Opposition mounts against GOP historic preservation bill

By Mary Spicuzza of the Journal Sentinel


Federal Building, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

A bill proposed by Republican state lawmakers aimed at expanding property owners’ rights would have far-ranging effects on historic preservation in Milwaukee and throughout Wisconsin, opponents say.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Robert Brooks (R-Saukville) and Sen. Frank Lasee (R-De Pere), would prohibit municipalities from designating properties as historic landmarks without the consent of their owners.

It would also ban municipalities from requiring or prohibiting actions by owners related to the “preservation of special character, historic or aesthetic interest, or any other significant value of the property” without the owners’ consent.

Milwaukee’s Common Council voted Tuesday to formally oppose the proposal. The council’s vote comes amid broad opposition from historic preservationists in Milwaukee and around the state.

“I am concerned that the language in this bill eliminates any protection whatsoever for the physical manifestation of Wisconsin’s history,” Dawn McCarthy, president of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, told state lawmakers at a hearing on the bill last week. “Any privately owned historic landmark, and there are many, could be irreversibly altered or demolished without a public process and without public input.”

Lasee said the point of the bill provision is to ensure that owners of private property don’t have their rights trumped by the government. Property owners and public officials need to both see a benefit to a historic designation, he said.

“How would you feel if you woke up one day and found your house subject to 40 pages of rules and regulations? Burdensome regulations that require you to get permission from a government committee to improve your house, get approval for paint color, or the style and brand of windows you buy,” Lasee said in a statement.

The measure, Assembly Bill 568, is part of a package of GOP bills aimed at expanding property rights, which would also make it easier to develop dry lake beds, lessen the regulation of certain ditches and other man-made waterways, and make it easier for businesses or homeowners to get notifications from local governments about official actions that could affect their properties.

McCarthy warned the legislation would have an adverse effect on property values and remove an important economic development tool. She and others argued that municipalities should be allowed to have local control when it comes to creating and regulating their own historic districts.

“Regulating historic landmarks and districts does more than provide economic and cultural value. It protects a property owner’s investment,” she said. “It prevents your neighbor from demolishing or inappropriately altering his historic home and thus the fabric of the historic district that gives your property value.”

Brooks and Lasee called the legislation a “technical bill” aimed at quality housing in a cosponsorship memo they circulated Dec. 4. In that memo, the bill sponsors said the overall legislation was “designed to make it easier for landlords to provide Wisconsin residents with quality housing.”

“Even though this legislation delineates better business practices for landlords, it simultaneously works to ensure that tenants have access to clean, safe and affordable housing,” they wrote.

John Decker, the president of the Wisconsin Association of Historic Preservation Commissions, warned that the measure was a “radical proposal,” calling it “hastily drafted and poorly considered.”

“Allowing such ordinances to apply only with a property owner’s consent turns upside down the entire concept of land use control,” Decker wrote in a letter to lawmakers. “Placing the whim of individual property owners over the public interest is an alarming prospect, and is antithetical to ordered government and local control.”

Gary Gorman, whose Oregon, Wisconsin-based firm has done 25 development projects involving the renovation of historic buildings into apartments, hotels and other new uses, said he could see both sides of the issue.

On one hand, under the current system property owners lose some of their rights to change or demolish buildings if they are designated as historic against their wishes, Gorman said. On the other hand, the new legislation would make it more difficult to preserve historic buildings, he said.

In Milwaukee, property owners can appeal Historic Preservation Commission rulings to the Common Council.

Milwaukee Hotel

Milwaukee Hotel

That happened in connection with the downtown Marriott hotel, which opened in 2013 at 323 E. Wisconsin Ave.

The commission in 2011 allowed demolition of some historic buildings to make way for the hotel, but only if the facades were preserved and blended into the new building. That ruling also required a setback for the hotel’s upper floors.

Commission members said the setback would provide a hotel design that was more sensitive to neighboring historic structures.

The hotel’s developers said it would force a costly redesign and appealed. The council then approved the hotel plan without the setback.

Jason Stein and Tom Daykin of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

Forney House falls, and 150 years of history is replaced by a bank

The Forney House, prior to demolition, Milltown, NJ

The Forney House, prior to demolition, Milltown, NJ

MILLTOWN, NEW JERSEY: Last Friday marked the end of the fight to save The Forney House (circa 1860’s) in Milltown, NJ. And why was this old beauty torn down? To build a Valley National Bank.

