Old Town is being ambushed by sneak development. In 1978 the city designated the Old Town Triangle a Chicago Landmark District. But home owners and developers are still lifting up one- or two-story homes and tucking a garage or basement underneath. Whole floors are being added to the tops of buildings, and newly constructed rooms bulge from the sides and backs of homes. Rooftop patios abound. Front yards are being converted to parking lots. Only the facades remain the same. Sometimes.

Old Town preservationists, concerned about this latest wave of development, are fighting it on three fronts: they are pushing for broad interpretation of the city landmark ordinance, in order to protect more than just the facades of buildings; they are contemplating down-zoning, the most extreme and difficult-to-achieve attack, though probably the most effective; and they are promoting the use of “preservation easements,” in which home owners literally donate to posterity the entire outside appearance of their structures.

The easement, a voluntary agreement binding all future owners of the property, is a legally enforceable promise not to change the outside appearance of a building; it usually covers all the outside walls and the roof. The donation may be made to the city or to a nonprofit organization devoted to historical preservation, such as the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois (LPCI), which now holds 27 easements in Illinois, most of them in the Chicago area. Some easements are also held by the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

At a recent Old Town Triangle Association meeting, LPCI director Vince Michael and attorney Tobin Richter, past president of LPCI, explained that an easement may be enforced by the city, the holder of the easement, or neighbors who live within 250 feet of the building. “No landmark ordinance can force someone to keep up their property, but an easement can do this,” Michael says. If an easement is given to LPCI, he says, someone from the organization will “monitor the property, walk by the property once a year with an architect to make sure it’s being kept up in the way it was when the easement was granted.”

While the obvious reason for a building’s owner to grant an easement is to retain the property’s historic features in perpetuity, some owners may also gain a tax advantage. If the easement results in a reduction in the property’s value, the IRS considers the reduction a charitable donation to the organization receiving the easement. For instance, the Chicago Theatre owners received a tax break of around $10 million when they donated a preservation easement, because the theater owners showed that the property would have been more valuable if they had torn the building down and constructed a high rise.

Similarly, home owners in Old Town who donate an easement may be able to prove their homes have lost value because they can’t be developed–the owners can’t add sun decks, garages, or additional rooms. According to Richter, the courts have generally upheld tax credits of from 10 to 15 percent of the property’s assessed value. However, the fact that the historic value of a property is protected may well increase its value, making a tax credit unlikely.

Property owners who want to donate an easement to LPCI fill out an application, pay a filing fee, and, if the easement is approved, pay a one-time fee to cover future inspection costs. To qualify for a tax break, buildings must be listed on the national or Illinois registers of historic places or must be seen as “contributing” or “significant” to a local historic district that has been certified by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Buildings in such districts are classified as “significant,” “contributing,” “noncontributing,” or “intrusions.” A city survey of the Old Town Triangle indicates that 60 to 80 percent of the buildings qualify as significant or contributing.

The easement, which can be drafted by an attorney or based on an LPCI model, must be added to the property’s title by the county recorder of deeds. It is then irrevocable and enforceable in perpetuity.

The second way in which Old Town preservationists are fighting sneak development is by pushing for a broader interpretation of the city’s landmark ordinance by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. Specifically, they want the entire lot and building to be subject to the ordinance’s regulations–a 360-degree interpretation.

When a building permit is now requested for construction in a landmark district, the Department of Inspectional Services refers the permit to the Landmarks Commission for a hearing. The commission then refers the permit to its Building Permit Review Committee. According to Michael and Richter, under the commission’s current interpretation of the ordinance construction is allowed if it does not visibly change the front facade of a building as viewed from a height of five feet from across the street. This limited interpretation, along with Old Town’s skyrocketing property values, may be partly responsible for the wave of applications for building permits for additions to the sides, backs, tops, and bottoms of homes in Old Town.

Andrew Heard, an architect and member of the permit-review committee, and John Baird, a realtor who is also on the committee, deny that the commission has interpreted the ordinance in such a narrow way. “Some people have viewed it that way. We don’t agree with that view,” says Heard. “That is certainly not the permit-review committee’s position on anything–that’s facadism,” says Baird. Nonetheless, neither Baird nor Heard could explain the proliferation of garages underneath homes and side and back additions in Old Town. Pressed, they say permits are decided on a case-by-case basis.

At any rate, a recent decision by the committee has given Old Town residents hope that the Landmarks Commission may be getting tougher. Two proposed garages behind 1716 and 1718 N. Crilly Ct.–part of the historic North Park-Crilly Courtyard–were voted down two to one by the permit-review committee. Heard and Baird cast the two no votes. The full commission was scheduled to vote on the permits on July 5, but the owners withdrew their requests.

Crilly Courtyard, despite its flowering gardens and wrought-iron gates, is technically considered an alley. Under the facades-only interpretation, the garages would have been approved. But Baird and Heard deny that the decision was the result of any change in their interpretation of the ordinance. “My vote on Crilly Court is because that is not an alley in the ordinary sense,” says Baird. “It is part of the ambience and attractiveness of that area. It’s the focal point of the whole area.” Yet residents who attended the meeting at which the permits were voted down say Heard said that it was time to go all the way and strictly follow federal historic-district guidelines.

