Urbana delays vote on unwanted landmark status

URBANA — City council members on Monday night tangled on the fate of a historic landmark designation for a vacant Lincoln Avenue sorority house, but ultimately deferred the matter to an August meeting.

Some council members are frustrated with the trajectory of the designation and said that attempts are being made to circumvent the process while the sorority house's owner awaits a vote before it can make any major repairs to the building.

"This process is flawed," said Colleen Ramais, an attorney representing the Zeta Tau Alpha Fraternity, which owns the house at 1404 S. Lincoln Ave. "The way it has been conducted here has not been in following of the ordinance."

Four city council members supported the landmark designation in a committee meeting last week. That simple majority moved it along in the process, but a two-thirds majority — five votes — is needed to confirm the designation.

The city council will need that two-thirds majority because Zeta Tau Alpha has protested the application.

Historic landmark protection makes it harder for an owner to alter a building, and a building must meet a number of criteria before it is listed. Local landmarks are generally associated with a prominent person or are architecturally significant, among other criteria, and changes to the landmark 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 master's 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.

That has been another sticking point for the owner, Ramais said, as the sorority has not had an opportunity to question the petitioner during any kind of hearing.

Under a special council rule, any council member — in this case it was Alderman Charlie Smyth, D-Ward 1 — can move to defer an issue to a later meeting. A second to that motion automatically delays the vote — no debate or council approval is required.

Alderman Michael P. Madigan, R-Ward 6, fought the motion to defer the vote to an Aug. 5 meeting, and he said any further delay in the process is inappropriate. Alderwoman Carol Ammons, D-Ward 3, said it seems attempts are being made to "supersede the ordinance and make accommodations where, in many cases, an accommodation should not be made."

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 since hired a local manager to keep the building up to code.

Historic preservationist Brian Adams told the city council that submitting an application to designate a local landmark involves a great amount of effort and time, and anyone who does so should be commended.

He also said the city's historic preservation ordinance has been followed, and the rules are in good standing.

"It was not created overnight and is in accordance with similar ordinances throughout the state and country," Adams said.

In other business, Alderman Eric Jakobsson, D-Ward 2, cast what he called a symbolic vote against reorganizing a city function. In a procedural matter, the city's parking enforcement duties were reclassified under the finance department from its current status under the police department.

Jakobsson said his no vote was to defend the finance department in a time when it is "not stable." Personnel gaps remain after Mayor Laurel Prussing in June did not reappoint the city's accounting supervisor to her job at the beginning of the fiscal year on July 1. The city's then-Comptroller Bill DeJarnette resigned, citing a "toxic" work environment.

"It doesn't seem to me to be an appropriate time," Jakobsson said.

Urbana resident Carlos Donaldson spoke at the beginning of Monday's meeting to commend DeJarnette for his resignation.

Prussing said reclassifying the parking enforcement duties does not add any burden to the finance department.

"They're already doing it, and they have staff that are experienced in doing it," Prussing said.

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787 wrote on July 16, 2013 at 10:07 am

The applicant for the landmark status is unresponsive, and no longer has any ties to the area.  If she *really* cared, she'd make some sort of an effort.

But since she obviously doesn't care anymore, toss it out and move on.