WHEATON – The possible demolition of an 1897 mansion as part of a proposed housing development spurred a discussion about historic preservation during the March 23 Wheaton League of Women Voters' candidate forum for the Wheaton City Council.
There are two contested races on the City Council. East District Councilman Thor Saline, who was elected in 2013, is running against challengers Thomas Dymit and Michael Barbier, and West District Councilman Todd Scalzo, on the City Council since 2009, is running against challengers Robert "Bobby" McNeily and Lynn Robbins.
Candidates answered written questions from the audience, including one concerning historic preservation. The Pulte Group plans to raze the buildings on the Loretto Convent property at 1600 Somerset Lane, including an 1897 mansion designed by well-known architect Jarvis Hunt, to make way for 48 single-family homes as part of the proposed Lorreto Club development.
Dymit said city officials need to know well in advance when there are any plans to raze a historic building in the city.
"It would have been nice if everybody could have said, let's do whatever we can to make it part of the project, part of the Loretto Club, instead of just bullldozing it, which is probably what's going to end up happening to it," Dymit said. "So I think we need as much lead time [as possible], especially when we are dealing with buildings of an historic value to the city of Wheaton."
Saline said trying to preserve historic buildings in the city is a complex issue.
"There are a lot of moving parts," he said. "Is it the role of the city to put taxpayer dollars toward this? Or is it the role of the city to organize the citizens in a fashion that could build a new 501(c)(3) organization that could pull together citizens? I would say it is the second group."
Wheaton residents in 2011 defeated an advisory referendum to use city funds to renovate the Wheaton Grand Theater on Hale Street. McNeily said that being pro-growth doesn't have to mean one is against historic preservation.
"We can marry our historical preservation and pro-growth agenda at the same time," he said. "That's why I would be for an historical preservation ordinance to be put in place, and I would like the City Council to vote on that as soon as possible."
McNeily said he would like to organize a capital campaign to preserve the Wheaton Grand Theater.
"We can get this done together as a community using the free market," he said.
Robbins said the fact that the city does not have an historic preservation ordinance needs to be investigated.
"There are a lot of buildings in downtown Wheaton that do have historical value," she said. "And it would be great to be able to revitalize them and do something special with them and not tear them down. That's part of our history. History certainly is the footprint for our future."
Scalzo agreed with Saline that historic preservation is a complicated topic.
"First of all, in the early 2000s, we tried a historic overlay district on the north side," Scalzo said. "It was very controversial. We ended up with something that was pretty watered down because ultimately, it affects property rights. And people do not want to be told they have restrictions on their property."
Barbier said city officials need to recognize "our history is an asset."
"No one can copy our history," he said. "And once it's gone, we can never get it back. We need to stop arguing over bulldoze or no development. We have to have a City Council that is willing to put in the work, and work with developers. When developers understand how valuable that history can be, they will buy into it."
He believes the Wheaton Grand Theater should be turned into a multi-purpose banquet hall.