Board aims to preserve buildings’ heritage

If you like the look of downtown Norwalk, you have a group of dedicated people to thank - building owners, Main Street Norwalk and the Chamber of Commerce for a start. But, unless you're a member of the uptown business community, you probably have not heard of the city's architectural review board. They have just as much to do with preserving the city's historic look as anyone.
Norwalk Reflector Staff
Jul 25, 2010

If you like the look of downtown Norwalk, you have a group of dedicated people to thank — building owners, Main Street Norwalk and the Chamber of Commerce for a start.

But, unless you’re a member of the uptown business community, you probably have not heard of the city’s architectural review board. They have just as much to do with preserving the city’s historic look as anyone.

The board, established in 1997 during the uptown revitalization, is charged with making sure any changes to the storefronts and buildings in the city’s architectural district “reflect what is historically right for Norwalk,” said board member Mike Osborne. Any change to a building in the architectural district must be reviewed and approved by the board.

The district — which is defined by city ordinance — includes all the lots facing Main Street, starting at Case Street/Church Street and extending to Foster Street; and on Whittlesey Avenue/Benedict Avenue, starting at Ohio Street/Railroad Avenue and extending to Water Street.

In the past, the guidelines were more than 200 pages long, complicated and confusing for business owners, said Mayor Sue Lesch. So, the board and city simplified the guidelines into an easy to read, “user-friendly” format.

“We wanted to streamline the process so it wasn’t so difficult for, while preserving the historical integrity of our buildings,” Lesch said.

Some of the things the board reviews include the selection of paint colors, masonry work, storefront windows, signs and awnings. The complete, updated guidelines can be found on the city’s Web site (www.norwalkoh.com/zoning_departm...).

Mary Stewart has been on the board for more than a decade. In the beginning, the idea of telling property owners what they could do with their buildings was met with some resistance. However, she said most business and building owners understand that the board’s goal is preserving the city’s heritage, something that benefits everyone.

“As it progressed, neighbors have seen what it looks like and gone along with this,” Stewart said. “(For example) now, a building owner comes to us right in beginning and asks ‘What can I do to improve the insulation and keep the architecture in place?’”

Osborne said window replacement is one of the most common issues that comes before the board. The new window treatment will have some modern materials, but should retain the basic style of the building.

“If a building is from the 1880s, we want something appropriate for the 1880s ... If it looks just as good and lasts, we’ll usually approve that,” he said, adding the work done at Westaff, 48 E. Main St., was a perfect example of more modern windows that stayed true to the building’s heritage.

While most property owners have been receptive to what the board is trying to do, conflicts do arise from time to time. Board member Denise Mannino said the goal is to find a compromise that works for everyone.

“We’re not here to make people go away. We’re here to work with them, it’s a give and take,” she said.

For example, the city has specific rules governing signs and colors. But in some cases, such as with phone companies and other national businesses, an owner is bound by the national logo.

In the rare instance when a property owner simply refuses to heed the guidelines, the board can work with the law department and get a court injunction, said Norwalk Law Director Stuart O’Hara. However, to his knowledge, the city has never gone that route.

Osborne added the board usually looks to other business owners to help get everyone on the same page.

While the process used to be complicated, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Melissa James said the premise has always been good. Now that the guidelines have been revised — and were recently sent to every property owner in the architectural district — it is clear what the city expects and eliminates subjectivity.

“I’ve seen cities that don’t have (architectural review boards) — the downtowns are just horrid,” James said. “This really helps to keep it better for everybody. What you do effects each other.”