(Editor’s note: This is part one of a three-part series which looks at the ramifications of new construction in a historic district, The series will consider the process, the impact and how the process could be improved.)
Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Nowhere is that more evident than when a visionary developer turns his eyes on an area listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“We’re always in the business of improving the neighborhood,” said Dusten Hendrickson, founder of Brookings Built Green, Inc.
In recent years, his company has built two housing units on N. Egan Avenue in the Madison Historic District. Each unit, described as a duplex, contains two suites; each suite has six individually rented bedrooms.
The development lies along a stretch of Egan Ave. which was nominated for the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. For neighbors who have worked to maintain the historical integrity of their homes, that is the crux of a disagreement.
“We and several other neighbors had concerns about bringing high-density housing into the neighborhood,” said Bob Sahr, who lives in the historic district.
They were concerned about noise, about parking and about property values. But they were also concerned with preserving their historic neighborhood.
Even before houses at 705 N. Egan and 709 N. Egan were demolished, other structures in the district had been altered enough to affect their status. A re-evaluation of the Madison Historic District in 2002 determined four houses along N. Egan, one on Lee Ave. and one on Washington Ave. had become non-contributing due to alterations.
Liz Almlie, historic preservation specialist with the South Dakota State Historical Society, explained that while her office is involved in a review process for properties in a historic district, the decision regarding building permits ultimately rests with local authorities.
“We review whether or not new construction will encroach upon, damage or destroy any historic property included on the National Register of Historic Places, and issue a letter of comment back to the city,” she said, describing her office’s role. “The city makes the determination.”
Almlie admitted it can be difficult for the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) to make an assessment based upon drawings alone. In addition, once a letter of comment has been issued, SHPO won’t see modifications made to the original plans. This means the actual project may differ significantly from what was evaluated.
“Madison does not have a historic preservation commission,” Almlie noted. This impacts local decisions as well.
“Sometimes having local eyes on it and having that additional discussion helps,” she explained.
In the case of Egan Avenue Residence, the name of the new development, neighbors question whether the state’s standards for new construction in historic districts was adequately considered. The standards indicate the size and scale of new construction should be compatible with surrounding historic buildings.
They provide specific guidelines for height, width, proportion, materials, color, ornamentation and roofline. One statement from the standards summarizes the overriding theme of the detailed list: “The overall visual appearance of new construction may not dominate or be distracting to the surrounding historic landscape.”
The Egan Avenue Residence clearly dominates the landscape. Constructed 15 feet in front of neighboring structures with the minimum setbacks allowed, the structures are not – to use one example from the list of standards – similar in width to adjacent historic buildings.
“They put square buildings on rectangular lots,” Sahr observed.
Traditionally, the houses would have been narrower, to allow more space between the homes.
Hendrickson indicated the lots themselves were responsible for some of the decisions made regarding design and construction.
“It’s a very challenging site to deal with,” he said, noting that a portion of both lots is part of a FEMA floodway. “We can’t use any of that back lot.”
Currently, the parking area goes right up to the floodway. The location of the duplexes resulted from the need for adequate parking balanced with the limitations of the FEMA designation.
“Those houses should have been pushed back,” Hendrickson admitted. However, overall he’s pleased with the project and would like to expand it.
“We want to provide better housing all the way along the street,” he said, noting the area is close to the university and within walking distance of downtown.
As for maintaining the district’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places, Almlie indicated SHPO looks at the cumulative impact of new construction.
“At the end of the day, we want the historical district to be eligible for the National Register of Historical Places,” she stated.