Thursday, January 04, 2007

Play-by-Play of Commission on Chicago Landmarks' Meeting Today regarding Fate of the Landmarked Farwell Building

Well, that was a squeaker.

The city's Commission on Chicago Landmarks, who today sounded to me a lot more like the city's Commission on the Promotion of New Development, failed to pass a proposal that would basically gut the meaning and effectiveness of the landmark designation in the city, and likely the country, as we know it.

Thanks go to Commissioners Edward I. Torrez, Ben Weese, Phyllis Ellin, and Lisa Willis, who all voted against the proposal, and a gimme goes to Ernest C. Wong who abstained and failed, for whatever reasons, to give the supporters the "yes" vote they needed to pass the resolution.

But, the play by play, true to Chicago politics, was the best thing about the afternoon. I just wish I had brought a bowl of popcorn.

Everyone agreed that the building was in disrepair. Everyone agreed that the city did a fine job of inspecting the status of the building and commissioned excellent engineering reports.

One of the people speaking on behalf of the proposal before the commission, an engineer, I believe, whose name was Ken, said stuff like this about the plans for turning the landmarked building into an add-on to a luxury condo-highrise:

"We want to get some of the age in there and have it look like an age structure."


"(The building is made out of) the same materials flower pots are made of, and I don't think we want a building made of flower pots."

I'm not kidding. He actually said that.

Then, Burton Natarus, the colorful alderman of the ward where the building resides, stood up.

"This is a very tough issue. If I were a member of a preservation group, I would oppose it, too. If you're a preservationist, your position is to do nothing. It's one of the biggest problems we have today. Not only choosing which buildings to landmark, but how to keep them up and maintain them."

"They should not call themselves preservationists, they should call themselves 'landmark people' because they give no recommendations on how you should preserve the buildings."

Then, to my personal delight, he said that if the proposal passed, he wanted to make sure that something was done for the "very nice man" who has owned the "very fine shoe store" in the building for 30 years.

Rick Wendy followed on behalf of the development team and said he would answer questions at "the committee's pleasure." So, the committee threw him a few balls as soft as cotton.

But, one surprising detail leaked out. They were spending only $5 million dollars on deconstructing and reapplying the facade -- an amount so low in construction circles that it began to seem like it wouldn't be that hard to find a better choice for protecting the landmark -- despite all the blowharding about how few economic options face the 80-year old building. (That, to me, was especially not credible given the building's prime location.)

Lucien Lagrange, who truly must have been delivered in a box from Central Casting marked "French man," came to the podium and talked a bit about parking garages and square feet. He did little to help his cause, and I was quite struck by his seeming indifference to the fate of a fellow architect's landmarked work.

Finally, those sympathetic with the building's fate, the integrity of landmark designations, and the preservation of the contextual history of Michigan Avenue had a chance to stand up and fight back.

What, my friends, did Mr. Jonathan Fine, the President of Preservation Chicago, do with his opening salvo against this nationally significant and ominous abuse of our landmark designation?

He conceded.

Yup. Threw in the towel.

He gave up 20 minutes before the vote.

He made a few excellent points, then he expressed his frustration at, oh gosh, all the preservation losses our city has had lately, and then, before sitting down, he offered, "I know you're going to pass this. You always do."

Not exactly the kind of speech that rallies a city to defend its treasure or even a few hyper-preservationists. What in the world was he thinking?

Fortunately, a few speakers later, Lynn Becker arrived. Now, this is rich, so stick with me. When they first mentioned earlier in the session that he was coming to the microphone soon, they mis-pronounced his name as "Lion."

So, he gets up, and I've never met the man nor seen him before other than his photo on his blog (and for the record, he did not have a bird on his shoulder today), and he admitted he was quite nervous. As you know, he's already my kind of writer, but today he was more so because he clearly feels more comfortable behind a keyboard than in front of people, but he cared so deeply about this issue that he got up and, in his reticence, had an even greater impact.

