Landmarking out of control

Breanne Gilpatrick

Nothing makes a building more historic than an announcement that someone would like to tear it down.

At least that’s how it seems to work in Evanston.

The second a developer or city official announces plans to demolish a building to sell or renovate the property, the historic preservation powers that be suddenly realize it’s a “landmark.”

Tonight alone, two city commissions are meeting to discuss two different properties what have had their development plans mired in historic preservation efforts.

The Evanston Preservation Commission could finalize its decision to recommend that the Evanston Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave., be declared a city landmark. It also could consider whether the building merits the largely symbolic designation listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

And just down the hall another city commission will discuss renovation plans for The Georgian, a retirement community at 422 Davis St., that are more than two years in the making thanks to historic preservation efforts.

The problem is, according to the city historic preservation experts, someone famous built, visited, touched, walked by or spit their gum out on every building in this city.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to be said for having buildings with some real historical character behind them. For example, my apartment – a former 1920s hotel – may have windows that don’t keep out a single degree of the Chicago cold and may leave me with the feeling that I’m taking my life into my own hands every time I step into the decrepit elevator, but I knowingly chose form over function when I signed my lease. But that’s not the right priority for every city decision.

Take the Civic Center for example – the building is literally falling apart. Unlike most other places in this city, the scaffolding above one of the main entrances isn’t because of construction. It’s to prevent visitors from getting hit in the head by falling slate roof tiles. The building also is difficult to heat and according to aldermen, the symphony of clanging pipes was so loud last year that they couldn’t hear the city manager candidates being interviewed.

The building wasn’t even designed to serve as a government office building. It was originally built as a catholic high school and has existed in its current incarnation for less than 30 years.

And just more than a mile away at The Georgian residents reported hard to open windows, poorly working elevators, flooding basements and broken plumbing.

Historic preservation even holds up seemingly simple plans. After our annual outbreak of fall attacks against students, Northwestern and city officials took a “Light Walk” about a year ago to identify poorly lit areas on campus. Guess what delayed the installation of these lights just past the southeast corner of campus? That’s right – the proposed lights weren’t historic enough.

True, there have been no attacks this year in this area of campus. But I’m sure residents walking in this area would have appreciated the extra peace of mind this lighting would have given them.

And I won’t even get into the fact that with all the time spent debating the preservation of every building in the city, including at one point Foster Walker Complex, could be spent on other city issues.

Now I agree that there should be some limits to development. As nice as they look on the inside, most of Evanston’s new condominium developments are ugly on the outside. And as many residents have said, no one wants to become Naperville. But maybe someone could start a resident advocacy group.

My suggestion: Friends of Reality.

City Editor Breanne Gilpatrick is a Medill senior. She can be reached at [email protected]