Chicago Landmark Law in Limbo
In 2009, the Illinois Appellate Court declared Chicago’s landmark law “unconstitutionally vague.” The City of Chicago then appealed the decision to the Illinois Supreme Court, sending the case back to square one at the Cook County Circuit Court with Judge Sophia Hall. This case is high profile with the Chicago area historic preservationists and property-rights advocates, leaving them anxiously awaiting a decision.
Since the Appellate Court ruling, Chicago has not created a new landmark district. However, they continue to designate buildings at the usual pace. From 2006 through 2009, the city created three, four, two and two districts each year respectively. Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago, explained the slowdown to correlate with the real estate development market slowdown rather than the ruling. “What is missing in 2010 that we had in 2005 was the hyper-inflated real estate development market. It was that real demolition frenzy that was initiating these landmarking discussions at that time.”
Regardless of why the City of Chicago has slowed in creating districts, this case has the potential to affect other cities. Chicago uses seven standards to decide which buildings and districts to protect, typically using “significant” to describe a building or site of an important architect or historic event. Boston and New York City use similar language, potentially allowing any Chicago judgment to affect them. If the court strikes down the law, that could embolden property owners to challenge the landmark status of their property.
Judge Hall has divided the case in two: the challenge to the landmark law and the validity of two city landmark districts. Plaintiff’s attorney Thomas Ramsdell has called the two districts “arbitrary and capricious,” arguing that the ulterior motive to create them was to stop the spread of large new houses in the Arlington-Deming and East Village Districts. Chicago made a motion to dismiss the district challenge, which Judge Hall granted. Hall then is allowing Ramsdell until the August 27th hearing to amend his case.