A tool for preservation? An infringement on property rights? Let’s take a deep look at the HCB.
If you’re interested in understanding the renovations and demolitions of historic buildings in Cincinnati, a key player to recognize is the city’s Historic Conservation Board, or the HCB. The board meets bimonthly and its meetings are open to the public. The HCB is given guidance by the Urban Conservator who is a paid employee of the city.
Want to better understand what the board is supposed to do and how its meetings go? Let’s dive in.
Formation of the HCB & Urban Conservator
The HCB oversees local designation of historic places and, along with the Urban Conservator, directs the review process for exterior renovations, additions and demolitions for historic buildings in Cincinnati. The city created this board in 1980 with the mission to conserve historically significant structures, sites or districts. The HCB is also tasked with creating conservation legislation to fight urban blight and encourage investment in historic areas. The goal of such legislation is to maintain the cultural heritage of these places and keep afloat (or improve) property values. During the HCB’s formation in 1980, conservation was seen as an important part of the city’s quality of life for both environmental and aesthetic reasons.
The Current Makeup of the HCB
The HCB’s seven-member, all-volunteer board is supposed to include one historic preservationist, one historian, two architects, an attorney, a real estate agent or developer and an economist. These members are appointed by the City Manager. To be a candidate, anybody can apply online for an open spot. Depending on the makeup of the board, the mission of the HCB – as laid out by the city – is interpreted differently by its various board members. HCB members carry the herculean task of reviewing proposals and providing guidance to applicants. Cincinnati preservationists often point out that the board’s interest in preservation vacillates depending on the political climate and members’ proclivity for new development in historic areas.
The two key tasks of the HCB are to handle local historic designations and to review historic rehab (or demo) projects. It can issue “certificates of appropriateness” for either building improvements or demolition if its members deem the proposed work acceptable and justifiable.
What Buildings are Reviewed by the HCB?
Per city code, buildings and structures are considered historic and thus governed by conservation guidelines and the HCB if they are:
- individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places
- individually designated as a historic landmark by the City of Cincinnati
- located within a historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places or a locally designated district
For example, all of our projects to date have been reviewed by the HCB or Urban Conservator.
To establish historic districts and/or designate individual buildings as historic landmarks, the district or structure must be considered historically significant. This includes that the building(s) must either be associated with past events that are part of broad historical patterns, or are connected to the lives of significant historic characters. Significance is also acknowledged when the building embodies a particular historical architectural style/period or method of construction. Finally, and simply, if the building “has yielded, or may be likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history,” it could be considered historically significant.
Generally, the building needs to be at least fifty years old, although if it is exceptionally unique and important to the city or a historic district, it could count as historically significant even if it was built recently. Much of this is pretty subjective, and one of the key reasons why the HCB employs a historian. An old church graveyard is not automatically considered historically significant; if the people interred there were connected to important historical events or patterns, then it could count. If the graves themselves were of a distinctive historic design, the cemetery could count. Sometimes even rebuilt or moved structures can be historically significant. If you want to know more about this thorny issue of historical significance, check out this article.
Role and Qualifications of the Urban Conservator
The Urban Conservator, currently Beth Johnson, has a coinciding duty with the HCB to keep track of Cincinnati’s historic building stock and make sure conservation guidelines are being followed.
The Conservator has to have at least three years of experience in private development to get the job. In her role, Johnson acts as the “keeper” of the historic areas in Cincinnati – helping with historic preservation research, initiatives, policy and making sure it’s in line with federal and state historic standards. The review process for renovation work done on historic buildings starts with Johnson and she makes recommendations to the HCB which then takes over.
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Sometimes, alterations to buildings don’t have to go all the way to the HCB for approval; Johnson can approve or deny minor changes (no demo, no structural changes) and thus issue COAs. The Conservator also is tasked with administering technical advice for developers and property owners.
Local Historic Designation
One of the tasks of the HCB is to designate areas as historic. After an area is proposed (this proposal can come from property owners, from a City Council member, from a HCB member, or even from a community group), the Urban Conservator and staff study the area for architectural and historic significance. During this review, nothing within the proposed area may be demolished.
