The Daily Pulse:

Downtown Design Review Board has no authority about demolitions?

Is demolition constitutionally irrelevant to the role of the Downtown Design Review Board? Preservationists were hoping to get some wording into the DDRB's guidelines that would allow the board to deny demolition permits for developers who aren't ready to commit to anything but a surface parking lot. Considered an enemy of lively downtowns everywhere, surface parking lots have recently been banned outright in some cities, including Salt Lake City and Tulsa.

After a review of the state law that enables it, the city's law office has determined the board can offer instructions about how a building appears, but not about whether it can be demolished. Not about whether it continues to exist. At the DDRB meeting on Tuesday, Crista Cuccaro, a recent UT law-school grad who's now a staff attorney with the city's law department, offered that opinion, and read a passage from Tennessee Code Annotated 6-54-133, stating that the board has "the authority to develop general guidelines for the exterior appearance of nonresidential property, multiple-family residential property, and any entrance to a nonresidential development...."

The passage does not mention demolitions, and Cuccaro's interpretation is that the board can make no demands of a property owner who wants to demolish a building, even in terms of delaying it or insisting on some restriction on the property, post-demolition.

Another body, the Historical Zoning Commission, can indeed deny demolition permits, but only in previously designated historic zones, like H-1 and NC-1.

Board member Brandon Pace, architect and downtown developer, seemed surprised by this unexpected development. He raised a philosophical question that sounds like a subject of argument between Plato and Aristotle: Isn't existence a very large part of appearance?

Since its inception during the Haslam administration, the Board recently declined a demolition request in the case of St. John's Episcopal Cathedral's buildings on Walnut Street, two 1920s brick buildings envied by developers who wanted to fix them up for residences. The board's denial was overturned by the Metropolitan Planning Commission, and the buildings were eventually leveled.

If St. John's lawyers had been as strict about interpreting the TCA to limit the Downtown Design Review Board's purview as the city's law department is, they could have demolished their buildings two years earlier, and saved themselves some grief.

If the city law department's interpretation is correct, it seems at least to indicate a peculiarly illogical loophole in the legislation. Demolition certainly does alter one's appearance. Preservationists are doing some homework on how other cities accomplish demolition restrictions.

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