Astoria enjoys a rare asset in historic homes and buildings. In a nation whose cities and towns increasingly look alike, Astoria is a very particular place. The town's singularity becomes more profound with each passing year.
On balance, a large share of Astoria's population grasps the value of our history. Our collective smile broadens when we see the Flavel House looking so good. All of us are cheered by the latest restoration inside the Liberty Theater. It is delightful to observe the new paint job on a long-neglected Victorian home.
But we have yet to make a collective decision that we'll get serious about enforcing the rules of the historic landmarks process. And that's why we continue to replay a process that is disappointing and short-sighted and squanders the value of our heritage.
Three times over, we have seen a sequence of events such as the following. A building owner purchases windows for his historic property. Having made the financial commitment - and in two of the cases, installing the windows - the owner approaches the city Historic Landmarks Review Commission (HLRC). The commission rules against the owner, who appeals the judgment to the city council, arguing that he has already made a significant outlay of money.
This process played itself out in the Columbia Chocolates building at Duane Street and 14th last September. Now it is replaying in two other buildings: The Portway Tavern and the Astoria Building at 14th Street and Marine Drive.
The City Council overruled the HLRC on the Columbia Chocolates building, with Councillor Don Morden not voting but sending his colleagues a personal letter, asking them to make an exception. Morden once owned Columbia Chocolates.
Soon the council will hear an appeal of the Portway Tavern. The HLRC last week ruled against its owners, City Councillor Bob Heilman and his wife Phyllis Ham.
Blame is not the point at this stage of the game. The only question is: Where does the city go from here? If the City Council can be counted upon to overrule the HLRC, there is effectively no historic preservation policy.
Windows might sound like a small matter, and appellants have played that theme. But windows are the soul of all buildings. One of the special values in 19th century and early 20th century homes was the care taken in placement and construction of windows. "Windows are analogous to a person's eyes," says David Skilton, design review and tax incentive specialist at the State Historic Preservation Office.
"It's often possible to identify someone in a photograph by looking at the eyes. In the same way, windows contribute to the character of buildings.
"You don't poke somebody's eyes out."
Upholding the standard on historic preservation is like maintaining zoning standards. Quality developers prefer strong zoning and strict enforcement. They don't want to build a quality building, only to have a shoddy building allowed next door. But in Astoria that is precisely what the city council is allowing in a series of rulings.
Allowing a succession of exceptions to the historic preservation process is an insult to the many home and building owners who have done it the right way. It devalues the town's stock of historic architecture. It is also unfair to the HLRC and city staff, who are portrayed as villains when they are only enforcing a process which is straightforward and to which the city has agreed.
Part of what this debate centers on is a matter of scale. Councilors would assuredly not permit the county Historical Society to trash the Flavel House. The question is: When and where will councilors draw the line?
Does it build value to nod approvingly at the Flavel House's restoration and applaud winners of the Dr. Edward Harvey Historical Preservation Award while allowing a succession of building owners exceptions which effectively trash their historical structures?
Building owners with no intention of honoring the historic preservation rules will violate them, pleading ignorance and knowing that the Astoria City Council won't play for keeps.