This research includes meeting with current property owners as well as surveying the area and conducting a historical analysis. Completed within sixty days, final results get compiled into a report. The Urban Conservator presents this to the HCB. Included in this submission are the suggested conservation guidelines and physical parameters designed to maintain the character of that place. Non-contributing buildings (buildings that aren’t historic) within the boundaries are specifically listed.
Following review by the Urban Conservator, the proposed historic district is then passed to the HCB.
Within 30 days the HCB must make a recommendation to the City Planning Commission which must then make its own decision within 30 days.
City Council is the final step in the process wherlie a majority of City Council must affirm the decision of the Planning Commission or two-thirds is required to overrule it.
Once approved, guidelines for the district/site are included in the final designation.
You can find all of these guidelines per district here. The guidelines are designed to encourage renovation of historic buildings to a standard based on the “integrity of existing historic structures” rather than a certain time period. They also promote new development that is compatible and address how to handle non-contributing structures. Once designated, the landmark, district or site has to be drawn on city zoning maps.
Designated historic districts are overlay districts, placed over and incorporated into existing zoning rules and regulations. HCB is allowed to grant conditional permits and variances (for things like building heights, parking, fences, landscaping), all to encourage the renovation of historic properties, as long as the approvals do not badly affect public health, safety or other property nearby. The decisions made by the HCB supersede the underlying zone(s), thus allowing the HCB to act in that moment with the authority granted to the Zoning Hearing Examiner who normally makes the calls about variances and uses.
Difference Between Local and National Historic Districts
The designations that exist at the local level here in Cincinnati often coincide with existing federal historic districts, but are two separate initiatives. For instance, the Over-the-Rhine National Historic District, like all other nationally recognized ones, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, administered and managed by the National Park Service and the State Historic Preservation Office. Alternatively, the Auburn Avenue and Betts-Longworth Historic Districts, for example, have nothing to do with the federal or state government; they were deemed historically significant at the local level by the HCB.
Designations can change or disappear. If a determined property owner petitions the HCB that the qualities which prompted the designation in the first place have been lost or amended somehow, then the designation process repeats itself (i.e. goes through the HCB, Planning Commission and then City Council) to repeal the historic label or amend its guidelines.
The Review Process and COAs
The other big role of the HCB is the review process for historic building alterations. Building components such as window/door size or the appearance of a roof line are often under scrutiny. The use of new building materials (i.e. using vinyl on a brick building) or new construction (like a new roof deck or porch) would likewise be subject to evaluation. In general, the idea of the conservation guidelines, per district, is to restrict the removal or alteration of key, architecturally significant features.
What an HCB Meeting is Like
HCB meetings can be long and tedious. But they’re very important. They’re usually held in the Centennial Plaza on the 5th floor, but can be held at City Hall or elsewhere if a big crowd is expected. As you walk in, there will be a table with packets of paper. Prepared by Beth Johnson, these are the overviews of the project undergoing review that meeting. You can also find these (very long) agendas online as well.
When a project within a historic district or area submits for permits, city reviewers check the proposed rehab work against conservation guidelines. If exterior renovation work is anticipated, then either the Conservator approves the plans (if they’re minor enough) or the developer must submit an application for a COA and go in front of the HCB at one of its regularly scheduled public meetings.
Even before the meeting, the owner’s application for a COA is distributed to all city departments who might have a stake in the matter, to other property owners within 200 feet of the subject property’s boundaries and to the neighborhood community council. These notices often result in a pre-hearing where the owner and all affected municipal and community members can discuss the project. HCB members are not permitted at these pre-meetings but affected parties can submit their approval or disapproval of the project to the HCB thereafter.
For the actual meeting, the HCB alerts the owner and all the city and community members mentioned above of the upcoming hearing at least seven days in advance. The meetings procede in an orderly, formal fashion. A city attorney is always present to advise the HCB members if necessary.
Generally, if you need a COA, you sit in front of the panel of HCB members (the Conservator is there, often off to the side) and answer questions. Any testimony you or witnesses you call up give is under oath. Any feedback from the public (community members and other private citizens are allowed to speak, usually in 2 minute intervals, in favor or in opposition of a COA) must be under oath. The general outcomes of the HCB are to approve the COA, approve with conditions or deny the COA. Any matters that were tabled (and this happens fairly often) must be determined within thirty days.
