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Analysis: An overview of demolition and historic preservation in St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 1, 2011 - The ongoing effort to preserve the swanky old Phillips 66 station at Council Plaza best known as a Del Taco is taking twists and turns that span historic preservation jargon. Preservation review, redevelopment ordinances, historic tax credits, contributing status -- these terms have flown by faster than a flying saucer.

Taken step by the step, the levels of law that make or break historic preservation efforts are pretty simple, because most laws that protect or regulate historic buildings are at the local level.

Federal and State Laws: The Foundation

Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966. It created two national lists of historic sites -- these can be buildings, structures, districts, battlefields, bridges, parks or other physical features of a landscape -- administered by the National Park Service in the Department of the Interior.

National Historic Landmark is the highest designation for a historic site and is reserved for the small number of sites that have significance to all Americans -- think the Gateway Arch and Wainwright Building. The most common historic designation is listing in -- and it's "in" rather than "on" -- the National Register of Historic Places. The National Register is the official federal list of districts, sites, buildings and structures with significance to our history, architecture or culture.

On its own, the National Register has little impact on private property. For one thing, sites cannot be listed without permission of a private property owner, and districts cannot be listed without consent from a majority of private owners within the boundary. For another, the national preservation act does not compel local governments to protect these sites from demolition or alteration - they have to pass their own laws to do that.

The only restriction that comes with National Register listing is that, under Section 106 of the NHPA, any undertaking that uses any form of federal funds must be reviewed by federal and state preservation agencies if a property listed in or eligible for the National Register is affected. These agencies can stop a demolition or alteration, or require "mitigation." Mitigation actions include moving an affected structure, documentation or salvage.

Since the National Register of Historic Places listing is a requirement for eligibility for state and federal historic tax credits, it is a designation sought by many property owners - including owners of the Del Taco building, who had the building listed as part of the Council Plaza Historic District. More than 1.5 million properties are in the National Register, with more than 260 individual and 75 district listings in the city of St. Louis.

The NHPA enables states to create State Historic Preservation Offices to administer preservation activities at the state level. Such an office is charged with technical review of all nominations to the National Register of Historic Places, with consultation on Section 106 proceedings (including the power to require mitigation of demolitions), with designating Certified Local Governments and other functions. Missouri has no official state historic sites list and no state preservation review laws.

Local Law: The Power to Preserve

As with politics, most preservation is local. When we discuss how the "historical society" wouldn't let us change our roof shingles or tear down our garage, we are talking about the use of power by a Certified Local Government (CLG) -- a municipality with a local preservation law and review board certified by the state. The city of St. Louis was one of America's first cities to adopt a preservation ordinance following passage of the NHPA in 1966, and has been a CLG since 1990.

Across the line, St. Louis County has a Historic Buildings Commission and a County Landmarks program, but it is an advisory group since the national preservation act does not give counties CLG functions. Only a few municipalities in St. Louis County have preservation laws and qualify as CLGs: Chesterfield, Ferguson, Florissant, Kirkwood, Manchester, Oakland, Pasadena Hills, University City, Webster Groves and Wildwood.

St. Louis' preservation ordinance gives city government the power to designate City Landmarks and Local Historic Districts, to deny demolition of buildings or sites with local or national historic status (either alone or as part of districts) and to deny building permits that conflict with Local Historic District standards. The city has established the Cultural Resources Office with a professional staff as well as the Preservation Board appointed by the mayor that handles certain permit reviews and all appeals of Cultural Resources decisions. Appeals of Preservation Board decisions go to the Planning Commission, another appointed board.

Established local law gives preservationists the tools to stop demolitions. Without the St. Louis city preservation ordinance, National Register-listed buildings would have no demolition protection.

Cultural Resources reviews demolition permits for all such sites, for all local landmarks and historic districts and in the 20 wards designated under law as preservation review districts. Most denials don't attract attention because they are done by the staff as part of their regular jobs. Yet Cultural Resources must take buildings deemed "High Merit" (defined in the preservation ordinance) to the Preservation Board for decisions, which would be made at public meetings where any person can offer testimony. Cultural Resources recommends approval or denial. Much like a jury at trial, the Preservation Board has authority to make its own decisions within the ordinance's well-defined instructions.

Local preservation law may seem byzantine, but again it really is a bottom-up operation. Local Historic Districts are designated by aldermen at the request of neighborhoods. In addition to making demolition protection clear, local districts enable design standards -- often written by neighborhood residents with some Cultural Resources input -- that mandate that new construction, replacement windows, fences, etc., maintain the character of a neighborhood. Not all local districts are created for the same reasons: the strict standards of Lafayette Square Historic District reflect neighborhood consensus that small details be regulated; the Ville Historic District's shorter list of rules and strong demolition guidelines reflect neighborhood concern that buildings not disappear without review.

This week's events surrounding the "Del Taco" building illustrate yet another way in which local preservation law ultimately is an expression of local popular will.

The Board of Aldermen and mayor have the legal power to enact ordinances that remove, modify or overturn the power of Cultural Resources and the Preservation Board. That almost happened this week with the Del Taco ordinance, but the bill that passed out of committee specifically says "any application for a demolition permit shall be referred to the Cultural Resources Officer and Preservation Board for review." The protections were bypassed in 2006 when the Board of Aldermen approved a redevelopment plan calling for demolition of St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church in Southwest Garden -- after the Preservation Board had denied a demolition permit with a 5-2 vote.

If the Del Taco bill confused people's understanding about historic preservation regulations, it was because it was designed as a way around them. Our local system, like that in other cities with preservation laws, is set up to make the rules clear to everyone. The trouble is that local lawmakers can always make more rules.

St. Louis City Board Bill 118

Architectural historian Michael Allen heads the Preservation Research Office, serves as board president of Modern STL and has long been involved with historic preservation in the St. Louis area.