Doing Away with Demolition by Neglect

Download Main Street Now PDF_2011_01/02

DemolitionByNeglectCoverIn November 2009, the Chicago Department of Buildings declared the YWCA in the city’s South Loop “imminently dangerous,” paving the way for its current owners, 830 LLC, to demolish the 1894 building. Among the oldest of the structures composing the “Michigan Avenue Streetwall” and included in the city’s Michigan Boulevard Historic District, the YWCA had been neglected for over three decades while under the ownership of a major publishing company. Following an unsuccessful attempt by a local developer to convert the structure into condominiums, the YWCA was sold in 2008 to its current owner, who, in turn, obtained permission to demolish the building, notwithstanding its historic status.
While many Chicago preservationists reluctantly agreed that the building was too far gone to be salvaged, no doubt they also felt that more could and should have been done to prevent the YWCA’s ultimate fate. The building’s dilapidated condition was no secret. Reportedly, the building, located on one of Chicago’s pre-eminent streets, had received multiple citations over the years from the building department for numerous code and safety violations. Why wasn’t the inclusion of the property in a local historic district enough? After all, Chicago’s historic preservation ordinance, as one of the strongest in the country, protects against the demolition of historic resources. What is the loophole and how can it be closed?

Chicago’s YWCA fell victim to a condition commonly referred to as “demolition-by-neglect.” The building, following a pattern of long-term neglect, became so dilapidated that rehabilitation no longer proved to be a viable option and the building, ultimately, was demolished on public safety grounds.

While no one “tried-and-true” solution exists to prevent demolition by neglect, a number of measures can be taken to help ensure that historic resources withstand the test of time. By requiring that routine maintenance and major repairs be made, routinely inspecting properties, adopting and utilizing demolition-by-neglect procedures, committing to a course of enforcement, and working closely with building department officials, properties deemed worthy of preservation should, in fact, be preserved over time.

It is important to keep in mind that non-regulatory solutions, even when regulatory measures are present, can be instrumental in protecting endangered resources. For example, the role of historic preservation organizations and their efforts to protect poorly maintained historic properties should not be discounted. Each year, preservation organizations work tirelessly to find solutions to dilapidated resources featured on endangered lists, often with successful results. Large numbers of historic houses and Main Street buildings in aging communities have been rehabilitated through revolving fund and community investment fund programs. The adoption of new regulatory measures, such as neighborhood conservation districts and tax programs, such as the Low Income Housing Tax Credit and New Markets Tax Credit, have also been instrumental in spurring community reinvestment and stabilizing older, historic neighborhoods.

A new National Trust publication, Doing Away with Demolition-by-Neglect, explores the various approaches to this problem in some detail. First, it looks at affirmative maintenance requirements and demolition-by-neglect procedures in historic preservation ordinances. Second, it looks at approaches that may be used to resolve maintenance problems and enforce violations under these laws as they arise. Finally, it examines the role of historic preservation boards in preventing the needless demolition of historic structures under laws designed to protect the public against unsafe buildings.  

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A number of measures can be taken to help ensure that historic resources withstand the test of time.

  • Require that properties are maintained and major repairs are made on a timely basis;
  • Have a good monitoring system in place;
  • Adopt and utilize demolition-by-neglect procedures;
  • Commit to a course of enforcement; and
  • Work closely with building department officials.