When boom spells doom
As development picks up, less interest seen in saving historic structures
Dr. Donald Kowalski knew that a demolition delay might be coming when he decided to tear down the abandoned residential structure next to his dental office on Broadway in Beverly. But with no interest from an agency interested in running it as a rooming house, no buyers, and no desire to become a landlord, making it a parking lot for his business seemed the best alternative.
Beverly’s Historic District Commission wants him to reconsider. Late last month, the commission voted to impose a one-year delay on the demolition of the historic building, located at 45 Broadway.
“I have nothing against the Historic Commission,’’ said Kowalski, who had read about another historic structure in Beverly that had the designation placed on it. “They’re well-intentioned people, and I can see where they’re coming from. Broadway used to be a very beautiful street. Frankly, I’d like to keep [the building]. But I don’t want to keep it if I have to put a great deal of money into it to make it into apartments, and don’t want to sell it at a price that I don’t think is fair.’’
Across the region, over the past six months there have been demolition permits sought for historic structures in Beverly, Swampscott, Tewksbury, Salem, Newbury, Newburyport, and Woburn. In some cases, the structures have been saved, or may be saved, after public outcry.
In other cases, the buildings have gone down. That was the case in Newbury last month, when the c. 1806 Tappan House, a 12-room structure on 1 Little’s Lane that was built for one of the town’s early families, was demolished by owner Brian Patrican, over the objections of many in town.
In the fall of 2011, Newburyport also lost a historic house, at 28 Hancock St. Earlier this month, Cap’n Jack’s, a historic Swampscott inn, was torn down to make way for town house condominiums.
Supporters of historic preservation are concerned by what they see as trends toward more demolition and less interest in maintaining the region’s history - which they maintain is a finite resource, in addition to being beneficial to a community’s well-being.
One of those lamenting the loss of historic structures is Bill Harris, a member of the Greater Newburyport-based Consortium of Concerned Citizens, a preservationist group. He said that in the past, when construction and real estate start to boom in the region, historic demolitions have increased as well.
“In Newburyport, we had a record January,’’ said Harris, who said that permits were pulled that month for approximately $4 million in construction and renovations. “If this year is what it’s beginning to look like, which is a boom year for the upscale communities of Massachusetts, those same communities are going to be losing a disproportionate share of their historic buildings.’’
Beverly Historic District Commission chairman Bill Finch recognizes a different trend.
“In the last 10 years, maybe 15, there’s been a decline in interest in preserving historic buildings,’’ said Finch, a historic preservation consultant who has worked with area museums on projects that include the White-Ellery House in Gloucester.
Finch noted a correlation with the antique furniture and furnishings market. With some exceptions, the market has become soft, he said. “The current generation doesn’t have a lot of interest, so demand is down,’’ he said.
There are limited data on the subject. A spokesman for the Massachusetts Historical Commission said their office does not have a database to track demolitions. The president of a state advocacy organization said that it’s tough to draw thorough conclusions, but he is hearing from concerned people in many communities.
“In more prosperous communities, where land value is higher, it may be more of an issue,’’ said Jim Igoe, president of Preservation Massachusetts, a nonprofit historic preservation advocacy organization that works with local historic commissions. “There are oftentimes developers, owners, or prospective buyers who aren’t happy with what they may consider a clunky old house. The parcel of land is valuable, and maybe has great views or the location is wonderful, and they’re anxious to [clear] the property and do something else.’’
Like Beverly, many other communities have demolition delay bylaws, which require a waiting period that theoretically gives neighbors, preservation advocates, and/or a municipality the chance to persuade the owner to come up with an alternative.
The delays generate publicity, Finch said, which presents an opportunity to educate the property owner and possibly change his or her mind. While the demolition delay bylaws can be effective, there is no punitive measure that a community can take, and the delays are not always effective. Some developers simply wait a year and demolish the building, Finch said.
Developer Jeff Rhuda of Symes Associates, who has worked on projects that have saved historic structures, and at other times has demolished structures, said that there is often a situation, “when economics crashes into aesthetics. I can see numerous situations where one person’s anchor is another person’s treasure.’’
However, he noted that there are also laws to protect an individual’s right to do what he wants on his own property.
“If somebody is going to propose taking away property rights, which is, ‘you own this property but you can’t change anything,’ I have no problem with that, as long as I know in advance, because I won’t buy that property,’’ Rhuda said.
After seeing the demolition or hearing of the proposed demolition of three historic structures in 2011 and 2012, the Swampscott Historical Commission last month asked the Board of Selectmen to let it study the possibility of creating a local historic district on a portion of Humphrey Street. In addition to the April 3 demolition of Cap’n Jack’s, the town lost a turn-of-the-century estate house at 60 Tupelo Road in 2011, and sold its former middle school (and high school) on Greenwood Avenue to a developer who intends to raze the building in favor of a 41-unit condo project.
“It needs more oversight,’’ said Susan Post Munafo, a member of the historical commission.
A historic district creates more protection for properties, by establishing another level of approval for developers, but that protection is not always welcome in a region that values the property rights of the individual. In Manchester-by-the-Sea, a proposal to adopt a demolition delay bylaw was defeated at annual town meeting on April 2.
In Newburyport, where the City Council is considering expanding the local historic district beyond one street in the downtown (Fruit Street), the measure has attracted organized opposition, including many people who live on High Street, which will be part of the district. Ironically, noted one preservationist, a sign opposing expansion of the district employs the symbol of a historic home.