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Should Rochester do more to support historic preservation?

Should Rochester do more to support historic preservation?

The Rochester City Council voted Monday night to table a recommendation from the Heritage Preservation Commission that would designate a portion of the downtown a commercial historic district.

Council Member Mark Bilderback, whose Fourth Ward includes the downtown area, said he hopes postponing the decision will give the city’s newly-formed Community Development Department more time to address concerns related to the proposed district.

Approximately 30 contributing properties are included in the proposed district.

Approximately 30 contributing properties are included in the proposed district.

“We need to see how we can support and help the businesses that are out there,” said Bilderback.

Ahead of the meeting, more than a dozen property owners in the three-block area signed on to a letter opposing the HPC recommendation. Many of them also wrote individual notes with concerns of how the proposed district could impact the long-term values of their properties.

Kathleen Harrington, president of the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce, also urged the council not to support the designation.

“We believe that a historic district designation policy without compensatory financial support for the costs associated with compliance with the increased regulatory burden is unfair to individuals and detrimental to small business and community vitality,” said Harrington.

Council President Randy Staver agreed with Bilderback that more information is needed before making a decision on the topic. He also suggested that the city consider incentives for property owners.

“At a minimum, we as a community need to stand up and say, if we want to preserve an asset — invest in an asset — then we need to step up,” said Staver. “And that probably means some sort of financial contribution.”

Bilderback acknowledged that in the past the council has pledged to provide support for owners of historic buildings. However, up until this point, he said the city has “failed to find pathways to make it happen.”

Holding up a stack of letters and emails he has received, Bilderback also said there have been “a lot of myths and a lot of rumors spreading around as to what this is going to do to you as a property owner.”

“We also need to do a better job in telling you what this means and what it doesn’t mean,” he said.

Council Member Michael Wojcik, who supports the proposed district, said there has been a fair amount of “fear mongering going on” regarding how the historic designation would impact property owners.

In a blog post prior to the meeting, Wojcik wrote that the restrictions being recommended by the HPC “are among the most mild” he has ever seen in any historic district. Wojcik said nothing included in the proposal would inhibit the current use of the buildings or modifications to their interiors.

“This is truly about preserving the public realm,” he said.

Wojcik recommended looking at a number of inventives to assist owners of historic properties, including waiving or reducing future development fees and potentially providing public subsidies.

“We do have to get to a point where we actually make a decision,” Wojcik said Monday night. “Is preservation in a downtown historic district something we value in this community or not?”

The council is scheduled to revisit the topic on August 19.

Sean Baker is a Rochester journalist and the founder of Med City Beat.

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