by Michael R. Allen
In the Riverfront Times blog, Kristin Hinman recently reported on a neighborhood meeting last Saturday in McKinley Heights that went awry. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the proposal to make much of the neighborhood a local historic district, a move that would protect its architectural character through an enforceable code governing exterior alterations to historic buildings as well as new construction. Most of the neighborhood already enjoys status as a National Register of Historic Places district, which makes state historic rehab tax credits available there. The local district seems the logical next step to protect the quality of the neighborhood amid a rehab boom. After all, many areas where tax-credit rehabs abound also attract very bad rehabilitation work. One can look at Benton Park and Old North St. Louis and see many inappropriate and downright ugly jobs side-by-side with wonderful and respectful rehabs.
As it turns out, many in McKinley Heights oppose taking the step to preserve their character. As Hinman reports, both Alderwoman Phyllis Young (D-7th), who will introduce the enabling ordinance for the district, and Kate Shea, director of the Cultural Resources Office that would enforce the code, were hazed by irate residents at the meeting. It’s hard to say whether the naysayers are the majority. After all, the McKinley Heights Housing Corporation supports the local district ordinance, and public meetings inevitably attract more people who think something is wrong than people who think something is right.
Some of the objections Hinman mentions are that the ordinance will spawn gentrification and raise housing prices. I don’t have statistics showing otherwise, but can offer the fact that such forces rarely are spurred on by local historic district codes — in fact, many developers are distrustful of those codes. Local districts are often sought by residents of neighborhoods that have seen massive investment, and who may very well want to use the codes to prevent bad designs that lower property values. That’s far from gentrification — that’s the simple desire to enjoy a good life and prevent the reversal of good changes.
Besides, every local district code — including the one proposed for McKinley Heights — contains clauses that protect owners from incurring “financial hardship” in compliance. Truly deserving homeowners won’t have to buy windows that they can’t afford as long as they apply for a permit and deal with the Cultural Resources Office, which can grant waivers. The cases people read about that head to the Preservation Board mostly involve situations where owners made alterations prohibited by the code without taking out building permits. Most people who deal directly with Cultural Resources never have such problems.
Another fact working against the complaints of the people at the meeting is that much of the distressed Hyde Park neighborhood remains a local historic district with a strict code. No one can argue that the code has brought gentrification there or stopped widespread demolition.
In the end, the local district codes fall short of being total protection of a neighborhood’s buildings. That’s probably a good thing, because the codes are thus very democratic with the allowance of situational exceptions. The general protection that the codes provide does make a difference, though, because most of the people who seek to erode the architectural character of a neighborhood are not long-time residents but outside developers who can afford to do better. The local code really protects neighborhoods for invested residents.
One of the shortcomings of a local district ordinance is that it will not provide for any regular education of new residents about the provisions of the code. The Cultural Resources Office does not have the means to provide field education, and no advocacy group is providing that service either. However, that’s where a group like the McKinley Heights Housing Corporation needs to step in and make sure that old and new residents know the code and know to apply for permits for exterior work. Again, most code violations occur when people don’t know the rules or don’t know to apply for a permit. Education is key to an effective local code and for support.
Hopefully, proponents of a McKinley Heights local district ordinance will continue to educate and build support for it so that the naysayer’s misinterpretations of the code don’t become widespread opposition.