Business owners and residents of the Pike/Pine neighborhood are so dissatisfied with a city proposal to protect the neighborhood’s old buildings from encroaching ugly, dull development that they are calling on the city to halt demolition in the area.

When City Council Member Tom Rasmussen discussed the plan in October, he intended to “retain the character of the neighborhood” by providing protections for buildings that housed historic arts and nightlife uses. Developers and community leaders applauded several approaches in Rasmussen’s proposal: Capping the floor area of new developments, giving developers incentive to build additions onto old buildings rather than tear them down, and allowing owners of old short buildings to sell the height above them to developers. But after Rasmussen’s proposal went to the Department of Planning and Development, which reports to the mayor, the proposal returned lacking those practical solutions. (I write about DPD's proposal here.)

“They have really avoided any rules or regulations that can effectively preserve the character of the community,” says Chip Wall, a member of the Pike/Pine Urban Neighborhood Council (PPUNC), a group of business owners, developers and residents.

Last week, PPUNC’s steering committee fired off a letter to Rasmussen airing their disapproval. In lieu of the provisions supported by PPUNC, the group wrote, “We believe that a short-term moratorium on demolition is warranted.” PPUNC also attached an excellent letter by Liz Dunn, a member of the group and a Pike/Pine developer who specializes in renovating old buildings. Here’s an excerpt:

There is an important connection between Pike-Pine's old buildings and its unique economic value. Old buildings can support lower rents, attract a variety of unique retailers, restaurants and arts users, and in turn attract people to visit from outside the neighborhood and attract additional residents (and additional local businesses) to want to establish themselves in the neighborhood. […]

What happens when [developers tear down an old building to] redevelop is that they "win" economically, in the short term, and everyone around them, including adjacent property owners lose in the long term. In economist terms the redevelopers are 'free riders', i.e. by demolishing and building higher, they cash in ('ride on') the neighborhood character that exists because I and other neighboring property owners have not demolished. Currently there's no policy mechanism to prevent this unfair transfer of value. This is why I believe we need mandates, not just incentives, and the mandate to adhere to the urban grain of our neighborhood by staying within a reasonable lot size was an important one. I'm not sure why the city has given up on this … and I wish we had received more explanation.

The group is calling on the city to limit the size of new developments and provide financial incentives to preserve buildings more than 75 years old. The problem under with the current proposal, Wall says: “It’s cheaper to tear down and start from scratch than preserve” an old building.