Friday, October 9, 2009

Cincinnati: Change demolition proceedure to protect historic properties

In most major American Cities demolition of historic structures is not an easy process nor is moving of a structure or the "de-assembly" of a structure for re-erection outside city limits.
Most cities have come to the conclusion that historic properties add value to a city. It is often the reason someone chooses one city over another. The idea of removing a historic structure is just not done or it is a difficult process.

The problem in Cincinnati is that they have no consistent process. You pull a demo permit and your done. They do not even REQUIRE that the work be done by a licensed demolition contractor! Billy Bob, pickup truck, homeowner can take a crowbar, pick up a case of beer on the way home and demo a house! It has been amazing, given the closeness of construction in the urban areas of Cincinnati that no one has been killed!

What I, and some other preservationists in this city, hope to do is convince the city council to make some changes to the city code.

Many cities now have ordinances that prohibit the removal (moving) of historic structures outside the city limits, and only then, after public hearings and a majority vote by the city council. In order to protect our architectural history we need to do the same. I would propose the council adopt and ordinance that prohibits the removal of significant historic structure, structures within designated historic districts and any Landmarked or registry nominated structure. Based on what other cities ordinances are, it might read like this.

It shall be unlawful to move/ relocate or disassemble historic structures (Historic structure is defined by this ordinance as a structure over 100 years old. A structure less than 100 years old within a designated historic district or any structure that has been nominated for or is a landmarked registered structure) outside the incorporated city limits of Cincinnati, without a public hearing and a 2/3 approval by the city council.

We also need to address just how our demolition process works. It is far too easy to demolish a historic structure for a parking lot. This almost always represents a zoning use change and we need to have better process to address this issue.

Make building demolitions a two step process. First a "rezoning" process instead of a simple permit process. That way public hearings would have to be held. The petitioner would have to demonstrate why a structure needs demolition. For example the most common reasons for demolitions is "future expansion or future parking".
Often rather than demolish a historic structure it may ,make more sense to build surface lots at the front and back of a structure so that in the future it can be returned to residential use should needs change. We have all seen building demoed and sit for 5-10 years before anything is built. This represents a serious loss of revenue for the city and county as a vacant lot is taxed at a much lower rate than say a house.

In cases of what represents a "change of use" the permit fee structure should be increased to the amount of 3 years the change (loss) of tax revenues to the city/county. If say a house paid 2000.00 a year in property taxes and the property as vacant lot would only pay 200.00, the permit fee (tax surcharge) would be 3 times the difference (loss) in revenue to the city/county 1800.00 x3 =5400.00. So in addition to the permit fee this surcharge fee would be assessed to recover lost tax revenues. 1/2 of the surcharge dees could go into a fund for historic facade grants or paintup/fix up grants geared at low income or elderly homeowners who need assistance maintaining their homes. The other 1/2 of the fees could be directed to city inspections to hire additional staff.

Many cities have taken further efforts to ensure that vacant lots do not become unsightly dumping grounds and specify landscape buffer zones and often decorative fencing to prevent illegal dumping or parking. Cincinnati should do the same:

Any parcel that would remain vacant for more than 180 days, after a demolition permit has been awarded would be required to maintain a 10 foot "landscaped buffer zone" at the front of the lot, and install decorative fencing to prevent vehicular access to said lot. Failure in install the buffer zone or maintain it would result in the entire tax at the old rate due to the city.

What this does, is stop "speculators' who, banking on future development, buy houses and demo them hoping for future development opportunities and getting a "free tax ride' through reduced taxes. WE CLOSE A LOOPHOLE that presently rewards out of state speculators and punishes adjacent property owners.

Finally we need to dramatically increase fees for demolition (by 25 percent), and require that demolition only be done by a licenced, bonded, demolition contractor. The property owner will NOT be granted a permit if there are open repair orders against any other properties in the city OR that property owner has a VBML against a another property. This gives the city Leverage to make property owners come into compliance on ALL property they own.

The city should offer a rebate (reduced fee) if the property owner contracts for historic items to be salvaged prior to demolition, rather than landfilled and presents proof that that has taken place. This will save space in our landfills and encourage recycling of historic details that often just decompose in a landfill. This will help restoration efforts on other properties.

We need to have a NEW APPROACH, what we are presently doing doesn't work, causes a loss of revenue for the city and county and does not protect our Architectural Heritage.

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