ACD MYTHS AND THE ACTUAL FACTS
MYTH: An Architectural Conservation District (ACD) is what they have in the South End.
FACT: An ACD is a designation in the city of Boston defined as: "An area containing any physical features or improvements or both which are of historical, social, cultural, architectural or aesthetic significance to the city and cause such area to constitute a distinctive section of the city." Where a district like that in the South End places strict aesthetic restrictions on what can be done, an ACD for Highland Park will be the result of a set of standards and criteria that will be developed in conjunction with the Landmarks Commission. These do not necessarily need to regulate what color to paint your door or whether you can have vinyl siding. The goal of Highland Park residents is to craft regulations that focus more on the "social" and "cultural" features of our neighborhood. The enabling legislation (MGL Chap. 772) points out that its purpose is:
to protect the beauty of the city of Boston and improve the quality of its environment through identification, recognition, conservation, maintenance and enhancement of areas, sites, structures and fixtures which constitute or reflect distinctive features of the political, economic, social, cultural or architectural history of the city;
to foster appropriate use and wider public knowledge and appreciation of such features, areas, sites, structures, and fixtures;
to resist and restrain environmental influences adverse to such purposes; and
to encourage private efforts in support of such purposes; and
by furthering such purposes, to promote the public welfare, to strengthen the cultural and educational life of the city and the commonwealth and to make the city a more attractive and desirable place in which to live and work.
Therefore, Highland Park seeks to have our ACD incorporate criteria that protect the neighborhood's "economic, social, cultural, and architectural history" and that make our neighborhood "a more attractive and desirable place in which to live and work" as put forth in the legislation.
MYTH: An ACD represents mostly new people and/or white people.
FACT: By virtue of living here, every adult resident of Highand Park - Fort Hill will have a voice. The Highland Park ACD is specifically designed by us for ourselves. It is designed to protect the people and lives that are already here and to help stop displacement. Irresponsible development comes hand in hand with displacement, and the ACD is designed to stop that kind of development and instead promote the lifestyle we already share here.
MYTH: An ACD will lower the value of my home or prevent me from building on my land.
FACT: Preservation is good for property values, and it spurs sustainable local economic growth. Many studies have been done (see a list of studies here, and some individual studies here, here, here, and here) examining what happens to property values in preservation districts. Not one study has ever shown a decrease in property values. ACDs help property owners to make informed decisions about how to build on their land so that value isn't ruined. If anyone has been trying to scare you about an ACD because it “hurts” property values, then they are either ignorant of the facts, or purposely misleading you. More often than not, it is developers and special interests who try to mislead people in these ways. The real economics of preservation is that it helps us!
MYTH: Every ACD District is the same. "My friend lived in XYZ district and hated it."
FACT: There are four Architectural Conservation Districts in Boston. There is no "one rule" for architectural conservation districts. Each district has different rules that are set up by the residents themselves in conjunction with the Boston Landmarks Commission. Some architectural conservation districts have very "strict" rules. Other historic districts have "mild" rules. Whatever an architectural conservation district is like in another neighborhood, doesn't mean anything in Highland Park - Fort Hill. Our neighborhood's ACD seeks to protect "economic, social, cultural, and architectural history" and make our neighborhood "a more attractive and desirable place in which to live and work" (to use again the language in the enabling statute).
MYTH: ACD means I will be forced to make repairs on my house.
FACT: The ACD standards and criteria are in the process of being written. The neighborhood is not seeking to regulate what you do with your house except if you plan a major addition or a demolition or major transformation, and we will strive in the Study Committee to establish standards and criteria in line with the overall stated goals of the neighborhood for the district. As formulated by the neighborhood, our purpose in seeking the ACD is to gain an additional tool for review of projects because the current circumstances have proven not to have been effective means for us to address our concerns.
MYTH: ACD will solve everything.
FACT: There is no one-stop solution to this complex situation. The ACD can work in concert with other neighborhood initiatives like the land trust and affordable housing (including limited equity co-ops). The ACD component will stop the tear-downs and the granting of permits and variances that go against the neighborhood wishes. Gentrification happens when developers are allowed to tear-down existing buildings and replace them with higher-priced new construction. The most affordable housing is the housing that already exists. Every time a building gets demolished or altered in a major way, we lose more of our neighborhood and our neighbors. The ACD is our single-best tool to address the zoning and demolition issues that are leading to these losses. Together with the land trust and affordable housing projects, all these initiatives can bring about what we are seeking.
MYTH: ACD means government control.
FACT: While the city helps enforce the rules in the district, there are no "city rules" controlling ACDs. The neighborhood writes its own rules in cooperation with the Boston Landmarks Commission. When a developer wants to make a new project or tear down an existing building, it will go through a review process that includes a hearing with ACD Committee that includes residents of the neighborhood.
MYTH: There will be burdensome restrictions, rules, and regulations on property owners.
FACT: Right now we are in the beginning of the process of making the standards and criteria with the city. The community members who are on the study committee intend during this process to create standards and criteria that will give us better tools for managing the types of building that have not protected the "economic, social, cultural, and architectural" elements in the neighborhood that have led to displacement. The community members on the study committee do not intend for these standards and criteria to be a burden to property owners, who will still be able to do what they want as long as it falls within the broadly defined standards and criteria that are currently being considered by the Study Committee.
