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Oak Park's dilemma: who controls historic housing?

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How far do a community's legitimate interests extend when it comes to private property? Most people who live in urban areas accept the concept of zoning; but how far should that concept be taken? An ordinance has been proposed in Oak Park that would grant the Historic Preservation Commission of Oak Park the right to "binding review" over all exterior changes visible from the street in buildings in its two historic districts. That ordinance has caused a dustup over individual rights in a town not noted for its adherence to libertarian principles.

There are about 3,100 buildings in Oak Park's two National Register historic districts, the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District and the Ridgeland Historic District. The Wright district was the first established, and it has, generally, the older buildings, including many stately Victorians, Wright's Prairie School designs, and others that draw tourists to the area. The Ridgeland district has a broader range of houses--not only the Queen Anne style and other residences that won the area its historic listing, but some that are relatively new and architecturally insignificant.

According to the estimates of the Historic Preservation Commission (a body appointed by the village board of trustees and composed of restoration architects, lawyers, preservation professionals, home owners, and others), last year about 68,000 visitors dropped a total of $2 million in Oak Park to see the historic buildings in both districts. The commission contends that a more restrictive preservation ordinance is required to protect the buildings from "visual erosion." The proposed ordinance would give them the right to reject structural changes if they feel they are not in keeping with the character of the district.

The present historic-preservation ordinance, a pioneering act when passed in 1972, allows the Historic Preservation Commission to survey all construction projects involving federal funds; about 25 cases are subjected to nonbinding review annually. The commission is also supposed to critique--with no binding powers to change--all alterations to the 64 "most significant" structures in the districts, and make suggestions of appropriate products and methods to the owners. But, says a memo from the commission to Oak Park's trustees, there have been problems: "Because there was no clear process [for referring construction-permit applications], sometimes the Commission was not informed of the permit applications for these [64] properties at all. Further, the system offered no review or technical assistance to the owners of the rest of the significant or contributing buildings in the historic district, buildings which constituted the vast majority of the historic district and defined its overall character. Clearly, the Village could not effectively protect the historic district properties designated under the 1972 ordinance."

"It's a question of individuals' rights versus community responsibility," says Meg Klinkow, until recently the chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission and herself the owner of a Frank Lloyd Wright house in the Wright district. "Individuals tend to be quite selfish. They just want the benefits of living in the historic district--like the tax-assessment freeze." Home owners can make improvements to their homes and don't have to pay higher property taxes for eight years; after that, the taxes are gradually raised over the next four years. "But they don't want the responsibilities. It's so sad that this has become an issue, when all it's really intended to do is save neighborhoods."

Klinkow declines to discuss specific cases, but she's clearly not keen on things like vinyl siding, rooftop windows, or anything else that jars with the house's original architectural style. "When vinyl siding is put on, most of the ornamental work is removed. Things can decay underneath. And we want things to go with the styles of the houses around them. Tourism is an important economic fact in Oak Park, and if you build an anachronism, it jolts the neighborhood. Students of architecture don't just study Frank Lloyd Wright; they study the context in which he built."

Contrary to some published reports, Klinkow notes, the ordinance would not regulate interiors or ephemeral changes. "We don't care about house color--just about things that are permanent. You know, there are 64 historic landmarks designated in Oak Park, and those houses are treated no differently [in terms of binding review] than any others. Many of them are Frank Lloyd Wrights. And one of the big temptations with owning a Frank Lloyd Wright is to strip it--to take the windows out and sell them. There's nothing now to stop it. If I decide to sell my windows, I could get $25,000 each for them, conservatively; I could easily get back the price of the house. I could get $125,000 for the two built-ins. I don't want even the possibility of that happening."

She discounts an accusation in Crain's Chicago Business that "the commission would have disregarded as insignificant the $30,000 savings that one homeowner recently realized by replacing, not rebuilding, her dilapidated old coach house with a functional but nondescript new garage."

"There are 20 demolitions in Oak Park each year, and they're mostly garages," Klinkow observes. "Contractors who specialize in building garages will tell people that it will cost them $30,000 to fix [a coach house] and $20,000 to tear it down and replace it. [The home owner] talked to the wrong contractor. The commission could have helped her find the right one. It's almost always cheaper to repair than to replace, so I don't buy that one--it's such a pat thing. I have a fair idea they got bushwhacked."

