Historic preservation, the ways cities and suburbs resist development projects, and property values

In a discussion of how historic preservation aligned with particular political interests in cities, a scholar describes how suburbanites resist development compared to those in cities:

Photo by PhotoMIX Company on Pexels.com

The peculiar yet profound way in which historic preservation bound together issues of aesthetics, finance, and urban change is key to understanding why its popularity grew so rapidly in the middle of the 20th century. It also explains why a culture of historic preservation took root in some places more than others. Most suburbs—like the one on Long Island where Geller I once stood—relied on a different set of tools to stop development, such as open-space requirements and zoning codes that limited the number of new homes. To this day, historic preservation remains a less potent force in such places, largely because these other rules ensure that homes like Geller I are unlikely to be replaced by anything but McMansions. In cities with significant numbers of old buildings, however, preservation became an essential part of the process by which communities fended off urban-redevelopment projects.

While historic preservation does take place in the suburbs (and will come for McMansions at some point), it does not occur at the same level as in cities. As noted above, suburbs are not likely to approve significant changes to local zoning or buildings. Neighbors and residents will complain about changes to traffic, noise, lighting, and the character of a neighborhood in a way that tends to limit what a redeveloped property will be.

Cities also have zoning regulations and NIMBY responses to new structures but the presence of more buildings and uses in denser areas can make this all more complicated. Particularly in areas where redevelopment is hot, a new building might be very different than what has stood there for a long time.

But, as the article notes, historic preservation can be a tool used in a lot of places to halt plans:

Historic preservation not only gave this process of hyper-gentrification an imprimatur of political and legal legitimacy it might otherwise have lacked, but also continues to enable it in the present day. The LPC’s own website still notes that one of the purposes of New York’s landmarks law is to “stabilize and improve property values.” While the commission’s press releases paint an image of a body focused on protecting a diverse new array of buildings, the historic districts that already exist are, right now, a significant intervention in the city’s real-estate markets, whose main beneficiaries are the people who own land within them. Nor is this dynamic unique to New York. In California, wealthy cities like Pasadena and Palo Alto have recently tried to expand their landmarking powers in order to circumvent a new state law encouraging the construction of sorely needed housing. Simsbury, Connecticut, which is 87 percent white, just finalized a sale of nearly 300 acres to a land trust—killing an affordable-housing project in the process—on the premise that the site is historically significant because Martin Luther King Jr. once worked there. In Washington, preservationists have long tried to block the redevelopment of a water-filtration plant that hasn’t been used in 35 years on the basis that it is historically significant.

And perhaps this gets at the heart of the matter: whether using zoning or historic preservation, one of the goals of American residents is to enhance property values. Sonia Hirt argues that protecting single-family homes and their values is a primary goal of zoning in the United States. In a system that prizes the growth of home values, perhaps historic preservation plays a similar role.

Preserve a McMansion to help combat climate change

As part of an argument against demolishing buildings, McMansions should also be preserved to help address ecological challenges:

Photo by Darya Sannikova on Pexels.com

Anyone interested in mediating the worst ongoing outcomes of the present climate catastrophe must also disconnect the idea of development from our notion that it proceeds only in cycles of demolition and new construction—a pattern that prevails because it is maximally legible to our existing structures of debt, financialization, and speculation. About 80 percent or more of a typical new house’s lifetime ecological and energetic impact comes through the operations of initial material extraction, manufacturing, transportation, and construction; and then of eventual demolition, further transportation, and decay. Sustainable buildings are therefore not new buildings—however fuel-efficient their machines and materials. Sustainable buildings are buildings that have been sustained. Merely by being seventy-five years old and in working order, Geller I was radically sustainable. For that matter, any dumb 1990s McMansion down the block is almost as ecologically precious as Geller I. That McMansion’s judicious conservation, too, is part of ecological stewardship.

This kind of conservation comes not by preserving any one house exactly as it is, but by shifting from a fantasy of perpetual newness or untouchable oldness to the best practices that Gropius and Breuer cherished in old New England farmhouses: renovation, addition, retrofitting, and all manner of adaptive reuse that allows ever more lively and dignified density. The model of development becomes less one of the sudden appearance and disappearance of structures, and more one of continuous emendation and repair. Not incidentally, this affords ever more innovative ways of living intergenerationally and integratively—rather than dwelling in the built residue of past generations’ conventions about how families and communities ought to live.

Demolition and rebuilding takes a lot of resources. Additionally, rehabbing existing homes can help keep the character of a neighborhood or community consistent.

