Conservation district math: Dec. 4 to mark conversion of Near West Side to historic district

Next Sunday (Dec. 4), Bloomington’s Near West Side conservation district will become a historic district.

That’s based on a city council decision that was made three years earlier. On a unanimous vote in December 2019, the council voted to establish the Near West Side as a conservation 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—shown in green in the maps that are included with this article.

At just under 100 acres, by land area, it will be the biggest historic district in Bloomington.

The difference between a conservation district and a historic district is more than just the label.

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.

No additional city council approval was needed to make the conversion next week. In historic preservation terms, the conversion is called an “elevation” of the conservation district to a historic district.

Under state statute and local law, the conversion to a historic district is automatic, unless enough property owners object in writing.

Among property owners who responded to a recent city poll, nearly three-quarters objected.

Responding to a question from The B Square, Bloomington’s historic preservation program manager Gloria Colom Braña indicated that 120 returned a ballot voting against the elevation, with 41 voting in favor.

But that’s not how a majority is determined for purposes of objecting to a conservation district elevation.

It’s not a majority of property owners who responded to the poll that have to object in order to prevent the elevation of the conservation district to a historic district. It’s a majority of property owners in the district who have to object.

For that majority to be achieved, 50 percent of the 373 owners in the district, or 187 property owners, would have had to object, according to Colom Braña. The 120 owners who objected fell 67 votes short of blocking the elevation of the conservation district to a historic district.

At an information session in June, hosted by the Near West Side Neighborhood Association, NWSNA board member Olivia Dorfman laid out the timing and the eligibility for balloting.

Under Bloomington city code, the timing for an objection has to come between 180 days and 60 days before the three-year anniversary date for the establishment of the conservation district. For the NWS conservation district, that translated into a window between June 7 and Oct. 5 this year.

That accounts for the dates on the mailings sent by the city to property owners. An initial ballot was sent, followed by a reminder postcard, according to Colom Braña.

At the information session, Dorfman also laid out who was eligible to vote. It’s property owners—whether they are owners of more than one property or part owners of a single property. That means if there are eight people on a deed, each one of eight people gets a vote, Dorfman said. But if someone owns 10 houses, they still get only one vote.

Three years ago, the establishment of the NWS conservation district was not controversial for the city council.

Then historic preservation program manager Conor Herterich described to the city council how the group of residents who had organized the effort to establish the conservation district had held the three legally required meetings. But the then they had decided to convene three additional meetings, based on various concerns that attendees had raised.

The organizers had also decided to hold a referendum on the question, which came out 70 in favor and 47 against (60 percent in favor), Herterich told the city council at a Nov. 6, 2019 committee meeting.

The NWS conservation district meet five of 10 possible criteria for designation, Herterich told the city council three years ago. The council’s meeting information packet summarizes those criteria like this

(A) Has significant character, interest, or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the city, state, or nation; or is associated with a person who played a significant role in local, state, or national history; or
Staff Recommendation: “because of its significant value as part of development of the city of Bloomington because it served as worker housing for people employed in the commercial and industrial businesses on the west side of town.”

(C) Exemplifies the cultural, political, economic, social or historic heritage of the community;
Staff Recommendation: “because it is linked to the progressive hiring policy of the Showers Furniture Factory which gave working class members of the community the opportunity to earn a living wage and establish homes in the Near West Side neighborhood. The district also protects many civic, religious, and residential structures that are important markers for understanding and celebrating Black history in Bloomington.”

(E) Contains any architectural style, detail, or other element in danger of being lost; or
Staff Recommendation: “because [it] protects a range of historic architectural forms and styles that are now in serious danger of being lost through demolition or neglect. As Bloomington’s largest collection of historic vernacular house types, the Near West Side includes multiple recognizable examples of shotgun, double pen, saddlebag, central passage, hall and parlor, and other traditional house forms that are becoming increasingly rare in the city.”

(F) Owing to its unique location or physical characteristics, represents an established and familiar visual feature of the city; or
Staff Recommendation: “because the narrow city streets, densely sited houses, historic architectural forms and styles, network of alleys, limestone retaining walls, brick sidewalks and mature trees all coalesce to form a familiar visual pattern that communicates the district’s early twentieth century origins.”

(G) Exemplifies the built environment in an era of history characterized by a distinctive architectural style.
Staff Recommendation: “because the built environment of the district, which includes the streetscape and buildings, maintains high integrity and still conveys the distinct architectural character from their period of construction.”