Is it Time to Designate a Local Historic District?

As many of our residents know, Greenhills is one of three federally planned and constructed greenbelt communities in the nation.  (The other two greenbelt communities are Greenbelt, Maryland and Greendale, Wisconsin.)  Undertaken by the government in the 1930’s, under the Roosevelt Administration, the purpose of the federal greenbelt project was to supply jobs and to offer an escape from the congested inner-city neighborhoods through the construction of a small town with plenty of park-like areas surrounded by a greenbelt.

In 1989, the oldest area of Greenhills – identified as a “district” – was listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service.  The designation was based on the community’s planning and development, as well as its social history.  The town planners for Greenhills (Justin Richardson Hartzog and Joseph Fradley Whitney) designed the elements that have led to the Village’s historic contributions to the evolution of the suburban community, including the evolution of the cul-de-sac, a system of pedestrian paths and parks, curving streets, superblocks, internal green space with pedestrian blocks, and a hierarchy of roads designed for outward flow, traffic safety, reduced costs by minimizing the size and length of water and sewer mains, underground wiring, and the amount of paved surfaces.

The National Register of Historic Places is a federal program and such a listing denotes that a property – or in this case, a district – is worthy of preservation for its historical value.  There are no zoning or design requirements associated with such a listing.

About a year ago, a slightly larger “district” was designated a National Historic Landmark.  This federal program focuses on properties or districts that are of exceptional value to the nation, rather than just to a State or locality. There are no zoning or design requirements associated with this designation. Streets included in the National Historic Landmark District include Alcott, Andover, Bachman, Belknap, Bradnor, Briarwood, Brompton, Burley, Burnham, Chalmers, Cromwell, Damon, DeWitt, Drummond, Falcon, Farragut, Flanders, Foxworth, Funston, Gambier, and the west side of Ingram.

A local historic district is the tool that can insure there is little change to the historic area that received the NHL designation. The State’s Historic Preservation Office oversees the Certified Local Government (CLG) Program that allows communities to identify local districts and regulate improvements proposed to be made within those districts. Some communities set up local districts but never obtain a National Historic Landmark (NHL) designation.  Then there are communities like Mariemont, Ohio that had a local district long before receiving their NHL designation. On the opposite end of the spectrum, our neighbor – Glendale, Ohio – had the NHL designation 20 years before establishing a local historic district.

Within each local district, design regulations are developed to ensure that any exterior improvements in the local district are consistent with existing features, which in Greenhills would include architectural features as well as topographical and other layout features unique to our Village.

There are many advantages to a local district:

  • A local district insures the continuation of the unique historic characteristics of the district.
  • A local district will protect a property owner’s investment by insuring that older structures in the district are kept to certain standards of care and restoration since any major changes must be approved by a review board.
  • A local district will maintain its original quaint atmosphere.
  • A local district offers economic benefits to property owners, in that:
    • Home values tend to be higher;
    • Home prices appreciate faster; and
    • Home values stay more stable in a down market.

While a local district has many advantages, there are disadvantages as well. For example, the enforcement of historic design regulations may place additional obligations on property owners/improvements within the district.  There can be strict review boards that will review all permit applications for work on or around a structure within the district. Also, because of historic design regulations, improvements may come at a higher cost, as specific material or construction may be required.

But despite these added responsibilities, historic neighborhoods can thrive; people are attracted to them because of the attention to detail and care put into preserving the historical designs of these neighborhoods.

Think of any historic district – are any of them depressed areas? NO! Data shows the property values in a local district can increase 5 – 35% over a decade in comparison to similar undesignated neighborhoods (Benefits of Residential Historic District Designation for Property Owners, Jonathan Mabry, 6/7/07).

What questions do you have about local districts?  Please email me at ekovach@greenhillsohio.org.  In a future article I will try to address those questions!

 

Q & A on Demolition

The Village has recently completed demolition of 4 deteriorated structures in the “C” block. We will now be seeking a qualified developer to build new homes in our Historic District.

There are a lot of questions and comments floating around about this effort. If you have been following this project and are wondering what the story is from my perspective, you will want to review the information presented below.

Q.         How did all this come about?

A.      In 2009, Greenhills identified in its Comprehensive Plan 2 redevelopment areas. The targeted areas were: DeWitt and Chalmers/Cromwell. The intent behind redevelopment of these areas was to replace aging, deteriorated rental units with new owner-occupied single-family buildings. A portion of the DeWitt area has already been redeveloped with 15 new single-family homes.  The remaining vacant properties in the “D” block will be combined with the properties in the “C” block for the next development of single-family homes.

