Protectng Main Street's Historic Buildings

Setting Up a Historic District

Preserving a community’s historic assets is one of the major goals of most Main Street programs. In El Dorado, Arkansas, a 2009 GAMSA winner, for example, the Main Street program was a driving force behind the downtown’s listing as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places; and, just as importantly, it played a key role in getting the community to pass a local historic district ordinance, with design review and a preservation commission. In Keokuk, Iowa, and St. Charles, Illinois, both 2000 GAMSA winners, local historic district commissions have played pivotal roles in design review for façade improvement grants.

There are more than 2,300 local historic districts in the United States, and they are essential to the preservation of our historic buildings. Listing in the National Register of Historic Places offers a property two benefits: eligibility for federal income tax credits; and protection against damage or loss of integrity by federally funded projects. But it is the preservation ordinances enacted by local governments that provide the strongest protection for historic properties. While national laws designate, local laws protect. It is up to local jurisdictions to protect historic properties.

Preservation ordinances are local laws through which owners of historic properties are usually prohibited from altering or demolishing their property without local government approval. These restrictions are compatible with the many zoning and housing regulations in place across the country. Ordinances can protect individual landmarks only, entire historic districts, or both. A local designation is a valuable tool when the Main Street program is negotiating with a local property owner or an absentee owner.

Educating the Community

Timing is extremely important in the establishment of a historic district commission that will become part of a city's Main Street program. The initial revitalization work in a community involves voluntary efforts leading to a strong local organization. Work on promotion, design and economic restructuring follows.

During the second or third year of a program some cities will become interested in setting up a historic district commission. The initiative should come from members of the Main Street advisory board. As a first step, the Main Street board should discuss its idea with the mayor and the city council. These officials will bring the city attorney and the director of planning into the discussions.

A typical local preservation law will involve the following:

  • The establishment of a historic district commission;
  • The commission's recommendation to the city council that a historic district be established;
  • Designation of the district by the city council;
  • Submission by property owners of their plans for building alterations or new construction on vacant lots (The commission does not review changes to the interior of buildings.);
  • Review of the proposed work at monthly public meetings and the awarding of certificates of appropriateness by the commission; and
  • The right of an owner to appeal a decision if he or she is dissatisfied.

In preliminary discussions about such a law the Main Street board should emphasize that there is already interest in creating a historic district. To build this interest, members of the board will need to conduct an educational program to enlist the support of a majority of the owners and tenants who will be affected by the law if it is passed.

As part of this educational program, supporters of the commission should discuss the idea with city staff. Their suggestions will influence the duties given to the historic district commission. Through informal meetings, the city staff can be made part of the process leading to the establishment of a commission.

In presenting the idea to the community, its supporter should emphasize that they are talking about a reasonable regulation of property rights, with volunteers from the community serving on the commission. A key element of a historic preservation law is the negotiation that takes place when the commission suggests that a property owner modify his or her plans.

Without a historic district commission, members of the community are likely to be upset by some changes to Main Street that are legal but inappropriate. Historic district commissions, for example, have been effective in handling the plans of chain stores that come into a city with standard designs for their outlets. Often the managers of these stores are insensitive to the special character of a community, believing that their standard design is essential for success. A city is fortunate when it has a local commission to negotiate with these chains. The record shows that historic district commissions have worked successfully to modify the standard designs of retail chains.

Preparing a Draft

After preliminary discussions with city officials, the Main Street board should work with the city attorney to draft a historic district law. The city can also get help in drafting the law from the state historic preservation office or the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

It is extremely important that the law include provisions tailored to special situations in the city. The Main Street board may want to include provisions on incentives in the historic district, the need for maintenance, procedures for signs and coordination with zoning requirements.

Since each city is different, a community cannot use a standard historic district law. Although these laws contain many similar provisions, each town must develop its own preservation law through work sessions involving interested people in the community.

