Once again, the Village of Oak Park is seeking consensus on establishing a National Register Historic District for all or part of downtown. An effort in 2007 failed to find common ground among representatives of the village, the Historic Preservation Commission and Downtown Oak Park. The Business and Civic Council of Oak Park opposes any push to establish a historic district downtown. The village does not need it. Property owners cannot afford it.

Property owners’ rights should be paramount in the discussion. Owners should be free to seek historic status for their own properties, but it should not be forced on them. The council has not heard one property owner express a desire for a historic district. For good reason: Proposed incentive programs, including a façade preservation program to be funded out of downtown TIF (tax-increment financing) proceeds, to persuade property owners to back preservation efforts, never materialized last time.

Restricting property owner rights will only harm the long-term interests of downtown and of the village at large by discouraging investment.

The Historic Preservation Commission is interested in promoting landmark designation for some buildings, creating financial incentives and tax advantages. However, the benefits are illusory because eligibility often requires spending more on renovation than the property is worth. It also involves dealing with red tape in local, state and federal bureaucracies.

Though pitched as good for property owners, an honorary historic district designation could be a prelude to a more restrictive local registry.

Landmark status will have an impact on all property owners. Even if it doesn’t affect values, landmarking will complicate capital improvements and maintenance issues and could promote decay: Repairs and renovations are thwarted by regulation.

As the Wednesday Journal has editorialized, most of the notable downtown buildings “are safely in the hands of owners who have already lovingly restored them. Most of the rest of Lake Street could be bulldozed tomorrow morning.”

The Business and Civic Council of Oak Park is an independent, nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing public policies that stimulate and encourage economic growth and civic vitality in Oak Park. The council believes that a vibrant commercial sector helps ensure the sustainability of Oak Park as an economically, culturally and racially diverse community.

Frank Pellegrini is the president of the Business and Civic Council of Oak Park.

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