Klinkow, who's been on the Historic Preservation Commission for five years and was its chairman for the last two, says she's surprised by the public uproar. In the first place, scores of cities--including Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; New Orleans; and 37 places in Illinois--have ordinances like this. Second, this is Oak Park, home of a handgun ban and of laws stating exactly how many house cats one can legally own. "This community is so regulated," she says. "You can't leave your garage door open, you can't use sparklers, you can't have a 'for sale' sign in front of your house. This is the kind of ordinance that's supposed to keep bad things from happening. It's a very modest proposal."

Sue Rosi disagrees. Rosi is Klinkow's next-door neighbor; tour guides, she wryly notes, point out her big gray Victorian as "the kind of thing Frank Lloyd Wright was rebelling against."

"We're talking about homes, which are right next to children in most people's hearts," says Rosi, who served on the committee that selected the village's present board of trustees. "I think the development of the ordinance shows a real lack of awareness of the village's commitment to diversity.

"The key to diversity is tolerance for things that are done differently than we would do them, respect for the rights of individuals, patience, understanding. I think this ordinance asks all of that to take a backseat to--and I think this is the underlying thing--keeping the tourist industry. I think somebody ought to inform the trustees that the main source of Oak Park revenues is not tourism, with these guesstimates of $2 million, but the tax base. I really would like to see some hard-core numbers on tourism. I live right in the heart of [the tourist district], and it's very seldom that I even see a long line of tourists in Petersen's"--a popular ice cream parlor a block from the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, the tourism lodestone in Oak Park. "Most of the people I see are carrying bags from the [Home and Studio's] bookshop--they're sure not clogging the stores on the Oak Park mall!"

As far as vinyl siding goes, says Rosi, "the 'remuddled' houses tell a valuable story, too, if you take the time to look behind the surface. It's a story about large families that placed more importance on putting their children through college than keeping the family manse painted. It costs about $10,000 to get one of these [big Victorians] painted, and you have to do it about every five years. Putting on siding means a big savings in upkeep for families with a lot of financial responsibilities, and some of the newer kinds look pretty good. I wouldn't do it, but I can understand why someone else might.

"This idea that one's home is the government's resource makes me feel that I'm living in Peking--it's so overwhelmingly control-heavy. I don't know anyone around here, besides my neighbor, who supports this. We have a lot of attorneys in the neighborhood, and their response has been, 'Good, I can't wait to take it to court.' I think that's a given. And the taxpayers will pay the legal costs."

Architect Curt Finfrock, who also owns a house in the historic district, agrees with Rosi. He has had remodeling done on his house that "some people have told me wouldn't have been approved." He has three sets of objections to the proposed ordinance. "First, I just don't think it's compatible with the kind of people who have come to live in Oak Park. They're educated, they're high-income bracket, and they're greatly insulted by the way this aesthetic policing has been presented. I've seen similar ordinances in other areas, and they've been more successful because of the way they've been presented, when the area is in a more severe state of risk of deterioration or redevelopment than Oak Park is. Most of the rehab work that's needed to be done has been done here, and done very well.

"Two, it affects much too broad an area. They propose to have binding review over something over 3,000 homes, and very few really have architectural significance--most of them are just houses. It would be better if they concentrated on smaller areas, particularly commercial areas like Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue.

"Third, Oak Park has the sort of architectural heritage which includes architectural inventiveness. Oak Park owes a great debt to architecture. It has a reputation for being very tolerant of many types of expression--racial, sexual, political, artistic. But this ordinance would effectively silence architects in the future, in terms of their creative efforts. It would stymie them, and allow them to work only in the current style. I don't think Oak Park really wants that to happen."

William McSheehy's home is in the Ridgeland Historic District. He supports the ordinance because of what he terms "weak zoning in Oak Park."

The bearded, intense McSheehy unrolls a poster-sized map of Oak Park's zoning areas and begins pointing out blocks that are currently mostly single-family houses but are zoned for multifamily use. He raises the specter of demolition and town-house development run rampant. (McSheehy, who's a broker with Oak Park's Historic Homes Realty, which does a considerable amount of town-house marketing, emphasizes that he is not opposed to new town houses per se, but only to the indiscriminate ripping down of existing housing to erect them.)

"Much of the Ridgeland Historic District allows much higher density than is currently there. Many blocks in Oak Park are vulnerable. You know, I have mixed feelings about having this in the Reader, because I'm afraid developers will find out how weak our zoning really is, come in here, and just start tearing things down. You really couldn't stop them.

"I think the preservation ordinance, however adapted, might be an answer to that. Oak Park is an old town, and zoning came in later. Old homes weren't valued when it did--they thought it was just great to tear down old homes, throw out all the stained-glass windows, and put up new ranches with glass blocks." With a binding-review process, he points out, there's less danger that houses will be demolished and close-packed town houses mushroom on their sites.