Inevitably, questions will be raised about the legality of a his toric district law. There will always be someone who says, "No one is going to tell me what I can do with my property." These individuals are entitled to their opinion, but 60 years ago the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legality of zoning and this type of regulation of private property. When historic districts were questioned in later cases, the courts approved these laws, often viewing them as an extension of zoning.

Boundaries and Guidelines

As work continues on the drafting of a historic district law, city officials and others will want to get a preliminary idea of who will be covered by the legislation. The boundaries of the Main Street program can be helpful in suggesting the size of the eventual district. In addition, there may already be a survey of the community's historic buildings carried out through the state historic preservation office. Volunteers should take a look at this survey and update it if necessary.

Part of Main Street may already be in the National Register of Historic Places, the list maintained by the U.S. Department of the Interior. If so, the surveyors who prepared the National Register application form would have drawn boundaries that can be used by the local historic district commission when it makes its recommendation to the city council.
It is important to explain to the community the difference between a National Register historic district and a local district designated by the city council. The National Register was established in 1966 to create an inventory of historic buildings, sites and districts.

National Register status can help property owners in two ways: (1) rehabilitation projects on buildings in National Register districts may be eligible for federal income tax credits, if the property is used for commercial or rental residential purposes; and (2) projects that involve the use of federal money must be reviewed whenever they would affect properties listed in the National Register.
Most of what happens on Main Street, however, does not involve the tax credits or federal monies; thus, most proposed changes never come to the attention of the National Register staff or the state historic preservation office. Only a local historic district commission will review these plans.

Not only do local commissions review proposed alterations to historic buildings; they can also approve or deny changes to modern buildings located within the historic district. This principle, established more than 40 years ago in the French Quarter historic district in New Orleans, also applies to new construction proposed for vacant lots within the district. As support for this principle, the courts pointed to the community's decision to protect the character and value of an entire historic district. Inappropriate new construction or poorly designed changes to modern buildings would have an adverse affect on such districts.

In order to reach fair and consistent decisions, a historic district commission needs design guidelines. These guidelines will also be used by building owners when they prepare their alteration plans. Many property owners are already familiar with the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation, which must be used by projects seeking federal rehabilitation tax credits. These standards are often adopted by local historic district commissions. In addition, the work of Main Street design committees can be helpful in spelling out the significant features of the historic district. Through the preparation of design guidelines, the commission will be able to protect these features.

Many property owners and tenants will follow the commission's guidelines, if they have the information before they make their plans or buy building materials. Timing is extremely important in making a historic district commission work, and having a set of specific design guidelines to give property owners can prevent misunderstandings and costly delays.

Passing the Law

When there has been adequate discussion about the proposed historic district commission, the city council will hold a public hearing to consider the law. At the hearing, members of the council will generally consider three questions:

  • Is the proposed law fair to property owners?
  • How will the new law affect other city departments and programs?
  • What will a historic district commission cost the city?

The answers to these questions can give the council members the information they need to vote for the establishment of a historic distnct commission. The city attomey can point to provisions of the law calling for the commission to work with property owners to find an appropriate way to meet their current needs. The director of planning can discuss how a historic district will fit into the city's comprehensive plan.

To answer the third question, supporters of the district can cite experience in other cities. Very little municipal money has been appropriated for the administration of historic district programs in small cities. In both large and small communities, unpaid commission members have donated a great deal of valuable time to the program. Moreover, to keep the cost down, a present city employee can be asked to handle the day-to-day work of the commission. Coordinating the commission with the Main Street program will also make it easier and less expensive to administer the district.

The public hearing will probably elicit strong comments, both pro and con. In the final analysis, the city council will pass the law if the hearing demonstrates substantial support for a historic district commission. Such support can be based on several principles:

  • There is a better way to make changes in older buildings, and it can be discovered by developing the facts about an owner's plans and needs.
  • Until a few years ago, people did not look closely at older buildings and their potential.
  • The same energy and imagination that goes into the development of new projects can now be used to save and rehabilitate old buildings.
  • When the choices are developed properly, historic district commissions will reach responsible decisions that will be fair to property owners and their tenants.