In overseeing alterations done on historic structures, the HCB is primarily interested in what is being done to the exterior of a building. Nonetheless, alterations subject to review can include material changes to the inside if such interior features are specifically mentioned in the historic designation or interior rehab work threatens the structural integrity of the building.
The approval of a COA requires the property owner to submit credible proof that their proposal fits the conservation guidelines – or he or she must demonstrate that they will suffer economic hardship if their application for a COA is denied. To consider economic hardship, the HCB must determine if there are other, financially-viable ways to proceed without acting in violation of the historic guidelines. Other questions include: how will the property owner be affected, in terms of his/her investment, if the COA is denied? Has he or she brought economic hardship on him/herself?
The HCB considers economic return from the building (with or without the COA), whether or not the owner has tried to sell the building and whether or not the owner applied for public or private funding (things like historic preservation tax credits from the state and federal government). What other uses of the building exist that could help boost economic return? Did the owner know about the historic designation when he or she purchased the property? Have they done anything negligent to the site in their ownership?
These questions are especially important when demolitions of historic buildings are considered. Demolitions require the owner to go to lengths to prove the building’s renovation would not result in a reasonable economic return. If the owner is a non-profit, demolition of a building could occur if the organization can prove that the building is not compatible with its organizational purpose. Other reasons used to request a COA for demolition (some of them mentioned above) include: I can’t sell the building (again, demonstrating that the building isn’t economically viable for me or others); I can’t get historic preservation tax credits to help fix up the building; the building is a danger to the public; it isn’t historically significant or it’s “non-contributing” to the historic district.
If a decision about a demolition cannot be made at that meeting, the HCB can vote on a “demolition delay” for 180 days. The hope is that another solution, other than razing the building, will be found in this interim. The HCB and the applicant (and any opposition to demolition) are required to work towards solutions.
Outside of the HCB’s purview, when the Chief Building Official and the Fire Chief decide a building has to go because it is a public safety threat, “emergency demolition” occurs.
The Appeals Process
Any “adversely affected person” – which can include other property owners or a community organization – may appeal a HCB decision. The appeal process goes as follows:
You appeal to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) within 30 days of the HCB ruling; a person with legal standing must submit the application. Within 21 days of filing for an appeal, the appellant has to produce a complete record of the proceedings, including a transcript of all testimony, pertaining to the HCB decision.
At the public ZBA meeting, the appellant and the opposition can personally or through legal counsel present arguments based on the evidence in the record. Nothing new can be added unless evidence is missing from the record or someone gave testimony at the HCB that wasn’t under oath. Basically, the ZBA insists that you have to continue to address evidence first entered into the record during the HCB meeting(s)). No other person gets to speak; no new people get to talk. The ZBA can affirm, change or reverse the HCB decision. A majority of the members of the ZBA must be present and voting is required to make any changes.
If you still don’t like the ZBA ruling, you appeal then to the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas.
Finally, Some History
The creation of the HCB in 1980 grew from growing midcentury civic interest in historic preservation and, more specifically, from the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act that established preservation roles for federal, state and local government.
Thanks to the post-World War II suburban construction boom, municipal reliance on “urban renewal” as a way to revive downtowns (usually demolition to eradicate “blight”) and the expanding highway system that often cut through whole neighborhoods, more Americans began to recognize the importance of historic preservation.
The National Historic Preservation Act – part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society which coincided with the modern environmental movement that also critiqued heedless development – was unprecedented federal legislation. The National Trust for Historic Preservation published a report earlier that year that detailed what had been lost of American architecture. The report called for many things, including: a comprehensive survey of historically and architecturally significant buildings and other sites; their inclusion in a National Register; joint efforts by all layers of government to deal with preservation issues; the creation of a national advisory council of these matters; preservation officers for each state; and a program of financial incentives to help renovate older structures (to help offset all the subsidization and funding available for new construction in the mid-20th century).
The Act was based off these recommendations and revolutionized preservation by making it a national topic and a priority for government. The Act also changed the idea of historic significance to include whole city blocks and districts – a diversity of places that reflected a myriad of historical developments. Pre-1966, preservationists relied on getting specific landmarks designated as a way to save them and trusted that local historic societies would preserve individual “great” buildings, usually by turning them into museums. Only a small number of historic districts existed as courts viewed them as infringements on property rights.
