A guardian for the past

There’s irony to be found in Malden decision to tear down City Hall last year and kick off this year by embracing historic building preservation.

The so-called Demolition Delay Ordinance proposed by City Council members empowers the Malden Historical Commission to be able to delay demolition of a historically significant structure for up to a year.

Using the National Register of Historical Places as a reference point, the ordinance triggers a Commission review for any buildings with historic value that are proposed for demolition. Even structures located in areas of the city near historic buildings would be eligible for review.

The ordinance would bolster the Commission’s authority to rule on a building’s preservation value. The review could encompass an application filing requirement for the building owner, a public review of the application and final Commission review.

What the ordinance makes clear is the added authority invested in the Commission to delay a demolition for a year if a historical preservation determination is made. The ordinance sketches out the delay provision as a way to give a building owner or contractor filing a demolition permit an opportunity to work with city officials to explore options other than demolition.

Boston and even smaller Massachusetts cities have worked with innovative architects to find ways to preserve buildings from the early 19th and 20th centuries by incorporating all or part of their architecture into modern designs.

Lynn, Peabody, and communities across the North Shore, in addition to Malden, are dotted with examples of repurposed buildings from another era. Banks are now condominiums. Factories are restaurants and residences.

Historical commissions are what could be politely called in many communities “wink and a nod” boards. Elected officials and developers talk a lot about preserving old buildings and the important role commissions play in assessing historical value. But when push comes to shove on development plans or downtown renewals, commissions and their members sometimes get viewed as scholarly advisers rather than instrumental municipal decision makers.

Malden’s proposed ordinance gives its local commission extra clout by allowing it to bring state preservation officials to get involved in a commission preservation recommendation. That option allows the commission to use the state Historic District Act to protect a building from demolition.

The ordinance provides the city with the challenge and the opportunity to ensure city development plans include a careful look at how Malden’s past is preserved. In the interest of reshaping downtown, city officials brought the wrecking ball last year to the 1970s-era city hall. Few, if any, people complained about the building’s demise. More than a few celebrated the demolition as a chance to refocus downtown development and alter traffic patterns for the better.

The preservation ordinance is an opportunity to ensure the city’s character and past are preserved and, better yet, showcased in innovative ways to reshape the city.

The ordinance reportedly enjoys wide community support and for good reason: It seeks to take the best of Malden and use it to help make the city better.

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