Preservationists believe the vote does indicate a change for the permit-review committee. And while the full commission never voted on the garage permits, Baird says there have been very few instances when the commission rejected the committee’s recommendation.

Preservationists are also trying to fight development in Old Town by asking the city to down-zone the district. Most of Old Town is zoned R-5, with a floor-area ratio of 2.2–which means that for every square foot of their lots home owners can build 2.2 square feet of floor space. Since most of Old Town’s buildings are nowhere near that limit, most of the area’s two- and three-story homes could technically be torn down and replaced with larger buildings. If the zoning were reduced to R-4 or R-3, the zoning would match the existing homes–and would completely cut off future development. “This would make the area much less desirable for outside developers who put up spec houses and leave,” says John Craib-Cox, chairman of the Old Town Triangle Association’s Historic District Committee.

However, if the area is down-zoned many more buildings would be at their maximum zoned density. The home owners would no longer be forgoing future development of their buildings and would therefore not be eligible for a tax break if they donated an easement.

What makes the battle over Old Town development so unusual is that while it features old enemies–developers versus home owners–it also pits home owners against other home owners, neighbors against neighbors.

On a tour of Old Town atrocities, Craib-Cox points out a duplex building, a converted late-1800s two-story garage in the 200 block of Willow Street. One owner wants to add a third floor; the other does not. Across the street a two-story aluminum-sided house sits jacked up on wooden supports while a garage is being built underneath. Two doors to the west a two-story house has a garage where the first floor used to be. “They just put a beam across it and put in a garage door,” he says. “This was done after the designation as a landmark district. No one seems to know how it got past the Landmarks Commission.”

Craib-Cox also points out houses that have asphalt rolled roofing for siding. “This is a reversible problem,” he says. “The garage is an irreversible problem. The jacked-up house is an irreversible problem. A horrific problem here is insensitive additions of volume–where people look at this neighborhood like it’s a cash crop.”

Old Town got its European look when German workmen rebuilt the neighborhood after the 1871 fire, which burned all of the area except for the walls of Saint Michael’s Church. After the fire the city and charity organizations built small frame cottages, dubbed “fire cottages,” to provide housing for the homeless. Few of these cottages survive today, but at 216 W. Menomonee a small wood house that may well be a fire cottage is for sale–for $298,000. Craib-Cox says one developer proposed building a three-story addition to the rear of the house. “If you buy that house for $300,000, you will have a hard time finding someone to sell it to for that. But if you put four bedrooms in it–” he says, pausing. “It’s almost a reverse of the Potemkin Village idea.”

As he walks through Old Town, Craib-Cox points out other structural changes, some minor, some not. There are windows that have been removed, and only a stone lintel marks their original location. Double-hung windows have been converted to single panes. Front yards have been converted to driveways, roofs to rooftop patios. Entrances have been moved from second to first floors. And everywhere there are additions to the tops, sides, and bottoms of homes. “You can do a lot of damage without a building permit,” he says.

Walking through the alleys, it appears that every house has been changed in one way or another. But Craib-Cox also sees many things that he likes, including renovations and some new construction. He praises a new three-story graystone designed by Booth/Hansen at 1925 N. Orleans. The building’s height, materials, and windows are similar to adjoining buildings. “It contextually fits in with the surroundings,” he says. “It’s a new trend in quality architecture–it’s called contextualism.” He praises the renovation under way at 1810 N. Lincoln Park West, a Victorian frame house.

“Another neat thing about this neighborhood is the fact that we have space,” he says, pointing to a garden along Lincoln Park West. “You look right here and you see an open area, a garden. Now, you can imagine if they filled up the lot with a building.”

Other developments may not be historic, he says, but they add to Old Town’s diversity–as the Midwest Buddhist Temple at 435 W. Menomonee does. “I’m not saying that everything has to be like it was in 1880. But it needs to be sympathetic to what’s there.” It’s not fair to people who have decided to live in a historic block that provides them with a nice view, he says, if some other home owner decides to ruin his own house and everyone else’s view.

His example of this is Hudson Mews, a fortresslike town-house development at Hudson and North Avenue. While the architecture echoes the houses across the street, the high brick walls surrounding the patios ruin the view for neighboring houses, destroy the streetscape. “If you restrict the chances for people to get onto the sidewalk, you might as well be living in a high rise,” he says. “Here you’re able to have Winnetka in the city–your car is safe, you’ve got parking for it, you’ve got security. You don’t have to get on the street at all.

“People are moving back into the city, but they’re not moving into the city on the city’s own terms. They’re manipulating the environment so they can have the city on their own terms. What we the committee want is people to be sensitive to the environment they live in. And when changes are made to the environment, we want them to be sensitive changes. And the changes we’re up against are all these intrusive changes that are really drastically altering what we’ve got.

“We are trying to educate people in this neighborhood about the dangers of all this stuff, because a little bit comes in and it doesn’t seem like a problem. But then you wake up one day and discover you’ve been transformed.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.