renovation

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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Firehouse #1

The Des Moines Social Club has been working energetically and tirelessly to acquire permanent digs by purchasing and rehabilitating the incredible mid-century modern "Firehouse #1" building in downtown Des Moines. The arts group proposes to turn the building into a multi-use theater-dining-arts-retail-nonprofit-community complex.


(Look at all those happy and interesting people hanging out downtown at night! Image source: Des Moines Social Club)

Development work is proceeding at a breakneck speed. On October 22, the City Council again heard testimony on the proposed sale of the building to the Des Moines Social Club - for $600,000! The group is working through the process of nominating the structure to the National Register of Historic Places, assisted by local historian Jennifer James. I love to see significant mid-century buildings start to appear on the list and am a big fan of preserving such buildings (though not everyone thinks it is appropriate). To its credit, the Council required such action!

From the Council communication:

Developer must agree to preserve the exteriors of the two buildings and to nominate the property to the National register of Historic Places and or to the City of Des Moines Local Landmarks listing.

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Shell Sweet Shell

23 Aug 2010

Historic Ruan House in River BendHistoric Ruan House in River BendI stirred up a little discussion a couple days ago when I posted the following on the reNew Design Studio Facebook page about a historic tax credit project I am working on:

Historic Ruan House historic tax credit application draft is complete. Trying to get the River Bend neighborhood some money back for their FABULOUS renovation of a burned-out shell!

A couple of my friends thought I was being a bit too harsh in describing the pre-renovation building as a "burned-out shell". I admit to descending into a bit of hyperbole, perhaps inspired by my excitement, with this message. Indeed, the words "burned-out shell" may conjure up an image of charred wood studs poking out from beneath a pile of rubble - the pre-renovation Ruan House was not at that level of destruction.

Yet there can be legitimate debate about the terms "burned-out" and "shell". What is the point at which a fire-damaged house becomes burned-out? 25%? 50%? I don't know. My sense is that it relates more to a general feeling about whether or not the interior character of the house remains intact or has been damaged beyond recognition.

I apply the term "shell" to buildings that are substantially intact on the outside, yet can no longer server their intended purpose due to neglect or physical damage on the inside.

When is a Building Too Far Gone

Ruan House (before renovation)Ruan House (before renovation)The pejorative label "burned-out shell" begs the question, is a building ever too far gone to repair?

Prior to its complete rehabilitation by the River Bend Neighborhood Association, there is little doubt that this historic home had serious issues. There had been a fire in the attic. The roof damage and ensuing water infiltration damaged much of the interior plaster. The rear addition was structurally deficient, building systems and fixtures were missing or inoperable, the entry stoops were crumbling or missing.

Clearly this structure was uninhabitable at the time in terms of both local ordinance and basic human decency. Only those with a healthy understanding of and respect for architectural history would have noted any particular redeeming quality in the physical structure, though it was at one time the residence of a prominent local businessman.

In general I have a pretty low threshold for "save-ability" - that is, I know from experience that older buildings (masonry in particular) are relatively resilient when it comes to water infiltration, fire damage, and general neglect. The Ruan house is a prime example of how a building that many people would assume should be demolished can in fact be rehabilitated into a crowning jewel, a prominent entry market into a National Register historic district!

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Victorian Home in Danger of Demolition: This home is on the City's "Public Nuisance" list and may be demolished if deficiencies are not corrected in a timely manner.Victorian Home in Danger of Demolition: This home is on the City's "Public Nuisance" list and may be demolished if deficiencies are not corrected in a timely manner.The Iowa legislature recently passed a bill more than doubling the Iowa historic rehabilitation tax credit. The program had previously been capped at $20 million; it is now capped at $50 million - 10% of which is dedicated specifically to "small" projects of under $500,000.

As a revitalization stimulus and economic engine, historic tax credits are an excellent investment. Not only do they leverage significant private capitalized investment, but they also encourage preservation of historic buildings. Because the tax credits are not issued until the project is complete and put "in use", the economic return to the state actually precedes the tax credit payout.

Historic tax credits can be used throughout the state in both urban and rural areas. In urban areas, qualifying buildings can be located in a designated historic district, individually nominated, or eligible for nomination. In rural areas and small towns, bridges, barns, and other potentially eligible properties may qualify for the credits.

While large rehabilitation projects often steal the limelight, even a privately owned single family home can qualify. With the expanded credit, I look forward to a new professional infrastructure developing to help shepard projects of all sizes through the process: architects, engineers, tax credit consultants, and accountants.

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The Iowa chapter of the American Planning Association recently honored West Des Moines for its publication of a "pattern book". Pattern Books are locally specific guidebooks detailing appropriate interventions in existing neighborhoods (both renovation and new construction). This particular book is focused on the older areas of West Des Moines. Examples used in the book are the Cape Cod, Ranch, and Split Level home.

The 45-page book is available for free on the West Des Moines web site.

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