City considers revisions to historic preservation code

A proposed revision to the City of Tacoma’s historic preservation ordinance could give buildings under consideration for historic designation extra protection from a developer’s wrecking ball, according to a presentation yesterday at City Hall.
If approved by City Council this spring, the law change could extend from 60 days to 90 days the amount of time available for the city’s landmarks preservation commission to schedule a public meeting for buildings, sites, structures or objects that the commission deems suitable for the city’s historic register.
Currently, the law prohibits anyone from altering or destroying any such item under consideration by the commission for 60 days.
“If they don’t schedule a public hearing in a timely fashion, it kills the nomination,” said Reuben McKnight, the city’s historic preservation officer, who presented the code revisions yesterday to members of Tacoma City Council’s neighborhoods and housing committee. “This is designed to protect a building while it is under review.”
The proposed revision is one of several recommendations slated for review by the landmarks preservation commission, Tacoma residents, and City Council over the next several months.
Other highlights of the proposed revisions include:
— Increased authority for the historic preservation officer to approve (without landmarks preservation commission review) alterations to a building that faces “an immediate and urgent threat of structural failure or significant damage.” This code change would allow the building owner, city engineers, and historic preservation officer to act quickly to prevent a building from weather damage or structural collapse, according to McKnight. A report documenting the circumstances and rationale for the alterations would be made at the next regular landmarks commission meeting;
— In the North Slope Historic District, alterations to public amenities such as street furniture, streetlighting, paving, sidewalks, trees, and planting strips would be subject to the review and approval of the landmarks preservation commission. The issue arose several years ago when the City installed standard-issue streetlights in the historic district. Many district residents complained the streetlights clashed with the neighborhood’s historic character. McKnight said the change is designed to allow the city to conduct its projects within the historic district, while also providing residents with reasonable expectations in terms of design.
The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission is scheduled to review all of the recommendations Feb. 27. A public hearing is planned for April. And recommendations should reach City Council in June.
In 2005, the code was updated to further protect historic resources, improve the code’s ease of use for property owners and city staff, and better the efficiency and predictability of the design review process.