My overscheduled schedule this month included covering two meetings of the city Historic Preservation Commission.
Both meetings made me think the same thing: Under no circumstances would I ever own a building in a city historic district. It’s a good thing for Platteville that there are people who are willing to go through the multiple hoops to improve downtown buildings, or, as Steve’s Pizza Palace owner John Patakos is trying to do, build downtown.
(“Old business” could apply to another story this week, downtown parking, which may get covered in this space next week.)
It should be pointed out that the opinions here shouldn’t be construed as a personal attack on any member of the commission. (Differences in opinion weren’t previously considered personal attacks, but I feel the need to point this out in our hypersensitive, easily offended times.) This is about the commission as an arm (and, it must be said, unelected arm) of city government, which, according to the city website, “administers regulations concerning the exterior modification of properties that have been designated as locally historic. The Commission also provides various educational programs that are intended to provide guidance and assistance with property owners that are interested in preserving and rehabilitating their historic properties.”
I am coming to the conclusion that the city is officially confused about the difference between “historic” and “old.” You can read yourself the city’s Historic Preservation page at http://platteville.org/?sc=Services&cat=94. That’s one side; the other is that a building exists for the purpose of whatever activity, or activities, for which the building was designed and built. The next step from that is that when a building is unable to serve those activities, or new activities, the building has reached the end of its use and should be able to be replaced. That is the rejoinder to those who opine that too many buildings considered historic or unique — for instance, the former funeral home where Hartig Drug now is, or The Timbers restaurant — were allowed to be replaced.
These may be heretical opinions on my part. (And regular readers should be used to that by now.) But it’s not clear to me that there is historic value merely in age, particularly given the negatives of owning an old building, such as deterioration and infrastructure not to 21st-century standards. Historic value, to me, is about what important things happened there, not just an old building. Is, for instance, Rountree Hall historic because it’s old, or because it was the first building at what now is UW–Platteville? Do people visit downtown Platteville to see old buildings?
These two meetings also reinforced my opinion about the insufficient regard that seems to exist in this area for property rights. Last year, commission members helped force the developer of the Library Block project to make changes to the building that were, in my opinion, unnecessary, yet added cost to the building to which, by the way, the city contributed exactly zero money for design work. Last week, commission members opined that Patakos needs to spend, in the estimation of designer Delta 3 Engineering, $30,000 to $40,000 more because they didn’t like how Patakos’ proposed brewpub and restaurant looked, even though, again, neither the commission specifically nor the city generally is contributing any money toward design work.
The brewpub won’t do $40,000 more in business based on how the building looks. As people who know something about business (for instance, the difference between revenue and profit), Patakos will have to sell a lot of microbrewed beer and food to make up that $40,000. And in both cases, neither Patakos’ proposed restaurant nor the Library Block are historic buildings. Architectural experts will tell you that faux historic is not suitable for new buildings in an historic area.
The Pizza Block was followed by discussion over where to put a sign for another building on the north side of City Park, a home repurposed for hair care and as a spa. This is the sort of thing the city should be encouraging, not making it more difficult by delaying development over, previously, the house’s porch and, most recently, where a sign should go, which, again, causes the building owner added expense unreimbursed by the city.
One would think the city would be more cognizant of the need to encourage, not discourage, development downtown, particularly considering the red ink flowing from downtown Tax Incremental Financing District 7 and the city’s lack of available tax revenue for such needs as streets and a new fire station. It is not enough to offer tax credits, which come with city, state and federal stipulations. It is not necessarily appropriate for the city to serve as a banker of last resort either, as is happening with at least two downtown buildings (including the building this newspaper does not own but where you can find us).
Perhaps this should be an issue in this Common Council election.