191104_historic

The St. Joseph City Council removed an item to designate City Hall as a historic local landmark from their agenda in order to get more information on how it could impact future updates to the building.

Here’s a good rule of thumb about regulatory overreach.

If the municipal government thinks you’re going too far, then you’re going too far.

In St. Joseph, government staff is balking at the proposed designation of City Hall as a historic local landmark. It must have sounded like a good idea at first. After all, noted architect Edmund Eckel designed the building just before the Great Depression.

Then city officials realized they might have to go through extra hoops and hurdles just to replace windows, repair roofing or make other exterior improvements on the taxpayer’s dime.

“There were concerns that adding City Hall to the list of historic landmarks would keep officials from having final say when it comes to projects that may alter the exterior,” Clint Thompson, the city’s planning and community development director, told News-Press NOW.

Oh, the burden of extra paperwork and official authorization, just to appease some bureaucratic authority. You can imagine the chuckles from anyone who’s ever tried to build a new deck or start a business in St. Joseph.

Advocates for preservation allude to this apparent double standard when they suggest that the city doesn’t seem too keen to follow its own rules. We see it too, but we also see that “everyone else is doing it” doesn’t amount to good public policy, especially when the ultimate cost of upkeep falls on taxpayers instead of private investors.

That’s the real problem with what one Landmark Commission member calls an “extra layer of protection” to prevent property managers — in this case the city government — from making blunders in the renovation of historic buildings.

In theory, this extra layer is a good way to prevent someone from putting vinyl siding on the stone exterior of an Italian Renaissance Revival gem. In reality, this extra check likely means one of two things: either taxpayers have to pay more for building improvements or the city puts off renovation because of sticker shock, resulting in a structure falling into disrepair.

City officials should look a few blocks south of City Hall, to the Barbosa’s restaurant on Sylvanie Street, for a fair warning on the perils of preservation. About 12 years ago, that restaurant was embroiled in a debate on whether the replace its roof with cheaper asphalt materials or go with slate roofing, which is more historically accurate but considerably more expensive.

Some in St. Joseph were willing to run this business into the ground rather than violate some code of historic fealty. That should tell you all you need to know about the flexibility you’re likely to encounter from the preservation community.

A historic designation sounds nice, but the city is wise to run away as fast as it can.