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Frequently asked questions about Landmark Districts and districting

This page is presented by Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference, its Preservation-Zoning-Development task force, and its website www.hydepark.org. Join the Conference, support our work!

This set of questions and answers, adapted from material of the Chicago Commission on Landmarks, has been used at small meetings of neighbors with CCL, Hyde Park Historical Society Preservation Committee and Ald. Hairston's office exploring local landmark districts, including for Hyde Park east of U of C. There is a somewhat differing set of questions in the Landmarks Criteria page.

General Landmarking Questions, being distributed to small meetings of residents in the potential Hyde Park District

  1. How could a Landmark District benefit Hyde Park?
    The reason many communities choose to be designated a landmark district is to maintain the beauty and character of their neighborhood by preserving its historic buildings and streetscape. Most of the almost 40 landmark districts in Chicago were created because there was a threat to that historic environment through tear-downs, over-development or out-sized reconstruction.
  2. How does a group of residential buildings become a Landmark District in the City of Chicago?
    Typically, a substantial number of the residents of a neighborhood, both owners and renters, express their desire for a landmark district to their alderman and to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. If the district has the support of the alderman, and if the Commission finds that the group of buildings qualifies as historically significant, the group is then granted "Preliminary Landmark Status" by the Commission. Preliminary designation temporarily halts demolition of all historic buildings until a final determination can be made if the district does meet the criteria for landmark status. Public hearings are t hen held. If the hearings do not alter the preliminary decision by the Commission, the Commission makes a recommendation for full "Landmark" status to the City Council. The City Council's Committee for Historical Landmarks then makes a determination, which, if favorable, is forwarded to the floor of the City Council for an official vote that formally establishes the Landmark District. This is a slow, deliberate process that can take a year or more.
  3. What benefits does a property owner receive from having his/her building landmarked?
    There is a reputation of quality and real estate marketability that is achieved when an owner's neighborhood is officially designated as a landmark. Landmark property owners benefit from the official commitment to historic preservation and the security of knowing that their property and neighborhood will not be negatively affected by rapid development trends in the future. The Kenwood Landmark District is a good example of the positive effects of a landmark district.
  4. What part of my home would be landmarked?
    The Commission on Chicago Landmarks (CCL) is concerned with the principal facades including the roof line and other elements visible from the public sidewalk and street. For most buildings, this means that only the street-fronting facade is landmarked, with the owner free to alter the sides and rear of the building. If you own a corner building, they would be concerned with the two facades. They do not consider the view from the rear alley. They also so not regulate what you chose to do to the interior of your home.
  5. What is the main difference between a City of Chicago landmark designation and a National Register of Historic Places designation?
    The national Register designating, which most of Hyde Park already has, does not prevent demolition nor does it regulate new development or reconstruction. It may create a delay in demolition if the designated property is going to be demolished as part of a federally funded project. The City of Chicago designation is the only designation that does protect against demolition or significant alteration of the landmarked facades of the buildings your neighborhood.
  6. What is a "non-contributing" building?
    When a landmark district is created, the Commission determines a "period of significance" for the district. For example, in our neighborhood, the "period of significance" is probably 1867-1929. Buildings built outside that period, in most cases would bed considered "non-contributing". Also, architecture that is of the period but deemed to be significant or has been too altered might also be considered "non-contributing." Non-contributing buildings can be demolished. However, the design of what replaces them is regulated by the Commission.
  7. Can buildings within a Landmark District be demolished?
    Only if they are non-contributing or have some massive structural failure.
  8. Are those buildings identified at the outset?
    Yes. When the Commission prepares a designation repot, each building is identified as either contributing, non-contributing or potentially contributing. A potentially contributing building many simply be be a house that is currently covered in aluminum siding, but would become contributing if the siding were removed.
  9. Can a building owner opt-out of a Landmark District?
    Individual owners cannot opt out of a landmark district.
  10. Are there hardship cases?
    An owner can make an appeal to the Commission if they have a financial hardship with regards to their designated property. Their case is reviewed and relief can be negotiated on a case by case basis. (For more information, please refer to the Landmarks Ordinance, Section 2-120-830.)
  11. How many Landmark Districts are there in Chicago?
    There are currently 37 historic districts, with more on the way. The first historic district was created in 1971 on Alta Vista Terrace in Lakeview. Some well known districts include Old Town, Wicker Park, Mid North, Ukrainian Village, Pullman, Motor Row, South Michigan Avenue, and Armitage/Halsted. On the South Side we have the Calumet-Giles-Prairie, Oakland, North Kenwood, Kenwood, Washington Park Court, Greenwood Row House, Jackson Park Highlands, Pullman, Longwood Drive and Walter burley Griffin Place districts. Districts slated for designation in 2005 include the Newport Avenue, Milwaukee/Diversey/Kimball, Logan Square Boulevard, Terra Cotta District, and Ukrainian village Extension districts.

