In Defense of the Chicago Landmark Ordinance

Vol. XIX No. 2 - SUMMER 2008

By: LeRoy Blommaert

In the course of the recent brief community “discussion” about a proposed Chicago Landmark district for northeast Edgewater, it became apparent that a number of the affected non-institutional owners were aghast that anyone would even propose that their property be designated a City Landmark. Others were opposed to any such designation without the consent of the affected owners. Indeed, among those who gave a reason for their opposition, this was the one most often cited.

The Chicago Landmark Ordinance was enacted 40 years ago and it has been vital in the preservation of our architectural heritage. Before the current ordinance, Chicago had enacted an ordinance that was honorary only and offered no protection against demolition or defacement. It soon became apparent that such an ordinance was ineffective in achieving its preservation objective. The framers of the current ordinance clearly understood that the City could not rely on the good intentions of the owners of historic or significant properties to voluntarily consent to Landmark designation, particularly if, in so doing, they would give up the option of achieving much greater financial returns.

Unfortunately, the greatest threat to Chicago’s historical and architectural heritage was the economic reality, for properties in the Loop and in high-zoned areas, that their owners stood to gain more (in some cases considerably more) by selling to developers who would tear down the building. Hence, the framers allowed for Landmark designation to occur without the consent of the affected owners. The owners would have a voice but not a veto.

Clearly, Chicago would have a much reduced inventory of architecturally significant buildings if owner consent had been required. This is particularly true in the downtown business district.

Particularly instructive for us in Edgewater is the fact that in the Landmark District most comparable to the proposed Northeast Edgewater district – the Seven Houses on North Lake Shore Drive – most of the owners objected to Landmark designation. Like the houses in Northeast Edgewater, the properties were in a high zoned area and their owners could make a much greater profit by selling to a developer who would tear down the houses. However, because of the importance of preserving the last remaining houses on a street given to high rises that once was lined with significant houses, the Landmark Commission and the City Council overrode the objections of the owners and designated the houses as Landmarks. As you drive by these homes on Lake Shore Drive they are a reminder that their preservation is for the good of the whole community.

For more information about the Landmark Ordinance, as well as Preservation efforts in Edgewater, visit our website and click on the “Preservation” button.