Urbana council backs landmark status despite owner's objection
URBANA — A vacant Urbana sorority could be on its way to being designated a local landmark over the objection of its owner and some council members' objections to an absent applicant.
Meeting as the committee of the whole, city council members voted 4-2 on Monday night in favor of landmarking the Zeta Tau Alpha house at 1404 S. Lincoln Ave. That moves the issue to a regular council session next week, when the city council would need a two-thirds majority — five votes — to approve the landmark designation.
They will need that two-thirds majority because the property owner, the Zeta Tau Alpha Fraternity, has protested the application on the grounds that the application is insufficient and that the increased regulation will unduly increase its maintenance burden.
Historic landmark protection makes it harder for an owner to alter a building. Changes must go through the city and cannot significantly alter the building's historical value.
The applicant, Brianna Kraft, is a resident of Lena and was a student in a masters program in the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois when she submitted the application. She has since graduated and has not been present at several hearings on the matter.
Through its attorney, Colleen Ramais, the sorority has said that has effectively put city staff in the position of being an advocate for the application, and that is not fair to the property owner.
"This has put the property owner basically in the position of having to defend a moving target," Ramais said.
A few council members agreed that the process may need some work, but that did not necessarily change their votes.
"I think that's unfortunate (that the applicant has been absent), but I don't think that substantively changed the outcome," said Alderman Eric Jakobsson, D-Ward 2.
Alderwoman Carol Ammons, however, voted against the landmark designation for the home. She said some questions need to be addressed "before we force designations on people."
Alderman Michael P. Madigan, R-Ward 6, joined Ammons in voting against the designation. He said city council members, in this case, maybe should defer to the Zeta Tau Alpha Fraternity, which has owned the building since its construction in 1928.
"That is a big deal. These people commissioned this building. One owner, the entire time," Madigan said. "I doubt that there's another landmark in town that has the same owner the entire time."
He added that they should have had the opportunity to face the applicant in prior hearings.
"They should absolutely have been able to question the petitioner," Madigan said.
There has been some dispute over whether notable local architect Joseph Royer designed the building. His architecture firm, Royer, Danely and Smith, designed the building, but it is unclear whether Royer himself had a hand in it.
"We are maybe diminishing Royer's status by landmarking something that is not clearly a Royer," Madigan said.
According to city documents, the house was left in "a state of disrepair" by the fraternity to which Zeta Tau Alpha rented the house before it was vacated in 2009.
Zeta Tau Alpha has hired a local manager to keep the building up to code. The first floor windows are boarded on the interior, but calls to police about intruders are not uncommon. According to city documents, false fire alarms are reported frequently by the Urbana Fire Department as a result of what appears to be an aging and deteriorating fire alarm system.
The city has been working with Zeta Tau Alpha to have someone re-occupy the building, and Planning Manager Robert Myers reiterated on Monday night that city officials are not trying to make that harder for the sorority.
The discussion came three weeks after the city council approved a separate historic landmark application for a home just around the corner from the sorority house at 1207 S. Busey Ave., named the Reed-Sutton house for its former owners, who were both University of Illinois professors.
Twin City Bible Church owns that home and also protested the historic landmark designation. Church trustee Bryan Bloom said after the vote that the church is willing to work with the city under the historic landmark rules.