Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Caution: Falling Facades

Last week the Chicago Journal (why doesn't every neighborhood have a newspaper this good?) reported on a loophole in the historic preservation ordinance that allows developers to hack away at the facades of old buildings.

"With the facades, we really get no warning," said (Preservation Chicago Vice President Michael) Moran, who's pushing for more protection for the front sides of historic buildings. "One day they're there and the next day they're gone. No neighborhood review process, no zoning change applied for, no hearing, no nothing. And it's happening all over the city. . .

The 90-day reprieve allows city landmarks officials to decide whether to pursue last-minute hearings to save the building. But an old edifice with a new facade won't stand a chance, Moran said. And as long as they don't raze it altogether, property owners can strip an orange-rated building of its facade with no special permission.

"Whenever somebody says, 'This building has lost its historic architectural integrity' -- one of the criteria for landmarking -- that means that the facade has been changed," Moran said. "Developers know this . . . "

I'm sorry to see vintage facades ripped off and replaced. The loss diminishes the visual interest of a neighborhood and erases its links to the past.

Moran believes part of the problem is also that people don't have time to care about their neighborhood's facades.

"Altered facades are part of the drip-drip-drip of uglification," Moran said. "It's like, 'Yeah, they did that, but I'm busy with my life.' Facades don't spur people to action the way traffic problems do. It's a disease that doesn't quite stimulate the immune system and so it festers."
I believe what Moran says, but I also think that if the preservationists framed their arguments differently, they might see people getting out of their armchairs to help. Who are "the developers"? It seems when preservationists discuss developers, they always refer to them as an indistinguishable group.
Who are the most indifferent developers? Who are the ones building thoughtfully in our communities? The lack of specificity of offenders, at least in this article, undermines their argument. They can't all be bad. Or can they?

Imagine if the preservationists named the ten most egregious developers, revealed their profit margins, and published photographs of their giant Lake Forest houses. They would draw out the tensions between developer and neighbor more specifically, and they might discover that people would indeed be spurred into action.

At the very least, the developer stigmas could stick and they might be pressured to change rather than lose prospective buyers. Then preservationists could focus their meager resources on fighting the biggest offenders and promoting the most conscientious. They may even save some more facades along the way.

One side note: I have yet to read George Lakoff's book, Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values, Frame the Debate. So, my reference here to frames is uninformed by his arguments on the subject.

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