McSheehy further points out that towns that have strict zoning laws--River Forest, Barrington, Kenilworth--generally have higher property values than those that do not. So why not just change the zoning regulations in Oak Park, instead of instituting binding review? "It's never an easy affair to change something, especially when you're dealing with the village and laws that are in place," says McSheehy. "You're going to have problems with people claiming a loss of rights and values--'I was going to put up a nine-unit building on my lot, and now you've rezoned and reduced the value of my property.' The preservation ordinance is more uniform and less vulnerable to legal complications; I think it would avoid an enormous amount of problems."

"I think this is an ordinance which is state-of-the-art," says Oak Park senior planner Fred Zinke. "It meets the legal requirements developed over many years in cities and states which have dealt with historic preservation. It's an ordinance which, if passed, will give the village the means to protect its historic resources. I think we could work with it; we could work without it; or we could work with something in between."

In what is called the "clearinghouse process," copies of the proposed ordinance have been submitted to a variety of community groups and concerned individuals, and their comments solicited. "The crux of the ordinance, and the crux of people's comments about this ordinance, is in the binding review," says Zinke. He sent me a thick packet of comments from interested parties; two of the more telling remarks were "I find the ordinance cavalier and condescending" and "The law rests on a fundamentally paternalistic rationale: that a committee of nine unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats has superior judgement to the homeowner about the aesthetics and 'correct' appearance of his or her home, even though the homeowner owns the home, lives in it, and has invested his or her life savings in it." There are quotes from Louis Brandeis and Brendan Gill. Five respondents fully supported the ordinance; nine fully opposed it; and fifteen were somewhere in between.

Would the ordinance, as some opponents charge, slow down the approval process for building permits? Responds Zinke, "I did a make-believe--I took the building permits from April and May and went through them as if the ordinance was in effect, and I was the staff person in charge of implementing it. What I found was that 90 percent of the permits could be approved immediately, with a quickie review. There were a number of things that I couldn't immediately approve, that I had questions about, that would have had to go to the commission; but in the great majority of cases, the home owner would never know [that the review process had gone on]. I found 11 projects out of 113 that I would submit to the commission for review. Of those, there's no way of knowing how many could be dealt with immediately by the commission, and how many would be subject to further review."

The final say on the matter belongs to the village board of trustees--and they have sent the matter back to the Historic Preservation Commission for reworking. Village president John Philbin calls for a "jawboning process" to make the ordinance better fit Oak Park's needs.

"The commission is asking for 'binding review,'" he says. "Actually, what they mean is 'binding approval'--and we've recommended that that be eliminated [from the ordinance]. The town is not ready for another body telling the citizens what they can and cannot do. Who decides what is good taste? Anyone can tell that covering Unity Temple with vinyl siding would be in bad taste, but after that it gets a little trickier.

"You have to look at the citizens involved. In the Wright district, these are half-million-dollar homes, and the owners feel they're as bright as the average bear: 'Don't tell us we don't know what we're doing!' In the Ridgeland district, you've got a lot of younger couples who've bought houses with the idea of expanding. They didn't buy them for architecture, they bought them to get into a good community and have room for their families. We're not dealing with 1890s stuff here--east of Ridgeland [Avenue], some of the houses were put up as late as the 20s. And the people who own them are saying, 'Hey, wait a minute!'

"The board has no conceptual objection to mandatory approval [of changes] in cases where someone is getting a money break, like a tax freeze for restoring historic buildings, or a low-cost loan program." Otherwise, he thinks, the commission should concentrate on educating people who want to make changes in their homes. "The commission is made up of people of talent and sensitivity in the field. I think most people would welcome professional advice, particularly if it's free."

But Carla Lind, executive director of the national Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, says of the proposed ordinance: "This is mainstream legislation nowadays--I'm surprised by the response, and I think that, ultimately, [binding review] is something that will have to happen. I don't believe it's jeopardizing the individual rights of property owners. Without binding review, we really have no recourse if someone does something unpleasant to a house and a streetscape. If we allow unpleasant things to happen, we could lose Oak Park's special character. If someone wants to put a really ugly addition right on the front of a Frank Lloyd Wright house, right now there's nothing to prevent it from happening.

"There needs to be some sort of review process--to protect the buildings, yet not compromise individuals' rights to treat their buildings as they like. I'm optimistic that a compromise will be worked out."

Wouldn't an ordinance like this have prevented the great Wright himself from building some of his iconoclastic masterpieces? Says Meg Klinkow, "Frank Lloyd Wright enjoyed breaking laws. He would have enjoyed getting around this one!"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.

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