Let’s Cherish – Not Demolish – Our Heritage

Winter Park’s seal identifies it as the “City of Culture and Heritage.”   On the city’s website, ‘webisodes’ such as this one profess Winter Park’s devotion to preserving its cultural and architectural history:   http://vimeo.com/43260029.

Indeed, the city’s identity is inextricably tied to its architectural character.  Drive through Alaqua Lakes and it would be easy enough to imagine yourself in Celebration, Heathrow or Keene’s Pointe.  Nice places to live, but as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, “there’s no there there.” By contrast, meander past the old churches and historic homes lining Interlachen Avenue, stroll under the laurel oaks around Lake Chelton, or bike bucolic Berkshire Avenue in Orwin Manor, and you’ve been somewhere memorable.

After nearly losing Casa Feliz to demolition in 2001, our city leaders adopted a Preservation Ordinance that provides for the protection of designated historic properties. Listed structures may not be demolished or significantly altered without approval of the city’s Historic Preservation Board. Since the program’s inception, 77 individual homes and two entire neighborhoods – the College Quarter and Virginia Heights East – have been listed.   Because of the protection of this ordinance, and the dedication and community spirit of the homeowners, homes like this Gamble Rogers-designed Colonial Revival on Alberta Drive will grace Winter Park for at least another 75 years:

 Image

 And this 1926 Tudor Revival ‘gingerbread’ home, located on Palmer Avenue, will delight children in future generations who bike the sidewalks of Palmer Avenue:

 Image

Across town, this craftsman style home on Hillcrest will survive future changes in ownership and continue to add charm and character to its beautiful neighborhood:

 hillcrest

These preservation success stories point to the city’s will and ability to safeguard its uniqueness. At the same time, it is difficult to square Winter Park’s stated commitment to preserving our architecture with the inch-thick computer printout of single family home demolitions we were provided by the City clerk’s office last week.  Apparently, the last two decades have been a good time to be in the demo business.demo permits 2

The report details the following:

  • Since 1993, more than 1 in every 8 single family homes, or 1,066 of 8,440, was demolished in the City of Winter Park.    This ratio is more than double the national average.
  • Not surprisingly, areas with older homes and valuable land, such as the “Vias” in Winter Park, have been particularly hard-hit. If you define the Vias as the area bound by Palmer Avenue on the South, Temple Drive on the East, Lake Maitland on the West and Howell Branch Road on the North, 174 homes were razed in two decades, about 10 each year.
  • Of the 61 houses on Via Tuscany, one in three are ‘replacement’ houses that did not exist 20 years ago.  This number was exceeded only on Venetian Way, which saw 22 of its homes razed.
  • 13 of 46 of the houses on Via Lugano have been demolished and replaced in the last 20 years.
  • Of the 10 houses on the Isle of Sicily, only 4 existed in 1990. Only 1 existed in 1980.

The bottom line is that over the last 20 years, for every one house protected by our Historic Preservation program, five homes were demolished.

Sadly, there is an economic incentive for the city of Culture and History, in difficult budgeting times, to allow its older, smaller homes to be replaced with Supersized versions.  As with most all municipalities, Winter Park’s budget is directly tied to individual property values, and replacing a $400,000 bungalow with a $4 million behemoth yields obvious near-term fiscal benefits. Multiply this increase by, let’s say, 1066, and we’re talking real money.

Yet the intent of this blog post is not to decry all, or even most, home demolitions. Should every nondescript cinderblock rancher be preserved in perpetuity, simply because it’s achieved AARP status?  Of course not.  Is it possible, though, that the City of Culture and History may be complicit in the destruction of some of its most valuable assets – its unique historic architecture? Could we be standing by while the baby is tossed out with the bathwater? Absolutely.

