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Making the Case
Landmarks Illinois appoints new president amid challenges.
Bonnie McDonald
Courtesy Landmarks Illinois

Preservation is based in respect for the past, but Chicago’s historic preservationists face several immediate issues that threaten the future of Illinois’ architectural heritage. Amid an ongoing legal battle over Chicago’s landmarks law, a growing list of endangered buildings and a gaping state budget deficit, the new president of Landmarks Illinois has her work cut out for her. The preservation organization appointed Bonnie McDonald, currently executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, as president, effective June 18.

“Looking at the state of the economy,” McDonald said, “we certainly have a number of challenges to the economic viability of these kinds of projects.” But preservation is really about economic development, she said. And as an engine for job growth, that sort of activity has an appealing return on investment.

But the burden of proof of the economic benefit of preservation is on organizations like Landmarks Illinois. And in Chicago, it’s up for debate. McDonald’s predecessor, Jim Peters, was plagued by two Chicago property owners, real estate executive Albert Hanna and real estate agent Carol Mrowka, who challenged the city’s landmarks law in court. An Illinois Appellate Court agreed, saying the law was “unconstitutionally vague.” A Cook County Circuit Court judge recently reaffirmed the law, but the legal battle goes on.

Illinois’ budget challenges run all the way down to the local level, so to assert the credibility of their cause, preservationists follow the money.

A Rutgers University study found nonresidential historic rehabilitation in Florida created on average 29 jobs per million dollars of initial investment by the state, compared to just 22 for electronics manufacturing or 13 for aircraft machinery production. Working for the state of Nebraska, the same group—Rutgers’ Center for Urban Policy Research—affirmed that finding, noting that nationwide commercial historic rehabilitation could create 25 jobs for every million dollars invested.

And a 20 percent state tax credit for historic rehabilitation generated $9.20 in economic activity for every dollar in tax relief, according to a study by the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality that McDonald’s Preservation Alliance of Minnesota forwarded to lawmakers last year.

“The tax credit has been a game changer,” McDonald said, “that has demonstrated how adaptive reuse is not only about community stabilization, but really economic development and job creation.”

McDonald won’t have trouble finding a crucible for that idea in her new position. Landmarks recently announced their list of 2012’s “Ten Most Endangered Historic Places” which includes Prentice Women’s Hospital. The Bertrand Goldberg building has sat vacant on Northwestern University’s Streeterville campus since last year. At the heart of Northwestern’s rationale for demolishing the distinctive cloverleaf structure is economic efficiency—a new, bigger building could make better use of the prime real estate. But a reuse study by Landmarks begs to differ. For a preservationist who prides herself on building consensus, Illinois seems a fitting challenge.

Christopher Bentley