control. City staff defended their push for enlarged jurisdiction saying this is a “national standard” and that their proposal would simply “streamline” the review process.
This benign representation was juxtaposed against the view of Land Use Council representative Bruce Dean who said that property owners and developers are “terrified” by the prospect of being subject to HPC review. Dean mentioned the 50 year rule as bringing whole neighborhoods under HPC control, the lack of any case law to guide decisions, plus the highly unpredictable record of HPC rulings.
Dean said he found himself repeatedly asking “Where did that (reasoning) come from?” on viewing HPC decisions.
The city staff proposal to expand historic preservation review to sites in addition to structures citywide under the demolition ordinance adds a new layer of uncertainty as to how a land parcel may be used. This has owners of farm land and developers who might buy that land quietly thinking they may be best off dumping the projects and selling for the best price they can get – hardly a mentality conducive to preserving old buildings on their properties.
Especially disconcerting in the staff-proposed amendment (see TERMINOLOGY note below) is the prospect of large portions of ex-farm properties, even whole properties, being frozen with no definition in law, the city’s land management code, of ‘site.’
EXAMPLE: A developer looking at a 100 acre property with potentially historic structures and their immediate surrounds occupying 10 acres can presently count on being able to build on 90 acres. But with historic preservation review extended beyond historic structures to their ‘sites’ – as proposed by HPC staff – the developer will have no idea whether the HPC will bar development on say 20 acres, or 42 acres or 75 acres… by seeing such ‘sites’ as necessary for preservation.
Instead of buying 90 usable acres in the 100 acre buy the developer will have to consider the possibility the 100 acre parcel will only yield 80 usable acres, 58 usable acres or 25 usable acres. In an extreme case the HPC might decide the whole 100 acres of the site was ‘essential to the integrity’ of the ‘historic resources.’ The developer would lose all ability to do more than run a museum of Frederick county history on the site.
Staff told the mayor and board at the first workshop that 50 years is a national standard and that their proposal for amending the demolition ordinance is a minor streamlining. It is correct that 50 years of age is the most common trigger age, but incorrect to suggest there aren’t other trigger ages. Many jurisdictions especially those which see themselves as ‘landmarking’ outstanding structures don’t have any minimum age at all.
Although the National Park Service (US Department of the Interior) have suggested preservation practices they exercise a very light hand with state and local jurisdictions. The result is huge diversity in historic preservation practices around the country.
Many jurisdictions only regulate street front or publicly visible parts of ‘historic’ buildings. Many are very selective in finding a building a ‘contributing resource’ historically, others like Frederick can find almost anything a ‘contributing resource’ and ‘character defining’ – some of the preservation regulators’ terms of bureaucratic art for gaining control.
The extent and predictability of preservation regulation also varies from historic area to historic area. Design guidelines tend to follow national principles but with the NPS’ light hand the guidelines vary greatly in detail. Frederick’s at 43,000 words and 160 pages must be among the more formidable in the country to read and digest.
Demolition in most jurisdictions only gets historic preservation review inside designated districts and for designated (often called ‘landmarked’) historic structures.
Just a few jurisdictions have demolition delay ordinances outside already designated districts and buildings. But there the definition of what constitutes ‘demolition becomes important. If it involves cases where the owner wants to do full demolition and completely remove the building then there may only be a handful of cases a year, and a rather tiny constituency is affected. If however taking sown a single wall constitutes ‘demolition’ then there could be hundreds of cases – because most extensions to houses will be demolition cases.
The City staff bid to extend historic preservation review citywide beyond structures to their ‘sites’ is without precedent so far as we can establish. We asked Matt Davis director of planning in an email a week back if he or his staff know of other places where whole sites are the subject of historic preservation review citywide when some demolition is involved. No answer yet, but if we get one we’ll post it here.
TERMINOLOGY: city officials are calling the proposed amendment extending demolition review citywide to sites as well as structures a ‘text amendment.’ The modifier word ‘text’ is redundant since an ordinance consists of nothing but text, and only text can be amended.