The River Forest Historical Preservation Commission (HPC) took two difficult votes on Wednesday, Dec. 13 that will have long-term implications for the community. Both votes had to do with the significant residence located at 747 William St. All commissioners, including myself, were fully cognizant of the implications of their votes.

The first vote denied the developers’ request for permission to demolish the structure. Given the limited powers of the HPC the denial only put off the demolition for an additional four months. In April of 2018 the developer may demolish 747 William and build what he wishes. 

The second vote stated that if the developer would adhere to a list of specific standards, the commission would agree to an earlier demolition date. This second vote was heart wrenching for many commissioners and, not surprisingly, passed with only a one-vote majority.

It must be understood by River Forest residents that the HPC has very limited powers. First, it can require that a developer come in and dialog with the commission about a proposed demolition. Second, it can delay a demolition for six months. These very new powers prevent a repeat of the 2015 Victor/Mars Mansion debacle in which the developer refused to speak to the commission, and decided to wait the then three-month delay before demolishing one of the largest, most luxurious estates in River Forest. 

Given the commission’s limited powers, the second vote was an attempt by some commissioners to influence the type of structure to be built on the historic block — one of the few Prairie-style housing developments in the U.S. In this particular case, we are fortunate in that the developers are River Forest residents and sensitive to community concerns. On many occasions they have expressed the desire to fit the new structure into this historic neighborhood.

In my opinion, 747 William is history. It is the victim of village indifference to its rich historic and cultural inheritance. By village, I do not mean the government but rather its residents. I can assure those who care that other historic structures in the village are an endangered species. What are we going to do to prevent this lurching from one crisis to another?

I have no solutions, only suggestions:

We can extend the HPC’s powers to delay demolition from six months to nine months or even one year. This would give the HPC more negotiating power vis-a-vis developers.

We can use tax dollars to purchase historic homes, renovate them, and put them back on the market. Who knows? We might even be able to make a profit on the transaction. There is precedence for this idea. Just recently the village (government) purchased a building on Madison Street for $1M in hopes that it will serve as an engine for economic development in the new TIF district. The question to be asked: “Is preserving our historic culture as important as economic development?”

One of the problems with 747 William is its poor physical condition. The developer claims the cost of renovating this particular structure is prohibitive, due to its rundown condition. Having toured the structure, I am inclined to believe him. Should village inspectors periodically inspect significant structures?

Some historic residences sell very slowly. Marketing these structures is not the same as marketing other kinds of real estate. Should the village have a full-time person on staff whose task it is to liaison with realtors, historic preservation groups, certain specialized publications, etc. in an effort to find buyers?

Currently, we are giving lip service to the importance of historic homes. Are we prepared to do more? If not, then let’s stop gnashing our teeth and accept the gradual loss of our heritage.

Al Popowits is a commissioner on the River Forest Historic Preservation Commission.

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