It has been said that community character is a lot like pornography-hard to define but you know it when you see it. The residents of River Forest are engaged in a conversation right now that seeks to come to terms with ways to encourage an appropriate balance between the preservation of our community character and protecting a property owner’s right to significantly change his property. Clearly we value both sides of the scale, and there are no right and wrong positions; the challenge is to find the right balance for River Forest.

Recently I sat in on a meeting of the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) where testimony was given concerning the proposed demolition of a home on the 600 block of Franklin and plans to build two homes in its place. At issue is the interpretation of wording in our zoning code, but testimony on both sides of the issue referenced the character of the neighborhood. Some folks seem to feel that the 500-600 block of Franklin is the best block in the village. Sorry, folks, but I live on the best block in River Forest. Actually, I imagine a good number of River Foresters feel that way about a village filled with many different and distinctive neighborhoods.

Although the Franklin Avenue issue will be decided on the interpretation of our zoning code, the many references to community character make this yet another specific case in which the issue of community character has a great effect on how we value our homes, our neighborhoods, and how we do or do not want to see them change. The testimony of Franklin neighbors on the subject of the physical aspects of their block that lend value to all the properties there, again begs the question of what, if anything, we are willing to do to address these less codified elements of the village’s value.

Some say you can’t codify character and you can’t regulate taste. Perhaps, but there are some pretty clear ways of identifying the important architectural features of a neighborhood and determining what is inappropriate.

  • Fortresses with hidden front doors on streets that are lined with homes featuring sociable front porches are inappropriate.
  • Lot-covering homes, whose main street-facing architectural features are three-car garages, in a neighborhood of side drives and detached garages which add to the feeling of space and openness are inappropriate.
  • Replacing a cottage in a row of moderately sized homes with a fortress whose brick walls extend the length of the lot, effectively isolating one section of block from another, is inappropriate.

There are ways to encourage sensitivity to the common architectural elements that make a neighborhood or a block unique and desirable.

I heard testimony at the ZBA meeting from a neighbor concerning the damage done to the fabric of community ties and loyalty by drastic changes to the neighborhood. Some would say this is an emotional reaction. I sincerely hope my fellow River Foresters have an emotional attachment to our village that goes beyond their hopes of the dollars they will realize when they leave. I encourage and celebrate this emotional attachment for it is what has led so many of us to be second- or third-generation residents here.

Some say our zoning code is the place to regulate physical changes to the community. This code pretty uniformly applies to homes on the 1300 block of Monroe, the 500 block of Auvergne Place, the 100 block of Park, and the 600 block of William-all unique neighborhoods with distinctive architectural features. How could our uniform zoning code address those aspects of River Forest which inspire you to regard your block as the best block in the village? It can’t.

The proposed historic preservation ordinance begins to address concerns about maintaining village character in relatively non-restrictive ways, and in ways our zoning and building codes don’t.

  • First: The ordinance gives knowledgeable Preservation Commission members a chance to comment on substantial changes you wish to make to a property within our nationally recognized historic district. Before you make changes within the historic district, we ask that you just listen to information on how your property fits into the district and what features are important to maintain the district’s architectural integrity. Just listen. Then use your best judgment. The original River Forest comprehensive plan suggested architectural review throughout the village, but we are suggesting that review be limited to the historic district.
  • Second: The ordinance provides binding architectural review for the new construction or major alterations of more than half of an existing structure within the historic district. No one wishes River Forest to become a living museum and architectural creativity should not be stifled-our community is known for quality architectural expressions in a great variety of styles. But there should be ways to limit the building of stock-plan fortresses whose style is neither complementary nor appropriate for our nationally recognized historic district.
  • Third: The ordinance provides for buildings that qualify as most architecturally or historically significant, and are voluntarily landmarked by their owners. Those are subject to binding review of any changes to their facades as visible from the street.
  • Fourth: The proposed Preservation Commission would provide many valuable services to River Forest, including providing information on the architectural and historic significance of properties before that are altered, and advising the village board on village code provisions which work against preservation of community character. The more information we have when making decisions, the better our decisions will be.

So the fundamental questions are these: What are the unique aspects of your street? of your neighborhood? of your village? And how much do they contribute to the value you place on your home? Are you willing to at least listen to the comments and advice of knowledgeable Preservation Commission members to encourage the preservation of these unique aspects of the community? Are you willing to limit your ability to sell your house for redevelopment as a fortress in order to prevent that from happening next door to you?

There are no right answers and no wrong answers, there is just striking the right balance for the community. Think about it, and voice your opinion. I know what I think because I live on the best block in River Forest.

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