Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Will this be a landmark? How might I know?

    Imagine that you’re on the landmark commission of a big city with a lot of architectural history – say, Chicago.  What would you prefer as criteria for designating landmarks or landmark districts?  You’d like a lot of flexibility, of course, to include places as disparate as the famous industrial gothic Water Tower, a neighborhood of prairie-style bungalows, a 1950s modernist office tower, and baseball’s Wrigley Field.  You’d like the criteria to include broad terms such as “significant,” “important,” and “distinctive.”  This way, you’d have broad discretion to designate as landmarks a variety of places.      
    But now imagine that you’re a citizen considering the purchase of a brick row house in a typical old urban Chicago neighborhood.  You like the narrow house, but you have long-term hopes of knocking down some interior walls (you don’t have five kids, like families did a century ago) and expand into the small backyard.  How might you know whether your neighborhood will be designated as a “landmark district,” which might severely restrict your ability to alter “your” house (which, if designated, would in effect be co-owned between yourself and the landmark commission)?     
    The dilemma of the landowner certainly spurred an Illinois Appellate Court to hold last month that Chicago’s landmark ordinance, to the extent it relies on the terms mentioned above, is “vague, ambiguous, and overly broad.”  (An earlier version of the decision is here; the case is Hanna v. City of Chicago, Ill. App. Ct., 1st Dist., 5th Div., No. 1-07-3548.)  Moreover, the intermediate-level court held, in reversing a dismissal by a trial court, that the criteria for membership on the landmark commission are too vague and unintelligible.
    The case almost certainly will be heard by the Supreme Court of Illinois, and I expect the high court to hold that the standards are acceptable (after all, so much of administrative law uses vague terminology in its grants).  It seems close to impossible to delineate with specificity all the various factors that make places historically or aesthetically worthy of landmark designation.  But this does not change the open-ended incentive of landmark commissions across the nation to designate more and more landmarks (after all, why not, unless the owners affected are politically powerful?) and does nothing to help our imaginary prospective buyer in her dilemma ….

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