The twist above is that this might be the preferred course for McMansions. Such homes are not usually renowned for their architectural quality. Critics are not fans of the ways in which they were constructed, their drain on resources, and their ongoing presence.

I have argued before that at least a few McMansions will be preserved, at the least to mark a particular era and design. Preserving them to help combat climate change moving forward might be a unique feature of this decade.

Residents, local leaders oppose a plan to redevelop a struggling suburban mall with 560 apartments and several businesses

Charlestowne Mall in St. Charles, Illinois has struggled in recent years (earlier posts here and here). Yet, when a developer proposed adding 500 apartments to the property, residents and local leaders did not like the idea:

Google Street View

Plans were to raze the majority of the largely vacant mall to make way for 560 apartments and townhouses, a hotel, new restaurants and retail spaces along East Main Street…

“It’s a good plan but the question is, is this the best use of space?” 2nd Ward Alderman Ryan Bongard said at the meeting. “In speaking with constituents, they don’t want to see 500 apartments.”

On Friday, St. Charles Mayor Lora Vitek confirmed the developers have pulled out of the project. The partnership of S.R. Jacobson Development Corporation and Lormax Stern Development Company LLC had previously entered into a purchase agreement for the former Charlestowne Mall property with current owners The Krausz Companies LLC.

In December 2017, Krausz closed Charlestowne’s interior shops and enclosed mall space at the center. Anchors Von Maur and Classic Cinemas Charlestowne 18 remains…

“That’s the overwhelming comment that I have heard through the city council,” Vitek said. “And I do believe that we can try to accomplish that. We shouldn’t settle. We’ve got a lot going for us. We know there needs to be more people here and we’re going to bring residential, but there needs to be a balance over there, too. The east side is very important to our town, but we do want to see the right fit.”

On one hand, I can understand this common suburban concern: if you eliminate commercial property and rezone it for other uses, will you ever get the same amount of money in tax revenues from the property? A successful shopping mall or entertainment area brings in sales tax revenue in addition to paying property taxes.

On the other hand, this particular shopping mall has languished for years. Shopping malls in general face big issues and many will not survive. There are only so many suburban entertainment districts that will work. A willing developer wants to build a mix of residences and businesses and it is not enough?

Here is my guess about what scuttled this project: suburbanites do not often like the idea of hundreds of apartments, particularly when they are located in a community that sees itself as full of nice single-family homes. Apartment dwellers are looked at with suspicion. Apartments threaten the single-family home nature of the community as they can increase traffic, bring more kids to local schools, and threaten local property values. Even expensive apartments are not desirable in large numbers.

As St. Charles does not “settle” for this kind of proposal, what better option will come along?

The fate of church buildings when thousands of churches cease operating

A new book addresses the fate of church buildings when congregations end:

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Dominic Dutra, author of “Closing Costs,” a new book about how church property can be repurposed, says there are thousands of churches around the country that have closed or will likely close in the years to come. And too often, he said, leaders of those churches put off any discussion about what to do with their building until it’s too late.

“I’ve had situations where buildings are empty and they have no plan at all,” he said.

A 2021 study from Lifeway Research, based on data from three-dozen denominations, found that 4,500 churches closed in 2019, while only 3,000 were started. The 2021 Faith Communities Today study found that the median worship attendance for churches in the U.S. dropped from 137 people to 65 people over the past two decades.

Dutra argues that billions of dollars in church property could be put to work for ministry ­— if church leaders become proactive about the future. He has worked with a number of religious groups to do just that.

The numbers cited above are interesting: prior to COVID-19, more churches closed than opened. Additionally, the data from the survey is consistent with the National Congregations Study run over the last two decades regarding the median size of churches.

This is one area that my co-author Robert Brenneman and I did not address as much as we could have in our 2020 book Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures. One of the later chapters looks at the fate of church buildings in the Chicago area. We found big differences across four denominations and a number of church buildings put to other uses. Church building are used in a variety of ways, including used by new congregations, converted into housing or commercial space, razed, and preserved.

Based on the description of the book in the article above, my guess is the recommendation is that church buildings no longer housing congregations can be put to other faith uses. There is certainly opportunity, ranging from serving new congregations to housing non-profits or parachurch organizations to being home to community centers.

Keep the suburban shopping mall alive by charging current shoppers an extra 1% tax

Leaders in Skokie, Illinois want to approve a new 1% tax for purchases at Old Orchard mall in order to help keep the shopping mall going:

Photo by Demian Smit on Pexels.com

Skokie lawmakers during their Feb. 7 village board meeting voted 7 to 1 to make the mall a “business district,” under Illinois’ Business District Development and Redevelopment Sales Tax provision, allowing businesses there to charge an extra 1% sales tax. The board will take a final vote on the proposal in March.

