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Downzoning and Historic Preservation

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A vital tool

Over the past 35 years the State Historic Preservation Office has worked with dozens of communities throughout Utah as they have struggled to preserve their historic buildings.

Some communities we have worked with have aspired to preserve not only individual buildings but also entire neighborhoods of historic homes.

Communities have reported to us that the best tools for doing so have been historic district designation and downzoning.

Historic districts

Historic district designation is a natural step toward the preservation of older neighborhoods because the overwhelming majority of homes are often “historic” (over 50 years old). This doesn’t necessarily mean that important people lived there or that significant events occurred in all of these older homes. Collectively, however, these homes often represent both important architectural trends as well as the overall development of the city.

National standards for what constitutes a historic district are usually applied when evaluating and creating a historic district. The State Historic Preservation Office is available to help guide cities through this process.

Historic district designation accomplishes two important tasks.

First, it establishes an identity for the neighborhood that, in turn, generates a sense of distinction and pride among its residents. This can be a powerful force for good (evidence the Capitol Hill and Avenues neighborhoods in Salt Lake City and the Eccles Avenue Historic District in Ogden). What more could a city hope for than to have its residents take pride in where they live and to work together to promote their community?

Second, historic districts provide a significant financial incentive for property owners to upgrade and restore their homes.

Tax credits

The State of Utah has expressed its commitment to the cause of historic residential neighborhoods by providing an income tax credit to those who restore homes in historic districts. Homeowners can save 20 percent of their restoration costs–including upgrading plumbing and electrical systems, re-roofing, painting, and virtually anything related to improving the structural and cosmetic qualities of historic homes.

This program is administered through our office, the State Historic Preservation Office, which is committed to helping average homeowners participate in the revitalization of older homes.

Downzoning

Communites have found that downzoning can be the single most important step they can take toward stabilizing and revitalizing a neighborhood. It removes the incentive to demolish historic homes to make way for multi-family dwellings or businesses. If that incentive is not erased, then the “playing field” will always be tilted in favor of those who simply want to make money in the neighborhood versus those who want to live in it and enjoy its qualities as a residential district. Downzoning often benefits residents

Downzoning gives homeowners confidence that the positive qualities of their neighborhood will not be diminished by incompatible developments. If a majority of the property owners want the neighborhood downzoned, and if the majority of properties are still being used for the “downzoned” purpose, then it only makes sense for a city to respect the desire of that majority, those who actually live in the neighborhood.

When to consider downzoning

Usually, a survey of current uses is a first step toward downzoning. Sometimes, however, the overwhelming support for downzoning by residents is enough to convince a city that downzoning is the thing to do. That was the case with three older neighborhoods in Bountiful, where approximately 70 percent of the residents supported the change in the late 1990s.

What about property rights?

Development-minded property owners may resist downzoning because they feel it limits their ability to maximize profit from their land.

But downzoning does not deny property owners the right to profit from their land. Like zoning of all kinds, it simply places some boundaries on the extent to which property can be developed.

The desires of a few individuals who hope to maximize their profits should not come at the expense of the majority of residents. The values of the community should be respected.

Trends toward downzoning

It is important to remember that the current zones were often created decades ago when these older neighborhoods were in decline. These areas were viewed as marginal neighborhoods that were no longer favored residential districts. That is no longer the case. Older neighborhoods are now valued for their historic architecture, mature landscaping, proximity to community services and transportation, and even their affordability. Many families are drawn to these neighborhoods. They care about the future of these neighborhoods. They are usually the ones who promote downzoning.

Tools for revitalization

A number of Utah’s older cities could benefit from both downzoning neighborhoods and historic district designation. Though many Utah cities have changed too much to allow for historic district designation in their older neighborhoods, many still have a chance to preserve important facets of their history as well as to revitalize neighborhoods that have been under-valued and under-appreciated for years.

Twenty-five years ago no one would have imagined that the high-crime, rental-riddled Avenues neighborhood in Salt Lake City would become one of the most desirable residential districts in the city. Its transformation has been due to both downzoning and historic district designation.

Smaller cities can experience these same improvements. The entire community benefits when residents care for the future of their neighborhoods and when the city supports those residents through appropriate civic actions, such as downzoning and historic district designation.

For more information, contact:

Barbara Murphy, 801-245-7251
State Historic Preservation Office
Utah State History
300 S. Rio Grande Street
Salt Lake City, Utah 84101
Fax: 801-533-3503