RENOVATION, HOME IMPROVEMENT, DECORATING

  1. Can I replace my windows or do I have to live with the leakey windows I currently have? If reparable, the Commission would first encourage you to repair them. If beyond repair, windows can be replaced. If they are the original windows (wood, for example), they have to be replaced with a window that matches the original profile. Anderson, Marvin, Pella, as well as others, make replacement windows that conform to Commission standards. However, only those windows visible from the public right of way need to conform to Commission standards. All others can be replaced as the owner sees fit.
  2. Can I add an addition to the rear?
    Yes. And, as long as it's not visible from the public right of way, the Commission doesn't regulate the design.
  3. Can I add to the side of my house if I live on a wide corner lot?
    In most cases yes. But if it's visible from public right of way, the addition has to meet Commission standards. (Public right of way does not include alleys.)
  4. Can I add a floor to the top of my house?
    It is zoning that will dictate whether a person can add an addition t the top of his home. However, if you live in a landmark district, and if the zoning does allow it, the answer in many cases is yes. But it must not be visible from the public right of way.
  5. Can I replace anything inside?
    Historic elements of some large building in Chicago are landmarked inside and out. for example, the lobby and the auditorium of the Chicago Theater are landmarked and cannot be destroyed. However, the Commission does not specifically designate the historic interiors of residential homes in landmark districts, so owners are free to remodel the interiors as they see fit. But, owners who wish to take advantage of the tax freeze program may be require to retain and restore period moldings, doors, fireplaces, columns, etc. if they currently exist in any rooms facing the public right of way.
  6. Can I paint my house any color I want to?
    Yes. The Commission doesn't regulate paint color.
  7. Does the Commission control things like landscaping, driveways and sidewalks?
    No. However, if you have a historic fence or garden wall, that may be included in the landmark designation and therefore wouldn't be able to be removed or altered. But, these historic elements would be identified to the owner in the designated report.
  8. Is the Commission going to force me to restore my house back to the way it looked at the time it was built?
    No. When a building is drawn into a new Landmark District, it's grandfathered in its present condition. You are not required to do anything to the home except maintain it to the minimum standards of the building code, something that is required of ALL property owners in the City of Chicago. You can replace non-historic elements in kind, like vinyl windows, or aluminum siding, or an asphalt roof, it that is what currently exists on your home. If you choose to do a full restoration in keeping with the Landmark district's character, the CCL will assist you in your renovation project to assure that it conforms to the original architecture as closely as possible. These kinds of major renovation projects may qualify you for one or more tax breaks, as mentioned below in the "financial" section.