The $5 million generated annually by the additional 1% sales tax will be used by Westfield to do about $120 million in upgrades and rehabs in the mall, which is the largest tax generator in the village.

Mayor George Van Dusen said the new tax and upgrades are essential if the mall is going to remain viable…

Creating a “business district” includes designating the area as “blighted” to facilitate development and redevelopment by imposing an additional tax, Village Manager John Lockerby told the board.

“The viability of the mall is critical to the community, applicable school districts as well as other units of government,” he said, adding that the initiative will set the mall up for long-term success.

Shopping malls, in general, are struggling and not all will survive. This move is intended to help keep Old Orchard going amid tough conditions with COVID-19 and online retail.

But, this is an interesting choice. Here is a few reasons why:

  1. It takes money from private consumers to fund private development through and to ensure local tax monies. The profits go to the mall developers and the community benefits from ongoing tax revenues, jobs, and shopping opportunities. Would this be appropriately termed a “public-private partnership” or a “taxpayer subsidized” project?
  2. As the article notes elsewhere, other communities could use similar tactics to establish “business districts” and keep their own shopping centers alive. Does this just keep the competition going?
  3. The goal is to keep the mall going because it is already there. Is it a sunk cost? What other good might be done in the community with $5 million annually?

The importance of a 35 acre property for sale in the middle of the built-out suburbs

What are the stakes when a 35 acre horse farm is for sale in the middle of a mature and built-out suburbia?

Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

In recent weeks, the Bolger family, which owns the Gladstone Ridge horse farm on Leask Lane in Wheaton, asked area homebuilders for bids to develop the property. And on Tuesday, the Forest Preserve District’s board voted unanimously to authorize district staff to pursue negotiations with the Bolger family to buy the horse farm.

While no purchase price has yet been determined, some recently developed subdivisions in the immediate vicinity have sold for between $275,000 and close to $500,000 an acre, suggesting that the Bolger family could expect to reap between about $10 million and $17 million for the land from a developer…

“We have not expressed an interest in selling the property to the Forest Preserve (District) and hope you are not of a mind to condemn our property,” she told commissioners. “Please value the rights of our private property and practice open communication.” Forest preserve districts use condemnation to purchase land through eminent domain…

Forest Preserve District officials haven’t yet said publicly if they would consider using condemnation powers to acquire the farm now if they are unable to reach an agreement with the Bolger family. And Wheaton officials said that they have not yet been approached by a developer seeking to develop the Bolgers’ land.

It sounds like the property could go two directions right now: (1) sale to a developer, who would likely build expensive residential units in an exclusive residential area, and (2) (forced?) sale to the Forest Preserve who has aggressively pursued property in DuPage County for decades.

More broadly, properties of this size do not come available often in suburbs that are older and largely built-out. Bigger properties tend to be emerge when redevelopment is a possibility. For example, just a few miles away in Naperville is a part of a large office park where a developer wanted to add several hundred residential units. Or, office parks in the I-90 corridor can become mixed-use properties.

This is different than noting decades ago that the last farms were disappearing from DuPage County. At that point, the farms disappeared to new subdivisions that continued the process of mass suburbanization. Redeveloping a horse farm or an office park or another large property now is different: it does not occur under conditions of mass construction, there are neighbors to the property who likely have concerns, and municipalities and other government agencies think carefully about what the next use for a property could be. The character of the nearby neighborhoods and communities are already established yet a sizable redevelopment could alter future experiences. In other words, when larger parcels of land are infrequent, the stakes for getting this right may be even higher.

A developer describes the difficulty in redeveloping a suburban shopping mall

A developer describes the challenges they face in planning a new future for what used to be Charlestowne Mall in St. Charles, Illinois:

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

“The redevelopment of a vacant enclosed mall is one of the most difficult undertakings in real estate development,” he said. “The Wall Street Journal ran an article a few weeks ago describing how none of the options for a mall makeover are easy. Conversions to other uses are complex and capital intensive. Unless there is a great shortage of land in an area, most developers would much prefer to buy land and avoid the expense, time and complexity of tearing down an old mall.”…

He said the challenge is to figure out how to redevelop the mall in an economically feasible way that pays for an estimated $35 million in redevelopment costs while maintaining the existing commercial uses during reconstruction and satisfying the city’s desires for something that will serve the needs of the residents of St. Charles.

