Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Preserving the Tract Home: Historic Districts on the Rise

Preserving the Tract Home:
Historic Districts on the Rise

By Sara Schaefer Munoz
From The Wall Street Journal Online

As the real-estate market begins to cool, a growing number of homeowners are seeking to boost their property values by getting their neighborhoods designated as historic districts.

Local historic districts, which can trigger regulations on everything from window repair to demolitions, are proliferating across the United States. But the desire for historic designation has some communities touting characteristics with questionable preservation value. Homeowners in Denver say their neighborhood deserves historic designation because it is an early example of large front lawns. A Phoenix subdivision is seeking historic status because it says its ranch homes were the first in the city with central air conditioning.

Countrywide, there were about 34,400 local historic-district properties added to the books in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2005, up from about 17,000 in fiscal year 2000, according to estimates by the department of the National Parks Service that encourages local preservation. In the past two years, Memphis, Tenn., has doubled the number of neighborhood historic districts it usually adds. Los Angeles now has nearly a dozen communities working toward designation up from just a handful in 2000.

The push for historic designation is partly a reaction to a flurry of development that has brought enormous changes to many neighborhoods, as developers have demolished older homes to make way for new construction. (Historic designation usually imposes regulations on new building.) A boost to property values is another big motivation. Values of homes in historic areas in Memphis, Tenn., rose 14% to 23% higher then those in non-historic areas, according to a 2005 study by researchers at Penn State and Rutgers Universities. A similar study of homes in Texas found historic designation was associated with value increases of between 5% and 20% over similar, non-historic neighborhoods.

Experts say designation can affect home value because it leads to neighborhood pride and better upkeep of homes and yards. Most designations encourage repairs to be made with high-quality material, such as wood, rather than vinyl, and prevent a hodge-podge of styles by blocking any new construction that doesn't fit in. Historic designation can also bring financial incentives such as tax credits and matching grant programs for home maintenance. For example, homeowners in many California cities can save between 40% to 60% a year on property taxes with an historic-district designation. A matching-grants program in Scottsdale, Ariz., will reimburse homeowners in historic districts for 50% of the total cost of an improvement, up to $10,000.

But there are downsides to historic designation for many homeowners. Strict regulations on construction and home modification can make repairs costly and burdensome. The potential headaches are leading some homeowners to resist being included in a historic district. In Rockford, Ill., one resident recently led an unsuccessful charge to roll back part of a historic district after the town barred her from installing vinyl siding.

There are several types of historic designation: national, state and local. A spot on the National Register of Historic Places, while prestigious, is insufficient in preventing most alterations or demolitions. Local designations, however, create regulations written into local laws, which block major changes and can even dictate details like gutter repair and fence replacement. The process starts when districts are either identified by local planning departments or by groups of residents. The city, consultants or volunteers then survey the area, cataloguing properties and recommending boundaries. Most municipalities require a strong showing of support from district residents before becoming official.

Local preservation zeal has raised questions about what's worthy of designation. For example, the modest homes in Lincoln Heights and Highland Park, some of Los Angeles' earliest neighborhoods, may be historically significant, but "are they worth preserving?" asks Christian Redfearn, a professor at the University of Southern California's School of Policy, Planning and Development. "Many people don't want 1,200-square-foot houses."

The prospect of higher property values spurred residents on the periphery of the 19th-century Chapin Park neighborhood in South Bend, Ind. to be included in a local historic zone. But one opponent said the historic quality of the fringe area -- which abuts a large medical center and includes mid-century homes -- is questionable. "I live across from a multi-level garage with a heliport," says Sharon Schierling, a university administrator. "Whatever historic character my house had at one time, it's pretty much gone now."

A group of energetic, determined residents is often critical to winning designation. In Phoenix, residents of the Westwood Village and Estates -- an area of modest, midcentury ranch homes -- are paying Arizona State University students $14,000 for an historical survey that city officials were too backlogged to conduct themselves. In addition to the claim that their homes are the first in the city with central air, they also point out on a Web site devoted to the neighborhood their status as one of the city's first planned subdivisions, with "small, box-like" and "L-shaped" brick homes. Says neighborhood association president Forest C. Slaght III, "Historical significance is in the eye of the beholder, much like art."

Officials are considering designation for a neighborhood in Riverside, California that includes minimal, depression-era architecture and so-called Hollywood driveways that have strips of grass running down their centers.

Local criteria for designation varies. Usually, codes draw on guidelines from the Secretary of the Interior, which say landmarks should have characteristics that individually or collectively represent historic or artistic significance, or are related to important historic people or events. Different cities have their own twist. St. Petersburg, Fla. for example, has special criteria for protecting early sidewalks made from hexagon-shaped concrete blocks, because officials say they lend unique character to the city. Denver will consider buildings erected as recently as 30 years ago.

If you are considering purchasing a home in any one of Phoenix's 36 Historic Districts, you need a Real Estate Agent who specializes in historic Phoenix properties. Call Laura Boyajian, aka, Laura B. today at 602.400.0008. You can also visit her historic Phoenix website at:



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