The Threat of Landmark Lawlessness

Chicago ruling roils waters

The vagueness with which Chicago's landmark ordinance is written may spoil preservation efforts nationwide if a Cook County judge rules soon as expected.

"The case has jolted historic preservationists around the country, and for good reason," Blair Kamin wrote this week at Cityscapes. "The seven standards by which Chicago evaluates potential landmarks - evidence of important architecture, connection with a historic event, and so on - differ little from the criteria used by other American cities."

If Chicago’s law falls, could ordinances in New York or Los Angeles also be toppled?

The Illinois Appellate Court ruled in January that the ordinance was unconstitutional. The state Supreme Court denied an appeal last week, sending the case back to Cook County Circuit Court.

"Already, property rights advocates are using the case as ammunition to shoot down landmark laws they believe to be overly vague," Kamin notes. "In April, for example, two Seattle property owners cited the Chicago case as they fought to overturn a city landmarks board ruling denying their request to erect three single-family homes on the sloping front lawn of a protected, turn-of-the-century home."

The other side of the debate, as expressed in part by Blogging Georgetown, a Seattle area Web site that has followed the case Kamin mentions, is this: "Because as far as property rights goes, it is okay for individual property owners to destroy amenities that add value to other people's properties."

Jonathan Fine, the executive director of Preservation Chicago, told the New York Times in March that “The fact is, Chicago could not exist without its landmark ordinance. It’s the line that holds us back from the Neanderthals.”

Kamin cites "seasoned legal observers" as saying the case - brought by two property owners challenging the East Village historic district near Wicker Park and the Arlington-Deming historic district in Lincoln Park - could go on for years.

"But if Chicago’s landmark law is ruled illegal," he writes, "watch out."

Steve Rhodes is the proprietor of The Beachwood Reporter, a Chicago-centric news and culture review.

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