The developers plan to initially foot the bill for those redevelopment costs. But to make the project financially feasible, he said a tax increment financing district will have to be put in place…

“A tax increment financing district must be established to pay over time for the estimated $35 million cost of demolition and reconstruction of site improvements that are necessary to accommodate many uses for the property,” he said. “This is exactly the purpose for which TIFs were created. Without a TIF, the redevelopment of the mall is not financially possible.”

In addition, he said a revenue stream must be created to pay for the project’s costs. After analyzing the situation, the developers said the revenue stream must come primarily from real estate taxes generated from at least 500 residential units.

The American shopping mall is in bad shape. Redevelopment ideas have been circulating for years and malls have added restaurants, entertainment options, and housing. But, as the above suggests, this is not necessarily an easy task. Shopping malls were supposed to be good for communities, providing shopping, a place to gather, and tax revenue. Redevelopment offers the possibility of a brighter future but it requires work.

It is not surprising to hear that a developer wants help in redeveloping the property. This will help them make money. It is common practice in many communities to offer such help, particularly for important properties. At the same time, this property has some value. Malls are typically located on valuable land, often at the confluence of major roads and adjacent to other shopping and restaurants but also possibly near housing. Would a TIF and other incentives make sure the developer sees a profit or has a bigger profit?

Considering this proposal is part of a long process. See earlier posts about the troubled Charlestowne Mall here and here. Trying to revive a mall, finding a developer to significantly alter the property, and then seeing how it all works can take years. This particular mall may only be in the relatively early stages of this with years to come before residents and visitors see a transformed location.

Sears in decline leads to another large available suburban office campus

Sears recently closed its last department store in Illinois and just announced that their large suburban campus will soon be up for sale:

Photo by Hugo Magalhaes on Pexels.com

The Hoffman Estates campus features a 2.3 million-square-foot corporate office and 273 acres, including 100 acres of undeveloped land. It was home to more than 4,000 Sears employees as recently as 2017, according to company filings…

When Sears Tower opened in 1973, it was the world’s tallest building, a fitting corporate home for the nation’s largest retailer. Sears left its namesake home in 1992, moving its corporate headquarters to Hoffman Estates and selling the tower two years later. In 2009, the name of the building was changed to Willis Tower as part of the deal for the London-based insurance firm to lease office space there.

Sears is not the only corporate mainstay to pull up stakes recently and put its suburban campus on the market.

Last month, insurance giant Allstate reached an agreement to sell its longtime headquarters in unincorporated Northbrook for $232 million to an industrial developer that plans to turn the 232-acre corporate campus into a massive logistics facility.

And what will happen to these properties? There are multiple options including:

  1. Staying as office or corporate space. Could there be another company or organization who would want this property? A suburb can spend a long time looking for a comparable replacement.
  2. Redevelop the land as a mixed-use development. See “The Metroburb” not too far way created from a former Bell Labs facility. This is a trendy approach that mixes commercial or office uses with residences.
  3. Convert the property to housing. There is demand for new housing in attractive suburbs and large tracts of land do not come open often.

Making this choice will require negotiation and conversation between the parent company of Sears, potential buyers, municipal leaders, residents, and others (which could include regional officials and actors in the real estate world). The whole process could take years and the outcome might retain some hint of the Sears headquarters or it might not.

What can happen when residents move to be near a golf course and then the golf course shuts down and becomes overgrown

The icing on the cake may be the “spite fence” but the broader story is an interesting one to consider: residents want to be near a golf course but then the golf course is no more and becomes a problem.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The Villages at West Neck was also Foster’s baby. He developed the community of 934 homes for ages 55 and older to complement the golf course. Its serene streets are lined with neatly manicured lawns and ranch houses…

About six months after the golf course closed, in the spring of 2020, W.C. Capital bought it in foreclosure. The company was organized in New Mexico, but it’s unknown who owns it. The sole member is a citizen of Florida, according to Attorney John McIntyre of Norfolk, the company’s registered agent. McIntyre declined to identify the owner.In the beginning, W.C. Capital sporadically mowed the golf course grounds, but it wasn’t as frequent as when the golf course was operating, Luckman said…

Residents rallied to try to save the golf course and formed an advisory committee. They reached out to a local, prominent developer to see if he would consider buying it. They tossed around the idea of the homeowners association stepping up, Luckman said. It would require millions of dollars just to restore it, let alone buy it.

Over the summer, the City of Virginia Beach sued W.C. Capital for not maintaining the golf course property. A bench trial is scheduled for April 2022, according to Deputy City Attorney Christopher Boynton.

