preservation

I had a fantastic and far ranging conversation with a fellow design professional this afternoon, sparked by the demolition of six historic homes on 31st Street just a couple days ago. One of the things we talked about was a disconnect between preservation professionals and developers who want to work in urban neighborhoods (specifically older established neighborhoods).

Sometimes despite a general desire to "do the right thing," they end up on the wrong side of the argument. Having worked on all phases of the development process (from land assembly, planning, and zoning to design, financing, and construction), I can identify with the need to be selective about sharing information publicly until the project is ready. Most developers working in older urban areas, however, tend to take this too far - holding their cards too close to their vest will breed distrust and antipathy from concerned neighbors and organizations. It sets up a needless climate of conflict.

Here is a brief overview of how to include preservation in the development planning process: Engage, Evaluate, Execute.

Historic Preservation Planning for Developers - Engage, Evaluate, ExecuteHistoric Preservation Planning for Developers - Engage, Evaluate, Execute

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In 1950, Hud and Ellen Weeks purchased land from Hud’s parents to build a home for their growing family. An otherwise unremarkable story might have ended there but for two things: Hud was the son of Des Moines makeup magnate Carl Weeks, and the parcel they purchased was carved from the Salisbury House grounds, Hud and Ellen Weeks Home - Double Lustron KitchenHud and Ellen Weeks Home - Double Lustron Kitchennow a national landmark and museum. On this historic site, Hud and Ellen commissioned a unique modern dwelling comprised of two “Lustron” ready-to-assemble steel home kits built around a central atrium. Only about 2,000 Lustrons remain in the world today. The double Lustron home was significant architecturally due to its distinctive design and historically because of its association with an influential Des Moines family.

On a chilly February morning in 2013, Salisbury House staff arrived to find massive machines tearing into the enameled steel-cladding of Hud and Ellen Weeks’ former home. A developer had purchased the lot and proceeded with demolition. Historians had no chance to document or reclaim any portion of the structure for study or reuse. This story is playing out today with the demolition of three century-old buildings for expansion of the EMC Insurance Companies in downtown Des Moines.

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YMCA Swap

Polk County, Wellmark, and the YMCA are inking a major land swap deal designed to return several vacant downtown buildings to use (reported in the Register). A letter of intent indicates that Wellmark under this deal, Wellmark would trade the former Penny's building at 222 Fifth for the Polk County Convention Complex and $500,000 cash - followed immediately by purchase of the Convention Complex by the YMCA.

Seems to be a good deal for the former Penny's and Polk County Convention Center buildings... Not so sure about the Riverfront YMCA building that will likely be abandoned as part of the Y's relocation. In the Register article, Councilmember Christine Hensley was quoted as saying, "“I think that’s a great piece of land."

Um... There is actually a building on that land. An architecturally significant building.

Downtown YMCA BuildingDowntown YMCA Building

Designed by William Wagner of the noted Des Moines architectural firm Wetherell & Harrison, the YMCA (1957-60) is one of the city’s largest and most important examples of International Style architecture. The building is composed of an eight-story residential tower facing the Des Moines River and a lower section containing community rooms, auditorium, natatorium and other public facilities. Not to mention the public art facade and iconic signage.

It would be a shame to lose this substantial and unique building as part of whatever "development" is envisioned by the City. This building is officially considered endangered.

Winter Downtown Farmers Market

Farmers Market Corn: Image Source: Wikimedia CommonsDuring the uncomfortable winter months, the Downtown Farmers Market shifts to a more hospitable location in the Capital Square building. With one weekend down and one more scheduled for December 14/15, you can still seek out locally produced foods and crafts before the winter holiday season. Of course, the fresh fruits and veggies have largely disappeared... most winter vendors are selling things like locally produced honey, jams, salsa, wine, cheese, soy nuts, homemade noodles, baked breads, pies and cinnamon rolls. There will also still be locally produced eggs and meats as well as winter plants and crafts.

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There are two primary types of historic districts: National Register historic districts and local historic districts.

Historic Home, 1940'sHistoric Home, 1940'sLocal historic districts like Owl's Head and Sherman Hill in Des Moines require that exterior improvements meet certain standards, as interpreted by the Historic Preservation Commission. In a local historic district, for example, a property owner cannot alter fencing, siding, windows, or porches without a "Certificate of Appropriateness" being issued.

National Register historic districts are essentially all "carrot" and no "stick". The myth that the government will restrict what property owners can do to their privately held buildings in a National Register historic district is as persistent as it is false. In a National Register District, one can install vinyl siding, add an ugly porch, even demolish their house if so desired!

The "carrot" is Historic Tax Credits. Qualifying renovation work on buildings that contribute to the historic district is eligible for a refundable state income tax credit of up to 25% (and in some cases an additional Federal tax credit of up to 20%)! In my experience, there is no development tool more effective for spurring sustainable neighborhood reinvestment. Not only does renovation have the direct benefit of returning vacant and underutilized properties back to use, but it also has the associated benefits of raising property values, directing investment back to developing neighborhoods, paying of local wages and material purchase among others.

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