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How Columbia’s Historic Preservation Commission Works

How Columbia’s Historic Preservation Commission Works

 

The Historic Preservation Commission works like a boxing trainer: When its bruised fighters return to the corner, the commission coaches them up and sends them back out for another round. The HPC hollers from behind the ropes. It watches and analyzes and mimics the punches without actually doing the punching, which is left to community activists, petition signers, City Council members and property owners. Limited by its charter in the city code, the HPC’s job is only to train: to say what is worth fighting for and how to fight for it.

 

In this metaphor, Columbia’s HPC is a veteran, grizzled by controversy and hungry to win its fight. Downtown Columbia’s historic image, which has been subject to recent debate among developers and preservationists, is largely the product of a historic preservation campaign over the past 15 years. But the ideals of historic preservation have recently conflicted with property rights of downtown business owners: If a building is bound by the obligation to look historic, then it may lose the value it would have as a redevelopment site.

Most of the downtown Broadway corridor was altered in favor of a “modern” look in the 1960s, which meant covering the buildings with a thick concrete canopy and eradicating the old-fashioned store-fronts. Likewise, owners of the Virginia Building, on Ninth and Cherry, modernized by thinning the windows, plastering metal siding on the exterior walls and remodeling to, according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, “create the feeling of an indoor mall.”

The historic look was restored in the mid-2000s, spurred by individual business owners.

The first building to tear down its section of concrete canopy was Tucker Jewelry, owned by current HPC chair Robert Tucker.

This culminated in downtown’s designation as a nationally registered historic district, which allowed for developers to remodel using historic preservation tax breaks.
All this also coincided with the maturation of the HPC. The commission was created in 1998 to advocate for historic preservation in the community, and it was succeeding.

“We don’t have any teeth in our ordinance, as we like to say,” Patrick Earney says. Earney works as a structural engineer at Trabue, Hansen & Hinshaw in north Columbia. He applied to be on the Historic Preservation Commission in 2008 through a company initiative that encouraged participation in the community.

“There are cities that do have teeth: Kansas City, Independence, St. Louis,” he says. “In St. Louis, they can flat out deny a demolition.”

Kansas City’s HPC reviews all applications for exterior changes to historic buildings or landmarks, and if it doesn’t like the changes, the developer can’t get a permit — though the developer still has to pay the application fee. Independence gives a similar privilege to its Heritage Commission but stretches its powers to include the power to refuse changes to fencing, trees and driveways. St. Louis’ Preservation Board reviews all demolition applications, a process that can get stuck in appeals and, as Earney says, result in dilapidated structures that the board blocks demolitions.

But Earney is right in saying the HPC’s ordinance doesn’t allow for much authority. The committee’s only legislative power is recommendation: If the HPC wants to stop a demolition, it has 30 days to investigate, build a case and then explain to the City Council why a building shouldn’t be demolished. The HPC also recommends policy to the city’s planning department, whom the commission serves under. Neither group always listens. Council allowed for demolition of Shakespeare’s, against the HPC’s recommendation, and Earney says the planning department blocked the HPC’s request for ordinance changes a year and a half ago. “We pulled out anything substantive so they wouldn’t flat out deny it,” he says. “We wanted to go up against a Planning and Zoning Commission that was more friendly to change.”

The HPC is preparing to reengage in the expansion process, but Earney doesn’t think it’ll succeed this time either; the planning department still sees too much value in property rights. If Columbia’s HPC, for instance, could deny a demolition permit for Shakespeare’s, then the owners of that property would lose all the value of potential develop-ment on the site.

The HPC, given its limited influence on legislation, wields influence in other ways: it worked with the Public Works Council to develop downtown’s brick streets policy, it named historic properties around town, it surveys Columbia’s historic assets, and it was one of several groups to weigh in on downtown’s controversial zoning changes developed and proposed over the past two years. Earney adds the commission also leads walking tours around the city’s historic areas, including downtown. Earney himself led a tour of the brick streets.

“We try to do positive things,” he says. “It would be easy to show up every month and just whine and tell everybody, ‘No, no, no,’” he says. “It would be really easy to be that commission, but then the general public would backlash against you.”

With no teeth, the general public is the HPC’s most significant asset. If it can galvanize the public to be passionate about historic preservation, the logic goes, then the general public will elect and influence a council that takes the commission’s suggestions seriously. It also moves some of the HPC’s leverage from the public sector to the private, allowing it to circumvent council’s decisions, as happened with the Niedermeyer apartment building. In 2011, that building was slated for demolition to build student housing. The HPC, among others, vocally opposed the demolition and convinced the public of the building’s historic value (Mark Twain gave a speech in front of the fireplace). all the effort resulted in a University of Missouri math professor purchasing the building and saving it from demolition.

The commission also counts tentative success in the fact that the vacant and boarded-up icehouse is still standing at the corner of Providence and Broadway.

“We raised a big stink about that,” Earney says. “Not because that building is phenomenally worth saving — the little brick one is, but the other one just happens to be old — but we’ve been working with CVS to try to get them to put in something that complements the area rather than conflicts with it. and that gets the ball rolling in the community and gets people to say, ‘Look, if you change the character of something, you change it forever.’”

Earney goes on to cite the William Jewell house, which is now the site of a Commerce Bank branch downtown.

