by Michael R. Allen
One day after my call for an imaginative path away from demolition of the Avalon Theater, wreckers started destroying the south city landmark. This morning, after considering it since December 22, the Building Division approved the demolition permit. Down came theater walls and steel trusses, headed up to North Broadway scrap yards.
If the Avalon had been protected under the city’s preservation ordinance, the demolition permit would have required the additional approval of the city’s Cultural Resources Office. Failure to get that approval would have caused a denial of the application.
Unfortunately, the 14th Ward is not in preservation review, and the Avalon had no local or national landmark status that would have led to review under the preservation ordinance. Yet the Avalon was eligible for National Register of Historic Places listing, on its own or as a contributing resource to larger districts.
Had the Avalon demolition been proposed prior to 1999, there would have been preservation review. The city’s preservation ordinance once applied equal review to all buildings across the city. That system was predictable to residents, property owners, city officials and preservation advocates. Under the previous preservation ordinance, many buildings were approved for demolition. Others were spared.
Today, disparate outcomes remain the case under the city’s ordinance, but in a different way. If a building is located in one of the city’s 20 wards whose aldermen opt for demolition review, that building stands a good chance of being spared when demolition is proposed. If a building is not, well, it is likely to disappear without so much as a photo on Flickr.
Yet the Avalon Theater had such visibility and affection in this city that its loss id not going down quietly. Across social media today, news of the start of demolition spread. News of proposed demolition had just started spreading. This could have led to public input in the process prescribed by the city’s preservation ordinance, and it may have led to a denied application.
After all, the ordinance exists to protect those buildings of significance to the entire city — and one of the last remaining neighborhood movie houses is exactly the sort of building the ordinance is designed to protect. The debate we should have had would have centered on the standards of the ordinance — not on Greg Tsevis and his family’s ownership or an elected official who has no authority over the demolition permit. That is the sort of debate we will have next week when the Preservation Board considers demolition of the old Southern Funeral Home on South Grand. Alas, the Avalon was at least as worthy.