Urbana rejects landmark designation for building

URBANA — A vote for historic landmark protection for the vacant Zeta Tau Alpha sorority house fell short of a two-thirds majority on Monday night after an attorney representing the owner raised questions about the constitutionality of the city's law.

The city council has spent a lot of time debating the merits of the sorority house's historic significance during the past two months. Four of seven council members said they were ready to name the building at 1404 S. Lincoln Ave. a local landmark, but five votes were needed to pass the designation.

Brianna Kraft, who submitted the landmarking application, said the sorority house deserves that designation, which limits the property owner's ability to substantially alter the building's exterior. Significant changes to local landmarks must go through the city for approval.

She said the building's architecture and its association with a notable local architecture firm — Royer, Danley and Smith — makes the Zeta Tau Alpha house a good candidate.

Kraft is a resident of Lena but just completed a master's program at the University of Illinois' School of Architecture. She said the application originally came about at the recommendation of one of her instructors, who is an active local historic preservationist.

"I care a lot about this community," Kraft said. "I've lived here for a long time, and I'd like to see that some of the local architecture is celebrated."

The designation failed with little council comment on Monday night, though members have been discussing it for weeks. Alderpersons Carol Ammons, Michael P. Madigan and Diane Marlin voted against the designation.

Before the vote, an attorney representing the owner said the city's historic preservation ordinance has no time limit within which the city council must make its decision.

The ordinance requires that a recommendation from the city's historic preservation commission shall be forwarded to the city council for consideration within 60 days. Monday was the 61st day since the commission recommended the city council approve the application, but council members have been considering the issue for weeks.

Hypothetically, said attorney Colleen Ramais, the council could leave the vote hanging for months. Meanwhile, property owners cannot make any significant changes to the property while the historic landmark application is in limbo.

The ordinance potentially deprives property owners of their constitutional right to due process, Ramais said, and could leave local landmark designations open to court challenges.

"In that case, I think that we would be on solid ground on an appeal," Ramais said.

Several speakers on Monday night took the podium to support the landmark designation, including Preservation and Conservation Association President Lee Stoops, former president Rich Cahill and local historic preservationist Brian Adams.

Frank Butterfield, director of the Landmarks Illinois office in Springfield, said the University of Illinois has been losing its fraternity and sorority houses at a "significant" pace.

"It's a resource that's worthy of protecting, and it's one that's becoming increasingly rare," Butterfield said.

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