“William Jewell used to live in Columbia,” Earney says. “You know how many people know that? Very few because William Jewell’s house isn’t there anymore.”
Columbia still has the Jewell family cemetery, a nationally registered historic landmark.

“Yeah, it’s nationally recognized, and now it’s surrounded by an apartment complex and a Waffle House,” Earney says. Earney’s objection points to a difficult problem: What qualifies as historic? If the cemetery is still standing, then to what extent should the land around it be preserved?

For Earney, a building’s architecture can make it historic. He says modern architects
don’t have the same appreciation for exterior aesthetics. He also cites the “character” of an area — a term that evades precise definition.

Brian Treece, the current co-chair and former chair of the HPC, falls back on similar terms to describe historic value. When speaking about Shakespeare’s, he talks about the “vibe” and “embodied energy” of the restaurant.

“There’s something about eating pizza in an old Laundromat that just makes it taste better,” Treece says. Treece works at Treece Phillips LLC in Jefferson City, which provides strategic communication for legislators, corporations and anyone else who needs it. Like five of the six other members of the HPC, he is an incumbent; there are staggered terms for members but no term limit. The only non-incumbent, Pat Fowler, worked with the HPC as a citizen volunteer before joining. Treece’s office is in the ground floor of a restored house, about a block and a half from the Missouri Capitol. The house was built in 1825, seven years before the Niedermeyer, by a Jefferson City surgeon; the upstairs was a residence, and downstairs was a surgical clinic. Treece likes old buildings.When interviewed for this article, Treece begins by walking down Main Street in Jefferson City. He visits a building that was once a power plant, bordered by an electric substation and a rail yard along the Missouri River.

The HPC’s ordinance has specific requirements for member occupations. The commission must have one person with a background in historic preservation; one with an expertise in real estate investment; and the other five must be from fields such as architecture, law, real estate appraisal, construction, engineering and general contracting and then an additional layperson interested in historic preservation.

Treece is the layperson. The old power plant isn’t a power plant anymore. a private developer bought the building and converted it to an event venue, with a stage, dance floor and indoor and outdoor bar. a bike shop occupies the lower level of the building. a small brick building on the side, Treece says, will be converted to a walk-through sandwich shop.

As he describes the building, having clearly done his homework, he draws a comparison to Columbia’s downtown.

“I hope that Columbia can use its imagination,” Treece says. “My concern is not that we’re losing buildings but that we’re losing the historic integrity of Columbia.”
Treece’s strategic communication skills go to use in convincing developers of the HPC’s cause, which means touting the economic benefits of historic preservation. In 2011, the HPC was given a grant from the state’s Historic Preservation department to direct an economic impact study. It was the first city-focused report of its kind in Missouri, and the HPC reported impressive numbers: $88 million in investment from historic preservation tax credits and more than 950 jobs created. Similar studies, however, have been deemed dubious over the past 15 years. a 2005 study from the Brookings Institution said more data was needed to determine the value of historic preservation on economic activity. a 2011 report delivered to the advisory Council on Historic Preservation concluded the same thing.

In an email, MU economics chair David Mandy said: “To really answer the question, one would have to empirically study the effects of tax breaks with enough data to plausibly isolate their effects … these debates often take place in a world of claims and counterclaims, without solid analysis to estimate the real effects.”

Debate over preservation’s value and its impact on property rights has intensified in recent years during Columbia’s downtown development boom. Treece is the former chair and current vice chair of the HPC, but for someone so involved in a public conflict, he seems remarkably placid about it. When asked if he feels frustrated by the HPC’s toothlessness, Treece furrows his brow.

“If City Council wants to make a change to Columbia’s zoning code, that’s up to them and the people that elect them,” he says. “I’m not frustrated. I think that, given their track record, the commission has done very well.”

Things that could be categorized as losses by the HPC — such as the demolition of the Shakespeare’s building — tend to boomerang to expand the commission’s public influence. Its current 30-day review period for all demolitions only came about because the Odon Guitar mansion, a Civil War-era house in north Columbia, was demolished in 2008 to appropriate the dirt underneath the building for nearby roadwork. That demolition gave the HPC leverage for a 10-day review period for historic demolitions; destruction of the Annie Fisher house, in 2011, pushed the review period to 30. Before that, Treece says, demolition applications were almost universally accepted. as he puts it, you could walk into the city office, fill out an application and then walk out and go tear down the building.

Chris Campbell, director of the Boone County Historical Society, holds the view that the HPC most wants to effect: one of an increased but balanced authority over Columbia’s buildings.

“What I hope comes out of current conversations is policies, which seem to be light or nonexistent at the moment, that give a little more time to look and investigate certain projects,” he says. “The HPC is really the only body the city has to lean on for these opinions. In some cases, they may review and find that a building is not really as historic as everyone thinks.”

Despite having its budget cut by $7,000 (42 percent of its total) this year, the HPC is still the highest-funded commission in the city government. although it continues to eye expansions, the HPC’s teeth don’t yet cut sharply.

As Campbell says, the HPC is the city’s only authority for defining what is and is not historic. For the time being, this influence is kept in check by its limited ordinance. But, as was the case with the Guitar mansion, the commission hopes to move from boxing trainer to prizefighter with each new controversy.

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