Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Cincinnati preservationists need an emergency "Preservation Action Team" In 2011

Preservation is a serious issue in most cities, and I have to say that the reason we lose SO MANY buildings in Cincinnati is the preservation community are a bunch of wimps, there, I said it. Now you can continue to be a bunch of wimps or you can decide in 2011, enough is enough! and will be like those in other cities that do not let themselves be run over by the city or attorneys. Credit where credit is due, issues like the Gamble House have proved we can be organized and we can make a difference. Carter Randolph, and the board of GreenAcres, is still going to bed, nine months later knowing they haven't gotten their way. Hopefully that will be a permanent condition with both them and city officials. We can only hope.

My point? We can save these buildings. It just takes a different "mindset" than we currently have. Do you think for one moment that several of the "nuisance" buildings in Knox Hill would be standing if we had not filed a federal HUD Complaint? The Vacant building report for the council references Knox Hill and our complaint. Now, while I think the report doesn't go far enough in recommendations, (we still have a VBML), the fact is had we not complained ,we wouldn't be talking about, or addressing, issues like section 106 review now  in Cincinnati,and people wouldn't be calling for new Urban Conservator.

While in Cincinnati , I might be called a preservation "activist', in most cities I'm just a normal old house person who cares about his neighborhood and old houses. In fact when it comes to preservation I might be considered a moderate because I actually understand that 'some' buildings have to come down. BUT, only as last resort. But of those of you who say I am too harsh when it comes to these issues? Has your approach saved any thing? I know I am a  pain to the city, and yes they could attempt to retaliate and 'make an example of me'. However they also know that I have no problem filing a federal court case and asking a federal judge to determine if the VBML amounts to 'governmental redlining' of economically disadvantaged neighborhoods and restricts availability of housing opportunity. I think they know I would have no problem seeking out owners of property that was demoed using federal funds with no proper section 106 review and helping them organize a class action against the city to seek punitive damages for the illegal taking of property. They  know they are not "out of the woods" on the HUD and the NSP funds being used for demo with no real section 106 review process in place. Look we all HAVE ammunition if we need to use it, city officials have played fast and loose with rules and ordinances for years and the documentation is all there.
Other cities save buildings like this. Why can't we?

Let me explain the differences in approach with this Endangered property. This building was on the news in Indianapolis one day (years ago). A car accident at the intersection sent a car careening into this corner Italianate storefront building at 16th and College in the Old Northside. The building had been vacant for years.

Now in Cincinnati, Larry Harris,our "Esteemed" Urban Conservator would be saying its in the "public interest" that this "dangerous structure" come down because it has lost its 'historic value", Sean Minihan would probably be on the phone to the demo contractors and getting a street closing permit to knock it down that day. Ed Cunningham would be sympathetic but would say there really isn't anything that could be done. Cincinnati preservationists would lament "we lost another building" and that would be the end of it.

Contrast that with what happened in Indianapolis. I immediately went to my email and had over 30 emails from architects, preservationists , neighborhood leaders all discussing strategy on how to save it.  City officials were not saying "we must demo this building immediately" instead they were saying "we will have engineers and other experts look at the situation and determine if the building needs to come down or can be stabilized'. In fact, the owner of this building , who sensed a potential bonanza, because the building sat on a prime commercial corner worth far more as vacant lot, wanted it torn down, but was denied a demo permit. Emergency stabilization was ordered.

There were legal battles and this is the building today, STILL STANDING, stabilized and waiting a restoration and eventual reuse.While not  a pretty building at the moment, but it was never going to "fall down" (the typical 'excuse' used by Cincinnati city inspectors based on their "vast' engineering background)

The difference? Unlike Cincinnati where the preservation community "rolls over", other city's have Preservation groups that can make city officials life a "living hell". City officials KNOW there will be a fight to demo, they know there will be attorneys knocking on the courthouse doors, injunction in hand. The Result: they are far less likely to demo property. They now understand preservation as an economic development tool and they understand that it will be the entire preservation community against them if they rush to demo. City legal understands it is a far better use of their time to deal with more serious issues than spend countless hours and valuable resources fighting preservationists over old houses.

