At the request of Fran Barrett, an attorney for the owners of the Dennison Hotel (716-718 Main Street), the Historic Conservation Board has postponed a hearing to consider the owner’s request to demolish the historic property.
The Dennison Hotel (constructed 1892) lies within the federally recognized Cincinnati East Manufacturing and Warehouse District, an area listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Such a designation already confirms the cultural value of the building and the contribution it makes to Cincinnati’s urban identity. Claims to the contrary – including the curious assertion that the Dennison is not one of superstar architect Samuel Hannaford’s “important” projects – are as irrelevant to the current debate as they are misguided.
The hearing will judge whether the destruction of this publicly valuable property is appropriate according to the private owner’s request. This is why the request for the demolition argues “financial burden.” Such a request merits a critical eye.
What exactly do “financial burden” and “economic unfeasibility” mean in any demolition request? These seem very slippery terms that a well-practiced debater can use to shift the focus of the argument. Rather than considering the potential of the structure within a broad economic framework, financial burden arguments can show that current owners have arrived at the conclusion that rehabbing a particular building will not work for them.
Cincinnati.com quotes Barrett in regard to the Dennison project: “There was a very thorough analysis that was done,” Barrett said. “A multitude of uses was sought, each was determined to be economically infeasible.”
Such arguments leave the public, as outsiders and non-specialists, to simply trust their civic identity to the rigor of an investigation sponsored not by a disinterested party but rather by the same people making the demolition request. But what does the public – who has a real stake in the rehabilitation of the property – know of this analysis? Perhaps it was sweeping, active, and conclusive. Perhaps it was narrow and as passive as the verbs used by Mr. Barrett to describe it. No critical eye can blindly accept such claims.
The public must focus on the evidence that is open and accessible to them. They must ask: what has caused owners to declare a 124-year-old property – attractive enough for them to spend $744,431 to acquire – to become economically unfeasible in the span of about two years?
What does the public have to gain and to lose should the demolition get approval? The answers to this question must go beyond the promise of another corporate office building. Why should the public give up an historic piece of their identity for the vague possibility of a hypothetical structure that will most likely require public subsidy?
What does such a verdict imply not only about property developers in Cincinnati but also about the institutional structures in place to manage them? Can and do these institutions rigorously assert and defend public interest and public money? Or do the laws and committees of Cincinnati skew in favor of powerful and rich private interests? Do the current processes and the people who administer them lend legal legitimacy to the very projects which the public relies on them to block?
Much, much more than bricks and mortar are at stake on May 26.