He conveyed gravitas and delivered his words as eloquently as he writes them. I was so engaged by his talk that I have only his first point written down in my notes -- "What is a landmark if we take the facade and dismantle it and put it on another building -- is that the Farwell Building?"

He did just a great, great job in sounding the alarm and speaking on behalf of protecting our collective history and the visual fabric of our city against a really dumb choice, but there was one other hero I must point out before I have to log off. That was Bob Ritter.

He introduced himself as a "private citizen and businessman" and made a lovely, thoughtful, diplomatic statement on just how wrong-headed the project was. He lauded Lucien Lagrange and the developers for investing in this city and making it better, and he noted that the condos they propose to build will draw some of the highest real estate prices in history.

He then noted that "it took his breath away" that the second "parking podium" on our famed Michigan Avenue would be put in a landmarked building. His and Becker's were the kind of firm diplomacy that I hope other citizens and activists will emulate.

In the end, the vote was made and the Chairman announced the motion had failed, and a murmur went through the room. The Chair deferred to his Corporation Counsel (city lawyer) who confirmed a simple majority was needed, and 4 votes with 8 commissioners wasn't going to cut it. I think everyone was surprised and didn't know what to think.

I bolted for the door right behind Fine (and who I'm guessing might have been a reporter from the Trib). Fine was saying, "Um, I'm really surprised. Shocked really."

Me too. It's a clear win for the integrity of the landmark designation, but it won't be the last time a landmark comes under pressure from misguided development plans.

No doubt more valuable commentary will be cropping up at Lynn Becker's blog here. I hope he'll post a copy of his comments before the committee today, too.

Update: I had my commissioners wrong according to Lynn Becker's account. Strike through shows correct vote.


Kuz said...

What an awesome writeup. I wish I had been there.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the play-by-play. Having attended
a few CCL meetings myself, I can concur, they are
fascinating. It seemed a tad unfair as a first-timer to the scene to criticize Jonathan Fine as somehow missing an opportunity to defend the Farwell Building. Mr. Fine has been an outstanding advocate and a consistent voice at CCL.
I have personally watched him plead at CCL mtgs.
and know he has attended every one for five years (without pay) to defend the Landmark Ordinance
and introduce new ideas including the demoliition
delay ordinance.

Preservation Chicago, and in particular Jonathan,
are often the only advocates for our increasingly
threatened architectural legacy.The group works tirelessly in public and behind the scenes.
Perhaps phone calls and letters about
the ill-advised project produced little sympathy
in the days leading up to the CCL meeting. Maybe
there was an impression the heavily-clouted
Jon Rogers projected would pass. You seem to
have a heart for our city's historical gems. Bravo.
Jonathan Fine is not part of the problem
He is a hero. But he is also human and entitled to
moments of disappointment and fatigue. Nice to
learn of Mr. Becker. We need all the advocates
we can get. Hope you will check out and get involved.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for this comment. I've elevated it to the main part of the blog and responded there. You can find it here

Anonymous said...

I was hoping for even more play-by-play coverage. In what order did the Commisioners vote, alphabetical? Did Wong know the effect of his abstention when he did it?

Jennifer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jennifer said...

Based on my notes, which I just double checked, they did vote in alphabetical order, except the chair, Mosena, voted last.

I do not know what Wong's motivation or knowledge was at the time.

I'd encourage you to check with Lynn Becker at his blog, ArchitecturePlus Chicago, or with the folks at Preservation Chicago.
Their fingers are more closely on the pulse of the Commission than mine.

Anonymous said...

If the Commissioners voted in alphabetical order, then Wong knew that even if the Chair, voting last, voted yes that there could not be five yes votes. Thus, Wong's vote appears to have effectively been a vote against the project.

Jennifer said...

Yes, that's definitely a possible interpretation.

Michael Allen said...

I just now read this. Your account was a joy to read. Godd job!