The challenge, then, is deciding which homes should be protected as historically significant, and which ones left vulnerable to the wrecking ball of progress.  Let’s be clear: this discernment process will require some governmental authority making a value judgment on what should be saved, and this is anathema to private property purists.  Yet we fool ourselves if we think that government doesn’t already limit what we can do with our property.  If the guy down the block hasn’t paved his front yard to set up a brake repair business, you have zoning to thank.  If your neighbor hasn’t built a four-story tower looming over your backyard, thank P & Z.  Historic preservation is just one more tool communities have to protect the value and quality of life in their neighborhoods.

Consider what other Florida communities have done to protect historic buildings from overzealous development:

Review of Demolition Requests: Ten years ago, as a result of the loss of historically significant non-designated buildings, the Coral Gables City Commission passed an ordinance that requires its Historic Preservation Officer’s approval of ALL demolitions.  If a building is deemed historic by staff, the request is referred to the Preservation Board, which undertakes a full assessment.  Since the ordinance has been in place, the HP Board has denied only 50 out of 750 demolition requests.  Those 50 properties were then granted protection status on the City’s Register of Historic Places; the other 700 were demolished—hardly an all-out war on property rights.  Jacksonville, Sarasota and Islamorada are among cities that have similar review processes.

Demolition delays/waiting periods:  St. Augustine has an ordinance that requires HP board review of demolition requests for the following: buildings that are over 50 years old, buildings recorded on the state inventory (Florida Master Site File), buildings in historic preservation zoning districts, and contributing buildings to National Register districts.  A delay may be imposed for up to 24 months while solutions to a proposed demolition are sought.  Additionally, with granting a demolition, the board may require documentation and salvage, as well as a requirement that full building plans be prepared prior to the release of the demolition permit.   New Smyrna Beach, Melbourne, Naples and St. Petersburg have delay ordinances worthy of study as well.

Hardly a new idea, ordinances safeguarding historically significant buildings actually predate the Roman Empire.  Even Stonehenge, privately owned in the 1800s, was nearly demolished when the British government intervened.  To his credit, Winter Park Mayor Ken Bradley recently told Sentinel columnist Beth Kassab he wants the city to review its entire demolition process. This is the right move. The Friends of Casa Feliz look forward to working in cooperation with city leaders to strengthen our preservation ordinance, and to safeguard Winter Park’s architectural heritage for future generations to enjoy.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Let’s Cherish – Not Demolish – Our Heritage

  1. Aimee Spencer

    West Palm Beach also requires the new plans to be submitted and approved before demolition permits are granted on non contributing structures in historic districts to ensure that the new building somehow speaks to those the district.

  2. LESLIE

    YOU MUST FIGHT CITY OFFICIALS, BY REPLACING THEM,BECAUSE THEY HAVE ALREADY DESTROYED MUCH OF W.P.’S CHARM. WE HAVE NO ZONING RULES TO PRESERVE OLD ESTATES. OUR OFFICIALS ARE MORE CONCERNED WITH $$$$$$$, THAN PRESERVATION.
    WINTER PARK WILL JUST BE AN ORDINARY FLORIDA TOWN, LIKE OTHER ORDINARY TOWNS ACROSS OUR NEWISH U.S.A. VERY SAD! TO SEE REAL CHARM ONE MUST GO TO ENGLAND AND OTHER EUROPEAN COUNTRIES,WHO STRIVE AND DIE FOR PRESERVATION.

  3. Dr. Horace Edward Hall II

    Go CASA FELIZ!!! I’m proud of your stand regarding preservation in my beloved city of Winter Park. Where were you when they demolished the Langford?

  4. Judy Kurtz

    What a thoughtful and balanced presentation of the preservation dilemma!!! I loved Winter Park for the 20 years that we lived there, and continue to enjoy returning for visits each year. How could anyone argue with all that is being said in the above blog??? Thanks to Casa Feliz, its board, and Betsy Owens for speaking out in support of historic preservation for Winter Park. The Historic Preservation officer for the City of Winter Park has her hands tied if she isn’t supported in the community by enough citizens who care about this issue. Casa Feliz is providing education that will help to engage the community in that way.

    Judy Kurtz,
    Concord, Vermont

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