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Property Rights & Wrongs

Planning: As development pressure builds, Salt Lake City considers a new historic preservation plan.

By Ted McDonough
Posted // April 22,2009 -

Update: Yale Homeowner reacts to neighborhood outcry.

In early May, the Utah Heritage Foundation will conduct its annual tour of historic Salt Lake City homes, this year focusing on the cottages around Yale Avenue built in the 1920s and 1930s. It could be the first such tour that includes a street brawl.

The neighborhood is in an uproar over plans by a homeowner to tear down a 1920s cottage to make way for a 7,000-square-foot McMansion.

“There’s been an enormous outcry,” says Lisette Gibson, chairwoman of the Yalecrest Community Council. “I’ve never seen it before.”

Yalecrest residents thought they had fixed this problem already. The neighborhood is home to the infamous Hubbard Avenue “Garage Mahal” built in 2005. The three-car garage home that towers above its neighbors gave rise to Salt Lake City’s first neighborhood zone that now regulates the size of buildings in the Yalecrest neighborhood.

But a new hullabaloo is exploding ever since Yale homeowner Tom Hulbert was turned down under the new rules on his application to build a 2,000-foot addition.

Hulbert’s plan to demolish and rebuild “is perfectly legal,” notes Jon Dewey, neighbor and past chairman of the Yalecrest Community Council. “But we are really interested in preserving the character of our neighborhood because we enjoy what is existing, not what it can turn into.”

Yalecrest residents have been storming City Hall with e-mail messages and phone calls demanding action. They want more control over when area homes can be torn down, what can be built and streetscape guidelines. And the City Council may be on the verge of giving them what they want. City staff recently completed work on Salt Lake City’s first-ever citywide historic preservation plan. If adopted by the City Council, the plan would mark a major shift in how the city looks at older buildings and challenge residents’ views of property rights.

The draft historic preservation plan hasn’t yet been considered by the City Council. First it will go before the city’s planning commission in May. But already it is attracting some critics. Grace Sperry spent a career in real estate and historic preservation, working with local preservationist groups to save Salt Lake City’s oldest adobe home on Marmalade Hill and serving on a committee that got banks to lend money for the resurrection of the Avenues in the 1980s. She says the city may well be shooting itself in the foot.

Sperry says much in the new plan seems to be reacting to past crises—whether monster-home construction in Yalecrest or the demolition of a block of old Sugar House shops in early 2008. The knee-jerk impulse of activist groups that grows out of such controversies is to slam on the brakes. But if the result is simply erecting more obstacles to development, the plan could backfire, she says, leaving protected but crumbling buildings and no one willing to invest in them.

“You have a group of people who don’t have skin in the game, who don’t have a clue how much it costs to do things, telling a homeowner or a commercial-property owner what they can and can’t do with their own property,” Sperry says. “There are people who love to restore properties who have sworn they will never do a project in Salt Lake City again, because it is so expensive and time consuming.”

But architect Warren Lloyd, who serves on the city’s historic landmarks commission that helped create the new document, says the plan recognizes a need for flexibility. It recommends, for example, developer incentives to encourage the reuse of properties and would allow nonhistoric elements when needed, to meet modern city standards.

“Economic development must be a key feature of preservation planning,” Lloyd says. “Otherwise, you are talking about a museum, not a growing city.” Plan backers argue that preservation, by creating distinct identities for various parts of town, creates better neighborhoods and increases property values.

Among other changes, the draft historic preservation plan calls on the city to undo a loophole that now allows quick demolition of buildings. A revised ordinance, already being drafted by a subcommittee of the City Council, likely will require developers have a building permit in hand before starting the wrecking ball, said Councilman Soren Simonsen. A longtime critic of Salt Lake City’s historic preservation efforts, Simonsen nonetheless questions if all the plans’ proposed new regulations are needed, or whether Salt Lake City simply needs to enforce historic preservation rules already on city books.

The demolition ordinance change is intended to prevent a repeat of the Sugar House Hole. Preservationists, including Simonsen, tried to get an emergency halt to the demolition so a Sugar House survey could be conducted of potentially historic structures.

But the developer had already submitted a landscaping plan to the city. And under current city rules, that is all that is needed to receive a demolition permit.

At the time of demolition, Sugar House had a master plan on the books that called for preservation of the area’s small-scale shops. But the block’s zoning for higher-density buildings won out. The draft historic-preservation plan points out similar conflicts and calls for a review of city laws to ensure preservation is woven throughout city-development code. Architectural review committees could be implemented to analyze building plans in some protected areas.

The plan additionally recommends Salt Lake City re-examine its notion of what is worth saving. In the Sugar House example, few of the torn down old shops would have been eligible for historic recognition, because they had been modified so often. But the planning document says even buildings that don’t meet the 50-year-old “historic” qualification may still add character to a neighborhood and calls for new surveys of the city and additional city staff for potential creation of new protective districts. The preservation plan singles out west-side warehouses as a prime candidate for preservation.

“Preservation planning is the thing that really tests the issue of who has the greatest rights: the person who owns the property or all the other people around,” says Simonsen. “For better or worse, my opinion is, when you are part of the city, you have got to be part of the city.”

 
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