Developing situations — what endangers a historic building
By Russ Gifford
(Originally published in The Weekender, 01/01/03)
How do older buildings become "at risk?" There are generally three key threats to any building: Fire, water and development.
Even buildings in good condition can fail prey to fire, though older buildings see greater opportunities for damage due to older non-flame retardant construction materials, lack of sprinkler systems, and other "modern" items that these older buildings do not have.
Water damage can be as destructive as fire, though unless the damage is in the form of a flood, it is a slower process. As buildings age, so too do their roofs and windows. Water leaking into the interior may start as cosmetic damage, but unless the roof is repaired quickly, the effect of a leak can lead to the destruction of the building. The structural damage of a long-term leak may make repairs too costly for would-be developers.
Development, at least in the 1960s through the 1980s, was often the most lethal threat to older buildings. Through most of the last half of the 20th century, new development meant "clearing" the area of the "old" buildings, in preparation for the new. Many people in Siouxland remember the destruction of the Younker-Martin building at the corner of 4th and Nebraska streets, part of the urban development process of the 1960s as their awakening to the need for preservation of historic buildings. "I used to do a slide show on buildings in Sioux City," said Tim Orwig, of SiouxLandmark, "and the two slides that provoked the most reaction were the Younker-Martin building, and Garretson Library at Morningside College." Both were cleared in the development of new buildings.
Often, it is the combination of two or three of these items that leads to a clearing of a building or group of buildings. Patty Heagel, Economic Development for the City of Sioux City, agrees with Orwig's assessment of the changes in development. "There are a lot of different approaches [now], and the main one is not wholesale clearance," says Heagel. "The City has been instrumental in helping promote the preservation of buildings." The problem, though, is when a building is allowed to deteriorates, fewer developers or potential investors are interested, and eventually, the city has a responsibility to citizens to see buildings do not become potential safety hazards." What happens next is largely up to the property owner.
If a building is no longer meeting standards, the property owner is notified to rectify a problem. The city attempts to work with owners, giving them deadlines to correct the infractions. Eventually, fines or penalties might be set, though the owner frequently decides it is not cost effective to invest the money in an old building with no buyer showing interest. This often includes allowing the taxes to go unpaid. In these circumstances, the property will become City property when the owner defaults on the fines, or though a tax sale.
To prevent this scenario, state and federal tax breaks now allow property owners and developers to receive up to 20 percent of their construction costs in tax credits for historic renovation, said Heagel. "The tax credits, and other state and federal money have been very important to the development of historical properties," said Orwing.
When the City has received an abandoned property, they often work with developers as well, giving them financial incentives to repair the building, in terms of lower-cost ownership in return for investing in repair. The idea is to put the building in the hands of a buyer that will fix it, or to use the property as a potential for a new business, that will generate jobs or tax income
"The city also often packages properties, to attract investors to a location that has city infrastructure in place (streets and utilities) without incurring more tax dollars for citizens or costs for the developer," said Heagel.
Sometimes, it isn't enough. "Sometimes we do clear out properties. Lots of criteria that goes into that choice. In the Stockyards, we had a number of large obsolete buildings that no one had an interest in for a re-use," said Heagel. She also notes the difference between a city-driven development, and a private effort. While the City is not promoting wholesale clearance of property, "if a developer came in on their own, they could buy and clear the property, and no one could stop them."
Some cities have protected their historical assets with ordinances that require demolition delays or hearings to prevent such destruction. There are no similar laws on the books in Sioux City.
"At least development no longer automatically starts with a vacant lot," said Orwig, commenting on earlier attitudes for methods to attract new business or residential development. "But there is so much more that could be done. There are few checks on what a property owner can do with an historical building."
Just as Heagel notes that it is the public's desire for business expansion, it is also the public desire for preservation that will decide whether additional laws to protect buildings are important.
The method of development didn't change until after the outcry of the loss of the Younker-Martin building. "City councils act on the concerns of their constituents. When people are telling a council member, 'you tore down that building, and I loved that building, I'm never going to vote for you,' then those laws will be change," said Orwig.
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