So what should be our Primary Preservation Goals for 2011?

Solidarity: ALL neighborhood groups need to cooperate and work together on these Preservation emergencies. If a preservation emergency happens, all the neighborhood groups pile on the council and city officials. We may have differences on other issues, but when it comes to saving our history we all agree to support each other.

Preservation Legal Defense Fund: Individually few of us could afford to retain a law firm for legal defense of historic structures. I propose a joint  fund raising effort with the goal of retention of a law firm to fight preservation issues in Cincinnati.

A Preservation Action Team: A emergency task force of Architects, engineers, preservation consultants, bloggers and community leaders who will agree to coop on 'preservation emergencies'. Get the word out, establish support for preservation, prepare engineering/architectural reports to counter city inspector arguments and provide expert opinions, for the legal team.

Establishment of a dedicated preservation action website: for the purposes of sharing information,  planning strategy and being proactive on possible issues.

Political Review: send a preservation query form to each council  person and candidate for council. Existing councilmen will be given a preservation grade. Those with failing grades will not be supported by the preservation community at large. Candidates will receive support who adopt and sign, a "pro preservation platform " that supports changes in policies and elimination of city ordinances that hinder and impede preservation efforts.

Preservation targets for 2011:

Force the City to document ( by court action if necessary) section 106 review of all nuisance properties currently on the city list and seek removal of properties from that list that lack serious structural issues.

Elimination of the VBML ordinance, greater emphasis on repair orders.

Create a "TOP 10" annual problem property owner list and lobby city legal to aggressively pursue those individuals.

Lobby city leaders for establishment of a dedicated housing court to deal with real problem property owners.

Raise the tax abatement level to 500K to encourage difficult endangered property redevelopment.

Embark on a city wide educational effort on the value of preservation as an economic development tool.

Creation of a workable "land bank' ordinance/license for privately held property with realistic requirements for property stabilization in the short term.

New vacant lot ordinance with requirements for landscaping and appropriate fencing.

Eliminate demolition permits for private owners (contractors only) and require a zoning/planning hearing on all proposed demolitions.

Lofty Goals? NOT REALLY! other cities already do these things and its time we get with the program. We can do this, we can have our historic architecture its just going to take an "attitude adjustment' to do so.


Kevin LeMaster said...


Great post. Please allow me to push it further. You've been in Cincinnati long enough now...who would you call out to be on this action team?

I can understand if you don't want to name names, but it would be an excellent starting point. After all, until anyone feels personally invested, it's just "ideas".

Paul Wilham said...

Interestingly I have been getting some emails today from people who may fit that key player roles. You need people with good communication skills. Are you volunteering Kevin?

In my mind existing neighborhood groups like mine and OTR Foundation, OTR adopt, Various West End groups, Lower Price Hill, Westwood, Riverside ,Sedamsville, Northside and others have a vested interest in seeing the turnaround of their neighborhoods.

Some of the local realtors have a vested interest in Preservation like Comey & Sheperd and Huff. I have a laundry list of architects in Cincinnati who should come to bat for preservation as should any local business owners.

The biggest stumbling block for many people is fear of the 'wrath' of city officials. Many, including the city, were afraid to take on Greenacres and here we are 9 months later and the Gamble house is still standing.

To me city official either work to be part of the solution or they can remain the problem and that is what the DOJ and State Ethics commisions are for.

We can do this it just takes some determination and leap of faith. What we are doing now is clearly not working.

Caroline said...

Even though my far-fetched plans to move to Cincy are most likely dead, I'm still very interested in the preservation scene there. So that's why I keep coming back to your blog. I have to say that you're awesome. If the preservation communities in every city and state had such dedicated (and outspoken) advocates, the days of demolition would be over. Too many preservation organizations have fallen victim to being afraid to "bite the hand that feeds them." As a result they are either dying out for lack of support or chasing their tails because they don't want to jeopordize their funding. It's a fine line, yes, but many of them need to learn to mobilize their supporters and take on the hot button issues. I wish you the best of luck in 2011. Maybe the city officials in Cincy will finally wake up realize how lucky they really are to have such a treasure trove of historic buildings. Pigs do fly on occasion! :-)