    NOTE: The Architectural Review Committee of the Commission evaluates each design issue on a case-by-case basis. The process is not meant to be adversarial, but to be collaborative with the homeowners in working towards solutions that will maintain the beauty and character of the neighborhood. for more information, contact the CCL at: 312-744-3200. The 4700 block of Kimbark Ave in the Kenwood District is a very good example of the results of the review process.
  9. When does the Commission get involved with my home?
    Anytime an owner of a historic landmark applies for a building permit, the Commission is notified. Routine permits, like remodeling a bathroom, usually pass through the office in less than a day since no review is required.
  10. I own a vacant lot next to my house with its own tax ID number. Can I build a house on that lot?
    Yes, as long as the design meets the Commission design standards.

PERMITS AND LEGAL ISSUES

  1. Does being in a landmark District increase the time it takes to get a building permit?
    Generally not. The Commission prides itself on its ability to process permits quickly. In 2003, 88% of the permit reviews took one day or less. Otherwise, it depends on the circumstance. If it takes longer, it generally has more to do with such issues as zoning, heating or plumbing--not because of its being in a Landmark District.
  2. Is there a public process if I object to what I am asked to do to my house or what my neighbors are doing to their house?
    Yes. The Commission meets once a month, during which a design review committee will her grievances in a public forum. It's an open transparent process, where you have the opportunity to voice concerns about your own property, or that of your neighbor.

FINANCIAL (PROPERTY VALUES, TAXES, INSURANCE)

  1. What are the tax advantages--if any?
    Owners of owner-occupied contributing buildings in any historic district may qualify for an 8-year property tax freeze administered by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA) if they make a significant investment in rehabbing their property according to IHPA standards. Owners who invest 25% or more of the Assessed Market Value (as indicated on their Cook County tax bill) into renovations of their home, can freeze their taxes for 8 years. After 8 years the tax rate gradually increases over 4 years to the market rate. Since Hyde Park is a National Register District, most property owners already qualify for this tax freeze.
  2. What happens to my property value? Do property values go down in Landmark Districts?
    The National Trust for Historic Preservation has analyzed numerous studies of property values in Landmark Districts throughout the country over the years. These studies have shown no indication that property taxes in landmark districts go down simply because they are landmark districts. In fact, these studies seem to indicate that the value of homes in landmark districts tend to appreciate at a slightly higher rate than similar building stock outside the district. There's no data that proves why that's so, but it is commonly thought that there is more predictability and physical stability in a landmark district. Properties tend to be improved rather than neglected and the neighborhood is safe from rampant and unregulated real estate speculation. Interestingly, real estate agents often use the headline "Landmark District" in their ads as an attractive selling point. An extensive study of New Your City landmark districts commissioned by the New York City Budget Office in 2001 reinforces these earlier studies.
  3. Would a landmark district prevent me rom selling my contributing historic home to a developer for a tear-down?
    Yes. However, owners of historic homes should not conclude that they would not be able to sell their home or a fair price or that the value of their investment will go down once a landmarked district is enacted. The overriding market force behind the value of real estate has always been location, location, location. In many cities, including Chicago, landmark districts are often the most desirable and sought-after places to live. They tend to be stable and beautiful neighborhoods with a high degree of owner pride.
  4. What happens to my property taxes:
    Nothing. The Cook County Assessor does not use Landmark Districts as a criterion for determining property taxes.
  5. What about my hazard insurance. Will it go up?
    No, landmark districts are not used as a criterion in factoring insurance rates.
  6. Why should I willingly give up the right to maximize the profit on the sale of my home if a developer offers me a lot of money for a teardown?
    This is the most common question asked and most difficult to answer because it involves more than just monetary values. Communities have to collectively decide what factors represent a livable environment and then balance those factors against their expected or assumed profit. If a person buys a property simply to maximize an investment, he or she may not take kindly to landmarking. However, if residents value the beauty, harmony and scale of the existing architecture of their community and wish to be able to moderate future change to their built environment, then they may consider giving up some freedom in order to cooperatively form and manage a landmark district. Ultimately, the decision to landmark is in the hands of the community and the alderman. The important part of this process is that all of the facts, all of the pros and cons, and all points of view must be aired in an open and civilized forum so that the community can make an informed decision.

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