MYTH: The city can later rewrite the rules.
FACT: All the protections in the Highland Park ACD will come from our own rules that we draft via a neighborhood process that involves the Boston Landmarks Commission. Our own rules will allow us to take back control of our neighborhood from developers and zoning changes.
MYTH: The ACD won't stop demolitions.
FACT: Demolitions of existing buildings will be effectively stopped and can only proceed via a hearing process with community decision makers, which will protect at least 50-70% of the neighborhood.
MYTH: ACDs prevent remodeling.
FACT: Interior remodeling is not affected. Exterior changes that go beyond the broadly defined standards and criteria may be subject to reviews, depending on how these criteria are developed.
MYTH: ACDs are just about aesthetics and how things look.
FACT: The Highland Park ACD is specifically not about aesthetics. It is about preserving existing building stock from being demolished. An ACD could prevent developers from altering a building by requiring design review and approval before a building permit is approved by the Inspectional Services Department. Apart from that, it is not intended by the neighborhood to regulate "minor" changes, and the specific standards and criteria will be worked out with the Study Committee as we go forward. Reviews should only apply in cases of major changes like adding a wing, adding a floor, tearing down, or major change of use. The goal is mitigating major changes that can be covered in the standards and criteria, which can have byproducts on areas the criteria cannot legally control, like maintaining affordability and diversity and not losing the quality homes we already occupy.
MYTH: ACDs increase taxes.
FACT: There is no "preservation tax." Property taxes in Massachusetts are based on the property's assessed value, plus any local taxes for bond measures, etc. In fact, houses in an ACD may be eligible for preservation tax credits to fund rehabs, and such tax credits could actually lower your taxes. Income producing houses are potentially eligible for federal income tax credits to fund rehabs (if they conform to the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation).
MYTH: ACDs lower property values.
FACT: It is possible that values in an ACD may be stabilized when the neighborhood’s qualities are protected.
MYTH: ACDs raise property values and mean gentrification.
FACT: Values in an ACD can be protected because it stabilizes the processes of change that lead to price inflation. By contrast, gentrification happens when irresponsible development fills an area with high-priced new construction. Each time a developer fills an empty lot or replaces an existing home with condos, the prices of homes around it are affected. The ACD is specifically designed to stop irresponsible development and help us maintain the qualities of diversity and affordability that we value in this neighborhood. Via the ACD the neighborhood will have direct review power over new projects.
MYTH: ACDs prevent affordable housing.
FACT: The most affordable house is one that already exists. Infill developers in Highland Park - Fort Hill and similar neighborhoods build over-priced houses, not affordable housing. This infill housing is always less affordable than the original house. While it is not possible to specify the exact protections until the standards and criteria are written, one goal the neighborhood is seeking is that the ACD permit accessory dwelling units (ADUs) that can provide affordable housing above a garage or in your back yard or basement, for instance. Another goal could be that the ACD permit internal conversion of houses to duplexes that can also provide affordable housing. A byproduct of the ACD could be that some of the protections (while not directly) have a consequence of limiting excessive conversions (4BR converted to 11BR) that result in high-priced rooms rented out to students individually. These details will become clearer as the standards and criteria are established with the city.
MYTH: ACDs hurt renters.
FACT: Highland Park's intention in seeking the ACD is to provide some protection through requiring design review and approval before a building permit is approved by the Inspectional Services Department. While there is no way that the ACD can regulate use, these protections can sometimes be an indirect means to influence decisions that end up chopping existing houses into many units rented to students room-by-room and can have a negative effect on the quality of life for families who want to stay in Highland Park long-term both as renters and as owners.
MYTH: ACDs limit repairs, paint color, landscaping, or interior work.
FACT: Again, while the standards have not yet been written, the neighborhood's goal in seeking this designation is not to affect repairs, maintenance, re-painting, re-siding, re-roofing, landscaping, interior work. Highland Park ACD is seeking to affect major exterior alterations to a house or new construction, and will hopefully achieve some agreement with the city for standards and criteria to reflect this.
MYTH: ACDs are bad for the environment.
FACT: The greenest house is one that already exists. Our historic houses represent a legacy of natural resources and fine craftsmanship that was built to last. Demolition wastes more resources than any new house can save, and new construction is never built to last the way historic houses were. To be green, update a historic house with insulation, new systems, storm windows, or new windows. Our houses are not disposable!
MYTH: ACDs prevent solar energy systems.
FACT: Solar panels are always allowed.
MYTH: ACDs prevent window repair or replacement.
FACT: While the standards and criteria have not yet been written, it is not the goal sought by the neighborhood to regulate your choice of windows. The ACD Committee is available to help you choose windows that may complement your historic house or be better in terms of energy.
MYTH: Your neighbors will appeal to stop you from remodeling.
FACT: Highland Park is not seeking the type of control they have in the South End. The standards and criteria have not yet been written; yet, our goal is to let you treat your house how you want except in cases of demolition or major changes (adding a wing, adding a story, adding a structure, turning into apartments).
Do you have other questions about an ACD? Let us know at highlandparkACD@gmail.com