Q.    Was Planning Commission’s review and approval required for the recent demolition?

A.     No. Demolition does not constitute a development project, nor was it/is it part of a pending development project. Planning Commission will be involved when there is a site plan for a proposed development to review. A complete list of Planning Commission’s functions can be found in the Greenhills Code of Ordinances, Section 1151.03.

Q.     Was Planning Commission’s review and approval required for the Village to share schematic designs prepared by John Senhauser Architects?

A.     No. These are schematics, only, and not representative of an actual development. Because these sites are within the Historic District, the Village felt it was appropriate to have a visual portrayal to share with others of what is intended to replace the demolished structures prior to their demolition.  The new home schematics incorporate many of the original 1938 design elements.

Q.     Was it legal for Village Council to approve the demolition contract via a resolution of Council?

A.     Yes. Pursuant to the Village Charter, Section 2.06, (B), a resolution should be used for administrative purposes like contracts, as opposed to an ordinance that is used for creating law. An exception is a development project that would require Council’s action by ordinance; however, there is no development under consideration at this time.

Q.     Could these buildings have been renovated?

A.     If you have enough money you can do anything. But with an estimated cost of $178 per square foot to renovate – it was extremely doubtful – especially given the fact that the properties were advertised for more than 2 years and the Village received no credible offers to redevelop the properties.

For the record, the Village received 1 anonymous offer of $10,000 that included NO detail on what the party intended to do with the buildings. The Village received calls of interest to renovate the buildings. In one case, the Village was doubtful of their ability to pull off such a large redevelopment, as they had abandoned other properties in Greenhills when they could not afford to maintain them. There was another verbal expression of interest from someone with an historic preservation background, who – once they saw the buildings – felt that new construction was the way to go.

Q.     Were feasibility studies conducted?

A.     Yes. You may have heard or read about a 2012 feasibility report that recommended rehab. Sadly, this report was not extensive because it did not take into account many obvious expenses, including but not limited to the following:

▫       plumbing repairs/upgrades

▫      addressing HVAC issues (e.g. removal of original boilers, installation of heat pumps, duct work, etc.)

▫       insulating walls and attic to current standards

▫       replacing entrance doors

▫       2×4 framed bearing wall replacement around windows and sills

▫       crawl space joist repairs

▫        waterproofing foundation block

▫        installation of a vapor barrier

▫        installation of an exterior drain system

▫        removal of rotted deck surfaces and framing

▫        replacement of decks

▫        structural repairs

▫       mold assessment and mitigation

▫       hazardous substance remediation (asbestos, etc.)

Most importantly, this report did not consider the cost to rehabilitate the buildings to the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation of Historic Buildings.  In fact, the writer of this report informed me that the market in Greenhills could NOT bear the additional costs associated with rehabbing to the Standards.  THIS DOES NOT MEAN WE DON’T HAVE THE MARKET TO PURCHASE NEW HOMES.   IT MEANS WE DON’T HAVE THE INVESTMENT MARKET YET FOR SIZABLE RENOVATION PROJECTS.   New home construction will be a positive sign of investment and will give an investor a certain comfort level to bear the cost of renovation.

A couple of years later the Village again contracted with another professional to take a more in-depth look at these buildings. Environmental investigations were undertaken as well.  The result was the estimated average cost of $178 per square foot for rehabilitation. That estimate did not include structural repairs to the foundations, flooring, or walls, or the replacement of any siding.

Q.     Why didn’t the Village just sell the buildings to someone? Why be so selective?

A.    It is important to the health of the Village that quality development or rehab take place anywhere in Greenhills! Inexpensive and inadequate renovation of buildings would only result in cheap, poor quality housing and low rental rates. And inexpensive and inadequate renovation would not address the needed remediation or enhance and maintain the historic qualities of the existing structures.

New construction presents a unique opportunity for Greenhills that will not detract from, but instead will perpetuate original concepts that went into the planning of Greenhills.

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A lot of factors played into the decision to demolish and rebuild this portion of Greenhills. Do I think it has destroyed our historic district? No, I do not. There were 328 structures listed as contributing structures in the NHL nomination; 4 of those (or only 1.2%) have been demolished. To claim this demolition represents elimination of our Historic District is to ignore the real things that make us historic. The garden-city principles incorporated in our original design are still very much intact and there is no intent to change those elements now or in the future.