Hartford Buildings City commission preserves historic fabric; should continue
Hartford Courant Editorial
August 24, 2012
There was a lot of money in Hartford during much of the last two centuries. One result of that happy circumstance is that the city has a marvelous trove of 19th- and early 20th-century architecture, buildings that cannot be found in the suburbs or in many other parts of the country.
Sadly, too many of Hartford's historic buildings have been lost and were continuing to be taken down until the city passed a historic preservation ordinance and created a historic properties commission preservation commission six years ago. The commission has brought the wanton demolition of good historic buildings to a halt.
It is thus imperative that the commission stay in business.
The city has just begun work to streamline its permitting process so that the process is not an impediment to economic development. One way to do this could be the merging of boards or agencies "where it makes sense," said development director Thomas Deller.
Though the process is still in the information-gathering stage and there are as yet no proposals for change, preservationists are concerned that the historic properties commission could be eliminated and its duties folded into those of another agency, such as the planning and zoning commission.
Streamlining the permitting process is an excellent idea; developers have complained about it for years. There shouldn't be regulations that serve no useful purpose. But the historic properties commission does serve a useful purpose, is not a drag on the economy and should absolutely remain as a stand-alone entity.
The city's ordinance says the commission should approve any changes visible from the street that require a building or demolition permit to properties in local, state or national historic districts. The ordinance covers about 4,000 structures in the city, and could cover another 1,500 or so.
The commission has handled about 3,000 applications in its first six years. Most have been routine requests concerning roofs, siding, porches or windows, and have been handled quickly. (The huge Travelers Tower window replacement was approved in about an hour.) In many instances, the commission has worked with owners to either save and rehab buildings or to get the right materials to fit the neighborhood. Applicants don't have to add more than 20 percent to their costs for historic accuracy, and commissioners as well as city staffers have information about how to keep costs down.
The commission can do this because it has members with the architectural, legal, construction and other skills to do the job. Give the work to another agency with another mission and there won't be the same level of expertise or effectiveness. Zoning, for example, is often focused on the spatial or use regulations of single buildings; historic preservation considers the look of the building in the context of the neighborhood. These require distinct sets of skills.
Protecting The City's Fabric
Hartford has been pretty good about saving its signature buildings such as the Old State House (though it, incredibly, was almost lost), but not as successful with background buildings. The historic properties commission has been an important force in protecting the secondary buildings that give an area a look and feel, a fabric.
Preserving the fabric of a city is important. Historic buildings are good for the eye and spirit: They tell a community's story and establish its sense of place. And, as recent studies have shown, historic preservation encourages economic development. The historic properties commission is doing the job it was created to do. Let it continue.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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