In July, W.C. Capital met with Virginia Beach’s planning staff to propose developing senior living apartments on the golf course land. It would require a change in zoning; the land is zoned for preservation. At the urging of the staff, the company has held meetings with residents to garner feedback.

This is a classic issue that residents might face: they move to a neighborhood or community and then that same place changes. Here, a golf course is a sizable feature as it offers green space, relatively undeveloped land, higher property values, and opportunities to play golf for those interested. Filling the space left by a golf course is not necessarily easy for communities.

To some degree, all places change over time. People move in and out, outside conditions change, leaders make decisions. Few places can remain frozen in time.

And regardless of the change, it can be a difficult process for the property in transition and neighbors. The place is changing, developing a new character. Some people will leave in response, some will stay, others will fight the changes.

If indeed the property ends up becoming senior living apartments, in a decade or two the golf course may be a distant memory. The neighbors will move on. The new residents may only hear word of the former land use. The community will go on. But, the memories and experiences of that golf course may still linger among residents and the community even if its physical forms are long gone.

Arlington Heights and many other suburbs: looking for downtown redevelopment and independence from the big city

With the possibility of a Chicago Bears stadium in the suburb of Arlington Heights, Illinois, the Chicago Tribune profile of the community highlights changes in the suburb:

More than 150 years ago, the 19th-century farming community’s prosperity was inextricably tied to its proximity to the railroad line, which served as a trading hub bolstering the town’s agrarian economy. By the 1920s, the community would become home to professionals boarding commuter trains headed to and from the city.

Despite many of those residents working at home these days as a result of the pandemic, the Union Pacific Northwest line dissecting the village of 77,000 residents is still viewed as an economic engine. But Arlington Heights is no longer beholden to the fortunes of Chicago, making the prospect of a Bears stadium in town interesting, yet not essential…

Embracing change has been a recipe for success for the revitalization of downtown Arlington Heights, which like central business districts across the U.S., was languishing in the 1970s and ’80s after mom and pop businesses were devastated by shopping malls and big-box stores, said Charles Witherington-Perkins, the village’s director of planning and community development…

To build the Arlington Heights of today, crafting a new downtown master plan was only the first step. In order to execute the vision, officials needed to loosen building height and density restrictions — stringent regulations that were making it impossible to create an economically and aesthetically vibrant downtown, Witherington-Perkins said…

The contingent of new residents arriving in Arlington Heights — many of whom were commuters attracted to the complex’s proximity to the Metra station — ushered in a surge of downtown residential and retail development that has served as a model for neighboring communities along the Metra line.

Take out the name of Arlington Heights and a few other regional details, and this story might be told for dozens of suburbs in the Chicago region as well as dozens more outside of older American big cities. Here are a few of the common features:

  1. A founding before mass suburbanization. Communities were small, farming was a primary industry, and the railroad was very important for the initial mass of people at that spot.
  2. Mass suburbanization of the twentieth century brought many residents and changes.
  3. Revitalizing suburban downtowns became a priority in the last four decades as competition from shopping malls and strip malls moved business activity away.
  4. This revitalization included adding residential units in denser structures.
  5. As noted elsewhere in this article, these choices about downtown redevelopment often involved choosing more expensive housing units rather than affordable housing. Even when cases went to court (as one did in Arlington Heights), relatively few affordable housing units were created in these denser suburban areas. This leaves Arlington Heights as wealthy and whiter.
  6. This theoretically means the community is more independent from Chicago with its own ecosystem of residential and commercial life downtown and in the suburb.

Does all of this add up to a new state-of-the-art stadium with a multi-billion dollar price tag being constructed in the suburb? That may be a separate issue given how few stadiums are in even large metropolitan areas and the sizable available property at play here.

Is Arlington Heights now truly independent of Chicago and self-sufficient? I would prefer to consider metropolitan regions as a whole as the fate of particular suburbs are connected both to the health of the big city and the suburbs. While a Bears stadium in Arlington Heights will be discussed as a win for the suburb (mostly – as the article notes, some residents oppose it) and a loss for the city of Chicago, the team and the benefits that come with it are still in the region.

Yet, it is worth noting that how the changing suburb understands itself is important. No longer a small farming community, Arlington Heights likely views itself as ambitious and making choices today to help secure its future success. A denser downtown provides a different experience than a bedroom suburb strictly made up of single-family homes. A Bears stadium would put them on the map in a way that few other nearby suburbs could equal. What Arlington Heights is and will be depends on choices made and responses from all of the actors involved.