While the Act laid out federal and state roles for preservation, it spurred many at the municipal level to pass preservation ordinances, regulations and incentives. This place-specific idea of preservation underscores the idea, embedded in the ‘66 Act and a lot of other federal and local legislation of the ‘60s, that each community should determine for itself what is important and each community should set up review agencies to manage such decisions.
Throughout the late ‘60s – thanks to LBJ’s Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and the Model Cities program of ’66, and due to Cincinnati’s Planning Commission’s interest in neighborhood planning – grassroots interest in urban rehabilitation grew. Community councils began to form and often advocated for historic preservation. The first two such community councils here were the North Avondale Neighborhood Association and the Clifton Town Meeting.
In 1973 Cincinnati passed an ordinance to establish an Architectural Board of Review, a precursor to the HCB, and enacted another ordinance to protect buildings of unusual historic value or architectural merit. Much of this advocacy came from Republican Councilmembers and other party members who since the ‘50s had thought historic preservation could be an economic development tool. The Architectural Board first oversaw the renovation of the Lytle Park area as the city’s first historic district.
Also instrumental in these local conservation efforts was the Miami Purchase Association (which became the Cincinnati Preservation Association in ‘92). Founded in 1964, it surveyed and reviewed historic areas, working with the state and local officials in the process, and itself fundraised and saved historic buildings in Cincinnati.
By the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, as city leaders continued to worry about urban “leakage” to the suburbs, they insisted Cincinnati needed to be a more “livable city,” and that residential neighborhood preservation and development were crucial to this. The city manager created a new Department of Neighborhood Housing and Conservation to spearhead rehabilitation of old building stock. He also transformed the Department of Urban Development into the Department of Economic Development and put Nell Surber as its head.
Working with the Cincinnati Business Committee (CBC; an association of big business leaders), Surber used federal, state and local subsidies to restore some historic structures and build new ones. A new comprehensive downtown plan was adopted that, among many other things, called for the designation of four downtown historic districts. Lastly, the city issued a revised historic conservation ordinance, from which the existing HCB was born, replacing the Architectural Board. The HCB soon established local historic districts, including three in the Central Business District and one in Mt. Auburn. Another early designation, the West Fourth Street Historic District, received the support of many in Cincinnati, including many neighborhood councils, who rallied, “Fourth Street is everybody’s neighborhood.”
Some groups, such as the Over-the-Rhine Historic Council in the mid-80s, opposed federal and local designation out of fear that they would adversely affect low-income residents in the neighborhood. In these years, there were also others in the business community who saw historic conservation as anti-growth.
Over the years, the HCB has been crucial to historic preservation and renovation in Cincinnati, and should be given credit for much of the economic growth that Cincinnati is experiencing today.
“City of Cincinnati, Code of Ordinances, Title XIV Zoning Code of the City of Cincinnati, Chapter 1435, Historic Preservation,” City of Cincinnati, published September 27, 2017, https://library.municode.com/oh/cincinnati/codes/code_of_ordinances?nodeId=TIXIZOCOCI_CH1435HIPR.
“City of Cincinnati, Code of Ordinances, Title XIV Zoning Code of the City of Cincinnati, Chapter 1449, Zoning Appeals,” City of Cincinnati, published September 27, 2017, https://library.municode.com/oh/cincinnati/codes/code_of_ordinances?nodeId=TIXIZOCOCI_CH1449ZOAP.
Collins, Richard C., Elizabeth B. Waters, A. Bruce Dotson, eds., America’s Downtown: Growth, Politics and Preservation (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1991).
“Historic Conservation,” City of Cincinnati, published 2017, http://www.cincinnati-oh.gov/buildings/historic-conservation/.
Miller, Zane and Bruce Tucker, “The New Urban Politics: Planning and Development in Cincinnati, 1954-1988,” in Snowbelt Cities: Metropolitan Politics in the Northeast and Midwest since World War II, ed. Richard M. Bernard (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990).
“Our History: 50 Years of Saving Buildings,” Cincinnati Preservation Association, published 2016, http://cincinnatipreservation.org/our-history-50-years-of-saving-buildings/.
Tyler, Norman, Historic Preservation: An Introduction to Its History, Principles, and Practice (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000).