Small Home Gazette, Winter 2008
“How Do We Save This Property?”
Britta Bloomberg, deputy head of the State Historic Preservation Office, says that her office frequently hears this panicked question from concerned citizens and neighbors. Before you march on City Hall to save your favorite bungalow, there are many other ways to protect it.
But be forewarned: Saving an individual bungalow from destruction is not an easy task unless you happen to own it.
The best way to protect a property or an area (called a “district” in preservation terms) is to get it designated as “historic.” What makes a property or district “historic” in the minds of city planners and preservationists? According to the Minneapolis city code, which echoes the language of state and federal preservation agencies, a property is historic because it is: associated with significant events, persons or groups, an example of local culture or society, or of the characteristics of an architectural style or method of construction, or of the work of master builders, engineers, designers, artists, craftsmen or architects, likely to yield information about history or prehistory (especially useful for archeological sites).
Sometimes it’s obvious why a building is historic—like the state capitol building, or a famous architect’s own house, or a prominent person’s home or business. Sometimes it’s less clear. In the case of our own humble bungalows—a good example of what preservationists call “vernacular architecture”—historic designation can take a fair amount of research and justification.
There are three levels of historic designation: federal, state and local. On the federal level, there’s the National Register of Historic Places—a list of properties or districts maintained by the National Park Service. Some are of national importance, but many others are of local interest. Greg Mathis, an architectural historian writing in the November-December 2007 issue of the Minnesota Preservationist, calls National Register designations “honorary.” Unless the federal government plans to change or renovate the property, it’s hard to use National Register status to protect it.
Getting a building or district on the National Register involves a process of nomination, study and review. The primary “nominators” are representatives from State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPOs). Most SHPOs are housed within state historical societies—that’s the case in Minnesota—but there are exceptions. If you thought your favorite bungalow belonged on the National Register, you’d go first to the SHPO at the Minnesota Historical Society, which would give you an initial assessment and, if they agreed with you, take on the task of making a nomination.
According to the Minnesota SHPO’s webpage, the agency’s job is to “identify, evaluate, register, and protect Minnesota’s historic and archaeological properties, and assist government agencies in carrying out their historic preservation responsibilities. The SHPO nominates properties for the National Register and works to preserve properties on the Register. In 1971, the Minnesota legislature passed the Minnesota Historic Sites Act and the Minnesota Historic Districts Act, respectively protecting buildings and areas. The original legislation included the first State Register of properties. This legislation created a process of nomination, review and recommendation, involving the Historical Society, to protect historic places from alteration or demolition.
But it’s at the local level where historic preservation really has teeth. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul have ordinances that designate local properties as “historic” and protect them accordingly. Both also have a body that nominates, reviews and recommends historic designation—the Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC). In both cities, the HPC is appointed by the City Council and provides recommendations for designation, which the Council votes on.
In both cities, a property must be nominated to be considered for designation. The mayor, the HPC itself, or a building owner can make a nomination. The HPC reviews the nomination and may order a “designation study” to look into the matter further. The SHPO is often involved in the study. Once the study is complete, the HPC holds a public hearing on the designation. After the hearing, the HPC sends its recommendation to the city council, which votes on whether to grant historic designation. That’s how you’d get your bungalow declared historic.
Once a property has been designated historic, any plan for a change to it must come to the HPC, which has the authority to review requests for alteration, new construction or demolition. The HPC can approve or deny building permits. That’s how you’d save your favorite bungalow.
Each of the Twin Cities handles designation, and later permits for changes, a little differently.
In Minneapolis, the property is nominated for designation by the HPC, the city council, the mayor or the planning director, and the HPC reviews the applications. Then the applications are sent to the SHPO for additional review. After the review, the HPC holds a public hearing to consider the proposed designation and submits its recommendation to the zoning and planning committee of the city council. Then the city council makes the final decision on designation.
In St. Paul, the HPC advises the city planning commission about the proposed site and the city planning commission holds a review. The HPC then communicates the proposed designation to the historical society. The HPC holds a public hearing and makes its recommendation to the city council, and the city council holds a public hearing about designation and makes the final decision about designation.
In the case of permit review, the two cities have a slightly different process. In Minneapolis, the permit to alter a historic property is called a “certificate of appropriateness.” To start the process, a concerned person files an application for the certificate of appropriateness. The HPC holds a hearing on the application to make findings on the proposed change’s impact, and if the HPC approves the application, changes can proceed.
In St. Paul, all building permits come to the HPC for review on their impact on historic preservation. If they’re approved, building can proceed, and if not, the HPC holds a public hearing about the proposed change’s impact on preservation.
In both cities, if the permit applicants are unhappy with the commission’s decision, they can appeal to the city council.
While historic designation and the permit review process are typical steps to save a threatened building, there’s another approach, which local attorney Mark Anfinson calls “the preservationist’s tool of last resort.” It’s the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA), intended to preserve natural resources. Because of a provision in the law to protect “historical resources” as well, it can be used to fight for historic preservation. It’s complicated and expensive, as all litigation is, but can be a powerful approach when others have failed.
Your bungalow may indeed be a historic resource. But before you go the SHPO at the Historical Society, do some research. And before you march on City Hall to stop the bulldozers, check for the date of the HPC’s public hearing.
And throughout the process—because it can be lengthy—keep educating people about the significance of the building you care about.
Mark Anfinson, “MERA: the Preservationist’s Tool of Last Resort,” Minnesota Preservationist (November–December 2007), pp.8-9.
Britta Bloomberg, “How Do I Help a Threatened Historic Property?” Minnesota
Preservationist (November–December 2007), pp. 6-7. Also check “How Do I Help a
Threatened Property?” under the State Historic Preservation Office page of the
Minnesota Historical Society website at www.mnhs.org/shpo/how/threatened.htm
Greg Mathis, “What is Designation? And What Does It Mean for Protecting Historic Resources in Minnesota?” Minnesota Preservationist (November–December 2007), pp. 4-5.
City of Minneapolis, Code of Ordinances. Title 23, Heritage Preservation. www.minneapolismn.gov/government/ord/index.htm
City of Minneapolis, Heritage Preservation Commission, Application Forms and Information. www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/hpc/hpc_forms
National Park Service, “National Register of Historic Places Program: Frequently Asked Questions.” www.nps.gov/nr/faq.htm