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Chicago ‘historic area’ zoning case being watched across the country

Can a city block property owners from making improvements to a building or a neighborhood on the grounds that doing so would destroy its value as a historic landmark?

A closely watched case in Chicago could answer that question. Although the case is specific to Chicago, cities and property owners across the country are paying attention to it because the same issues could be brought up in many other places.

Al Hanna and Carol Mrowka live in the East Village neighborhood in Chicago’s Lincoln Park district. It’s an area full of small, flat buildings and cottages that were popular with immigrants in the late 1800s. The pair are not allowed to make certain improvements to their property because the entire neighborhood has been designated a “landmark” by the city’s Landmarks Commission.

So Hanna and Mrowka went to court. A judge initially dismissed their suit, but on appeal, the state Appeals Court said it could proceed. Now both sides are waiting to see if the state Supreme Court will resolve the issue.

The property owners say the neighborhood is not really a landmark, and that city officials approved the designation merely because they wanted to regulate gentrification and alter the area’s racial makeup.

But the city argues that the lawsuit attacks the whole idea of historic preservation, and that if it succeeds, there will be no law left in place to stop the city’s most significant architectural wonders from facing the wrecking ball.

Legally, there’s no question that a city has a right to preserve its valuable historic sites. At issue in the Chicago case is whether the criteria used by the city commission to designate landmarks are so vague as to be essentially meaningless, with the result that the commission can pick anything at all as a landmark and take away property owners’ rights willy-nilly.

The city’s landmarks law says that a landmark has to meet at least two of seven criteria. Among the criteria are that the property:

  • Has value “as an example of the architectural, cultural, economic, historic, social, or other aspects” of the city, state or country;
  • Represents “an architectural, cultural, economic, historic, social, or other theme expressed through distinctive areas, districts, buildings, structures, works of art, or other objects that may or may not be contiguous”; and
  • Represents “an established and familiar visual feature of a neighborhood.”

Hanna and Mrowka say these criteria are so broad that they could arguably include any structure in the city.

The pair are also challenging the makeup of the Landmarks Commission, which is supposed to include, among other things, people who have a “special interest” in neighborhood preservation. They say this term is likewise vague and meaningless.

The appeals court sided with the property owners. It said there was no way that a “person of common intelligence” who read the law could figure out whether a property should be considered a landmark or whether a person was qualified to serve on the commission.

Hanna and Mrowka say their goal is not to threaten the true treasures of Chicago, but to make sure the landmark law works only to preserve real architectural and historic gems, not to allow political manipulation of neighborhoods.

Still, if the law is struck down, comparable laws in many other cities and towns could face a similar challenge, and it might be some time before it’s clear what the rights of property owners are.

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