Just what we need. A bank.

Even scarier is that the exact same thing happened to the Victorian across the street ~ which was demolished to build ~ you guessed it ~ a bank. In a town of 7,500 residents, it would seem that 4 banks are enough.

HISTORY: In 1907 Dr. Norman Forney Sr. came to Milltown with his horse and carriage and began practicing medicine. The home where he lived and practiced was built in the 1860s by John Evans, father of Milltown’s first Mayor, John C. Evans.

Dr. Forney Sr. was later joined by his sons, Norman Jr. and Charles. They owned and operated the clinic in this building until 1980. The house was then sold to Dr. Sharma, who continued to practice there and rented the house to tenants as recently as 2007.

The building was found “Eligible” for listing on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places by the State Historic Preservation Office, which also deemed it eminently “rehabbable” in 2008.

[From the Milltown Voice] “Resident Michael Shakarjian, president of the citizens’ group, said the demolition of the house could have been prevented if there had been greater scrutiny of the process on the part of elected officials.

Shakarjian particularly called out [Mayor Gloria] Bradford, saying she did not do anything to help matters during the process when he sent her a letter outlining what he, and 400 others who signed the letter, perceived as a failure to follow protocols on the part of the federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), whose approval was necessary before the bank could move forward.”

“She does not think it’s a serious situation,” Shakarjian said of Bradford. “That’s what the problem is — none of these people think it’s serious.”

A work crew begins the demolition of the Forney House last Friday

A work crew begins the demolition of the Forney House last Friday

“It was definitely sad to see it come down,” said Harto, a member of the town’s Historic Preservation Committee. “If we stepped in on that, we would just be opening ourselves to a lawsuit,” Harto said. “It wouldn’t have helped at this point, but it would have helped 20 years ago when Dr. [Bhudev] Sharma started neglecting the property.”

“Since Valley National Bank (VNB) is a nationally chartered bank, it required approval from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and also was required to comply with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. This review approval process was required since the Forney House was eligible for the National Register. Unfortunately, the bank and the property owner did not approach this consultation in a manner befitting a public process and sought to force its demands on those involved.” [Preservation NJ website]

What can we do about this?

Email the whitehouse to ask that we strengthen the Section 106 Laws, so that this doesn’t happen again. Better yet, ask that Historic Preservation Ordinances be mandatory.

Lest we forget….San Jose’s former glory

The Hall of Records, 1893, San Jose, CA

The Hall of Records, 1893, San Jose, CA

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA: San Jose’s Hall of Records was built adjacent to the (current) Old Courthouse in 1893, and housed the offices of the county clerk, treasurer, auditor, surveyor, recorder and superintendent of schools. The current court house is the one with the dome, on the left, built in 1868.

A tragic amount of old buildings were lost in San Jose in the 1960’s, and the Hall of Records fell under the wrecker’s ball in November 1966. Structural engineers had reported that the building was an earthquake hazard, and it was not considered (by some) to be worth the cost of renovation.

In sharp contrast to this opinion is a quote from “Sunshine, Fruit and Flowers” (1896):

“The Hall of Records in one of the most massive buildings in the city, and its architecture is very beautiful. It is built of marble, granite and steel, and is an enduring testimony pf the prosperity and artistic taste of our people.”

I guess those people lost their taste somewhere along the way….

Cornerstone, Old City Hall, built in 1887, San Jose, CA

Cornerstone, Old City Hall, built in 1887, San Jose, CA

Speaking of wrecking balls, San Jose’s original City Hall, a glorious, gargantuan stone Victorian building once stood downtown, in a spot that was converted to the “Plaza de Cesar Chavez” in 1993.

This beauty was built in 1887, to the tune of $150,000 – a rather princely sum at the time. How do we know this? Because the cornerstone, complete with date, was left to taunt us in the Cesar Chavez park. It was two stories high with a basement, and a massive Victorian facade finished with pressed brick and stone trimmings. It contained not only city offices, but a library, and a jail. Apparently the prisoners used to bother the people upstairs by banging their tin cups on the bars of their cells.

Old City Hall, San Jose, CA. Built 1887. Demolished June, 1958 amidst fairly intense protest.

Old City Hall, San Jose, CA. Built 1887. Demolished June, 1958 amidst fairly intense protest.

If all of this nostalgia doesn’t get you a little misty, may we recommend this tear-jerking trip back in time:

San Jose Then and Now