“Across the nation a teardown epidemic is wiping out historic neighborhoods one house at a time. As older homes are demolished and replaced with dramatically larger, out-of-scale new structures, the historic character of the existing neighborhood is changed forever.
By Gretchen Althoff Snyder
“Across the nation a teardown epidemic is wiping out historic neighborhoods one house at a time. As older homes are demolished and replaced with dramatically larger, out-of-scale new structures, the historic character of the existing neighborhood is changed forever. Neighborhood livability is diminished as trees are removed, backyards are eliminated, and sunlight is blocked by towering new structures built up to the property lines. Community economic and social diversity is reduced as new mansions replace affordable homes. ouse by house, neighborhoods are losing a part of their historic fabric and much of their character.” — The National Trust for Historic Preservation
“From 19th century Victorians to 1920s bungalows, the architecture of America’s historic neighborhoods reflects the character of our communities. Teardowns radically change the fabric of a community. Without proper safeguards, historic neighborhoods will lose the identities that drew residents to put down roots in the first place”— Richard Moe, former President of the National Trust
Many communities around the country are responding to this phenomenon through a variety of approaches, all with the hopes of addressing the loss of historic homes through teardowns. Some are using local historic district ordinances (Mamaroneck) and demolition delay ordinances (Scarsdale), while others are utilizing tax incentives to preserve historic homes, i.e. tax abatement programs, demolition taxes, and waivers on permit fees for rehabilitation of historic homes. Other areas have sought to reduce loss of historic properties by changing the zoning and land-use regulations in their cities and towns.
Here in Rye, City Councilwoman Laura Brett has proposed an amendment to local law Chapter 177 (Taxation), Article XII (Exemption for Historic Districts) in an effort to preserve the historic buildings located in the Central Business District. Brett hopes to pass a new law that will designate portions of downtown Rye as the first “Historic District” to allow property owners to take advantage of a real property tax exemption when they undergo historically sensitive renovations to historic properties. Under the current law, enacted in late 2013, the only properties eligible for this tax exemption are landmarked properties (i.e. Jay Heritage House, Knapp House, Parsons House). The tax exemption only covers the amount of newly assessed taxes based upon the renovation – taxes are deferred for the first five years, and then phased in over the next five years. In addition, only properties within the proposed historic district that are deemed “historic” can apply for the exemption, and the application must be made prior to commencement of the renovations.
Architect Rex Gedney stated at the May 6 City Council meeting that the legislative intent of the proposed law is “to provide property owners of structures of historical significance a concrete incentive to restore and improve the properties while maintaining the character of the original structure.” Gedney said there would be appropriate checks and balances in the proposed law, since all applications must be made prior to commencement of any work, and each application would need to be reviewed and approved by both the Landmarks Advisory Committee and Board of Architectural Review.
Both the Chamber of Commerce and the Rye Historical Society strongly support the proposed new law. Mark Keegan, President of the Rye Historical Society, believes that “our historic downtown is a great starting place to formally recognize the value of preservation in Rye. While allowing for growth and progress, our community shares a respect for the strong roots around us and a recognition of the importance of protecting our past.” Keegan hopes the proposed historic district in downtown will lead to further discussion about preservation in and around the rest of our city.
Although there are numerous details to be ironed out, such as whether the City Council should have final say about which properties within the district are deemed historic, whether side streets like Elm Place, Smith Street, and Locust Avenue should be included in the historic district, and the exact parameters of what makes a building historic (100 years is often a benchmark), Brett feels strongly that this law needs to be passed before we lose some of the more iconic buildings in downtown Rye.
The downtown area currently has the highest concentration of older structures, with 51 privately owned properties over 100 years old. Brett stressed that “these buildings are a visual reminder of the past, once you take that away, you lose the reminder of our town’s history.” Brett believes that we need to change the viewpoint in our town about older homes and that “we need to make it feel like it is a privilege to own an old home with historic value.”
Brett also sees the potential in the future to create other historic districts outside of the downtown area, as there are homes in Rye that were built in the late 1800s that have significant historic value. Fellow Councilmember Julie Killian said at the May 6 Council meeting that she would like to see the historic district expanded to other neighborhoods as well, and that there are some great historic homes in Rye she hopes will be preserved.
The City Council will revisit the proposed new law at its July 8 meeting and will hopefully come to a consensus to help preserve Rye’s vibrant and important history.