Odds good for historic conservation district on near west side of Bloomington

Annotated R Map HISTORIC DISTRICT Historicxxxx

At its committee-of-the-whole meeting last Wednesday—the day after municipal elections were held in two city council districts—the Bloomington city council’s deliberations included the outcome of a different kind of public vote.

A referendum among the owners of 325 properties in the proposed Near West Side Conservation District came out 70-47 in favor of establishing the district. It’s the area roughly bounded on the north by the railroad right-of-way alongside Butler Park, on the south by Kirkwood Avenue and on the west by North Adams.

The council’s vote on Wednesday to recommend (to itself) approval of the conservation district was 8–0. The conservation district is planned to be taken up for a council vote at it’s Dec. 4 meeting. Based on the committee vote, it can be expected to pass.

Another, future vote among property owners, to be taken three years after the district is approved, will determine whether the district remains a conservation district or is elevated to a historic district. Unless a majority of property owners object, the conservation district automatically converts to a historic district.

In a historic district, any exterior alterations are subject to review by the city’s historic preservation commission (HPC). In a conservation district, it’s just moving or demolishing buildings, or constructing new buildings that are subject to HPC review.

The exact tally and procedure for the neighborhood referendum—which is not required under local law—seemed to factor less into the thinking of councilmembers than the merits they saw in establishing a local conservation district.

Conor Herterich, who’s the city’s historic preservation program manager, told councilmembers the area has already been a part of a national historic district since 1997. That prompted some councilmembers to wonder why it had not been put before them earlier, decades ago.

The district criteria that the area satisfies include its role in the development history and social heritage of the city and the inclusion of unique vernacular architectural styles that are in danger of being lost.

Herterich described the development history in terms of the Showers factory development—city hall is housed in one of the factory buildings. In the pre-automobile era, Herterich said, workers had to live close to the place where they were employed. So the area just west of the factory, which was a few small farms and scrub forest, was cleared and developed with houses.

The racially diverse population at the time was due to the corporate culture of Showers, Herterich said, which included the employment of African-Americans and women. Showers also had a mortgage-financing program to encourage home ownership, he said. The area includes civic buildings like Bethel AME Church and Second Baptist Church, which were attended primarily by African-Americans, Herterich said, and they should be preserved as a marker of that social heritage.

Councilmember Jim Sims, who is the council’s only black member, said the history of the neighborhood is really one of segregation. He used to live in the neighborhood.

Sims wanted to make sure that the fact was not lost that many people had not voted at all in the referendum and that there’d been some opposition to a conservation district. He described it as a “tug” within the neighborhood. Sims voted at the committee meeting in support of the district.

The legacy of segregation was something Vauhxx Booker talked about when he took the podium during public commentary. Booker said he thinks it’s possible that the district might have the effect of continuing that legacy, even though proponents had the best of intentions. He had concerns about the requirements that would be placed on property owners that could be cost prohibitive.

Booker also said he was a bit confused about the numbers provided in the tally on the referendum. They didn’t seem to add up.

Olivia Dorfman, who co-chaired the committee that put the proposal together, said that for the 325 properties, 261 ballots had been mailed out—it was based on people, not properties.

Herterich had explained in response to councilmember questions that if one person owns 10 properties, then they get just one vote. If a property is owned by two people, they each get a vote. It’s the way the city handles the three-year anniversary vote to determine if the district remains a conservation district or is elevated to a historic district. So the voluntary referendum was handled the same way, Herterich said.

Dorfman said of the 261 ballots sent out, 117 were returned, either by mail, in person or by SurveyMonkey.

The question of how voting rights are handled affected Chris Bomba, who owns several properties in the proposed district under the entity Joseph Christine LLC. He said during public commentary that if he owned the properties under differently named entities, it would mean he’d get more votes.

Bomba said he was not there to oppose the district, but has some concerns about the north side of Kirkwood Avenue, where his properties are located. He wondered how the commercial aspect of the corridor would be handled.

Councilmember Chris Sturbaum, who is also a member of the HPC, said the issue Bomba had identified would be handled with the guidelines that would eventually get established for the conservation district. That’s the way the process works, Sturbaum said—first the district gets established, then the HPC approves the guidelines.

Kirkwood was also the topic of a question from councilmember Andy Ruff, who wondered why the boundary had been drawn there, which includes the north side of Kirkwood. Part of the answer from Herterich was the fact that the 1997 nationally recognized district includes the north side of Kirkwood. The south side of Kirkwood is already included in a different locally recognized district, Greater Prospect Hill.

On the topic of the voluntary neighborhood referendum, councilmember Steve Volan said he did not agree with the implication that the number of people who didn’t vote somehow reflected a lack of transparency. The more than 40 percent of ballots that were returned was far greater than the participation in the previous day’s municipal elections, he said. Volan called the process that the organizing committee had used “excruciatingly transparent.”

Volan indicated he thought the designation as a conservation district might add a layer that could help alleviate concerns people might have about possible future development in that neighborhood.

During the review process for the unified development ordinance (UDO), the existing protections provided to buildings in conservation districts and historic districts have been used by those supporting greater central density as an argument for allowing accessory dwelling units, duplexes and triplexes in core neighborhoods.

The council will consider amendments to the UDO on ADUs and plexes starting Nov. 13.

Other upcoming city business related to the proposed New West Side Conservation District includes an appeal to be heard by the city’s zoning board of appeals on Nov. 21 by a property owner who was fined $83,500 by the city for demolishing a house inside the proposed new district.

The owner of the house at 523 W. 7th Street was seeking a zoning compliance permit to demolish the house. The application was under a demolition delay, because the house is rated as a “contributing structure” in the national district. The HPC had recommended to the city council that the house be considered for historic designation. The owner demolished the house before the council considered the recommendation. The fine was for demolishing the house without a zoning compliance permit.

At last Wednesday’s city council committee meeting, Herterich described how the establishment of a conservation district provides more protection than the city’s demolition delay process.

Under the demolition delay process, Herterich said there are only two options: allow demolition or designate the property as historic. The historic designation is a hard case to make, he said, and 97 percent of properties for which there’s a demolition delay get demolished.

But in a conservation district, a demolition needs a certificate of appropriateness. A certificate of appropriateness can be denied much easier than making the case for historic designation, Herterich said.

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