Downtown: As ‘historic’ buildings fall, Heritage Commission chafes against limited role

  • On April 25, the New Hampshire Demolition crew had knocked down most of the former St. Peter’€™s main church and had a pile of stone to show for it. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Concord City Hall

Monitor staff
Published: 5/12/2019 9:06:39 PM

The Heritage Commission is having an existential crisis.

The commission, tasked to advise on the best ways to use and protect Concord’s historical, cultural and aesthetic resources, met on Wednesday to hash out how officials feel about proposed changes to the city’s demolition delay review ordinance.

The changes would clarify the procedure for when someone is looking to tear a building down and what triggers the demolition delay ordinance, said city planner Heather Shank. It would outline what steps the Demolition Review Committee (DRC) – a subcommittee of the Heritage Commission – can take if a building is found potentially significant.

But it doesn’t change the 49-day waiting period between when an entity can apply to tear down a building and when it can take action – and that’s not sitting well with some commission members, who say the time frame isn’t long enough to let them research a building, solicit public input and work with developers to find another solution.

The multi-hour workshop got heated at times. Members threatened to quit.

“I’m getting discouraged sitting on the demolition committee because we don’t have the time to do what we need to do,” said Robert Johnson, who chairs the DRC. “If the delay period stays at 49-50-60 days, I’m going to be off this commission, I’ll be blunt. You’re holding us to an impossible task.”

Richard Jacques, chairman of the Heritage Commission, broke it down like this: The Heritage Commission is an advisory board. Unless someone – the planning board, city council, a history-minded property owner – asks them to weigh in, they don’t have a say in what happens to “historic” buildings in the Capital City. Even then, all they can do is ask that their view be considered.

It’s frustrating, Jacques said, because a developer will sometimes take months to raze a building – time that could have been used to research the building’s history or find another use.

But Shank said staff has been told there is no support from the city council or the business community in having a longer delay period.

“It’s our understanding that would not be a popular proposal,” she said.

Like most debates in Concord, what’s old has become new again.

The only real power the commission has is within Concord’s historic district. That includes the area around the Kimball-Jenkins Estate and the Pierce Manse. Anyone who wants to make certain renovations to a building in that area needs commission approval.

But if a property owner wants to tear down a historical building, there’s no law – local, state or otherwise – that can stop them once they’ve gone through the demolition permit process, Shank said.

Monitor archives reveal this same conversation happened almost 10 years ago when Concord Housing Authority was looking to tear down a 170-year-old house on Green Street to make office space.

Jacques said the conversation goes back even further. People are still upset that the city authorized the destruction of its central train station to make way for the Storrs Street shopping plaza that was built in the 1960s. Back then, no one thought twice about tearing the building down, he said. But years later, public opinion shifted and people wondered why the building wasn’t saved.

Jacques said if it were up to him, every historic building in the city would be saved.

“I don’t like to see anything torn down. There’s got to be a way to save everything that has historical value,” he said.

But “historic” means different things to different people.

One of the changes to the demo delay ordinance, still in its draft stage, would stipulate that a notice of an intent to demolish would be triggered for any building constructed before 1945. Commission members questioned whether it would be better to keep the current language, which would trigger a notice for any building built 50 years ago.

While a mid-20th century building may not seem historic enough to preserve now (take the former Department of Employment Security building, often decried as “ugly”), public opinion could change in a few years or decades.

Even St. Peter’s Church, now just a sandy lot, had historic touches that weren’t readily apparent to the eye. Jim Spain, who sits on the commission, said Wednesday his family helped build that church in the 1950s.

Its arches were made from a type of redwood not used in building today, Spain said. But the only action the commission could take was to hold a public hearing on the church’s demolition.

Johnson pointed to another building that could suffer a similar fate: the 1900’s green Victorian at 20 S. Main St., where the Families in Transition thrift store used to be.

Devleoper Steve Duprey bought the building last year and wants to eventually put a diner there. He’s said he doesn’t have a use for the building.

 (Caitlin Andrews can be  reached at 369-3309 or candrews@cmonitor.com)



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