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Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Surreal Life Starring Kenilworth, Illinois

On a list of wealthiest U.S. cities, Kenilworth, Illinois is usually in the top five if not on the very top in any given year. This village of only about 2500 people had a median income of about $200,000 per family as of the last census. That's why it would surprise some that this village would be concerned that their community would fall "victim" to the rage of McMansions

McMansion is a pejorative neologism, coined by NY environmentalist Jay Westervelt[1][unreliable source?]to describe a particular type of housing that is constructed in an assembly line fashion reminiscent of food production at McDonald's fast food restaurants. The term is one of many McWords. A McMansion often denotes a home with a larger footprint than a median home, an indistinct architectural style similar to others nearby, and is often located in a newer, larger subdivision or replaces an existing, smaller structure in an older neighborhood.

While McMansions are certainly large, they are frankly rather small in comparision to the homes in Kenilworth. Yet, as this craze heated up, that's exactly what this town, the definition of old money, feared would happen in their neighborhood.

Apparently, the widespread craze of tearing down old buildings and replacing
with cookie-cutter buildings that don't really fit the character and style of the neighborhood and surrounding structures is *not* limited to the city limits of Chicago. With all the hype about the ongoing socioeconomic wars between the condo developer and the struggling artist renter here in the city, we were fairly stunned to hear that the same thing is happening in the places where the condo owners' parents

The National Trust for Historic Preservation named Kenilworth, a North Shore suburb, one of 11 endangered historic places nationwide in its yearly listing. Many of the homes in Kenilworth were designed by architects Frank Lloyd Wright and George Maher, and 32 houses have been torn down for new construction since 2001 and replaced with houses referred to as "McMansions". The Executive Vice-President for the trust, David Brown, was quoted as saying, "Architecturally and historically significant homes are being acquired by builders, torn down and replaced with houses that do not fit the character or scale of the neighborhoods." Hmmm. Seems like we've heard this tune before.

The political power structure had an idea that would stop the spread of McMansions in its tracks, register Kenilworth with national registry of historical places. The idea had some merit and logic. Many of the homes were designed by architectural legends like Frank Lloyd Wright and George Maher. The problem was that the power structure didn't consult with most of the folks in the town. There was some concern with turning Kenilworth into a historical landmark. Many of the town's folks feared that their property rights would erode, home sales would be adversely affected, and the tax implications were unknown.

The idea was put on the ballot for this past November 4th, however supporters of the plan didn't want to wait that long. They began making their application in the summer. Suddenly, we were in for a full out political brawl. Opponents of the plan used a sophisticated, 21st century, grass roots campaign to make the public aware of what their government was doing. Through emails, text, and other electronic correspondence, opponents built grass roots opposition to the plan. The plan was voted down overwhelmingly on November 4th. At first, proponents of the plan wanted to ignore the will of the voters and continue with their plans to make Kenilworth part of the historical registry.

On Dec. 5, the state is set to consider whether Kenilworth should be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.>

A fine and meaningful honor, if bestowed.

There's just one problem.

The majority of homeowners in this North Shore community don't want it.

In an advisory referendum on Election Day, 64 percent of voters said they didn't want Kenilworth to be placed on the national register.

Unfortunately, the train already has left the station.

The village board voted to submit its national registry application in May, five months before hearing from the public. That set the train rolling, which is why the application has a hearing on Dec. 5 before the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council. If approved, the application goes next to the federal government.

As the fight reached fever pitch, the politics of this relatively quiet North Shore suburbs reached fever pitch. The media in Chicago began to take notice and proponents knew their jig was up. So, a couple days ago, the powers that be finally scrapped the plan.

Kenilworth's attempts to have the 120-year-old North Shore community listed on the National Register of Historic Places are one step closer to becoming history. Trustees are scheduled to vote Friday to ask the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council to withdraw Kenilworth's application for the honorary designation.

The move follows this month's overwhelming rejection of an advisory referendum measure that asked residents whether the village should seek the designation.Supporters said the move would have helped protect Kenilworth from
the McMansion craze that has hit other North Shore towns.

On one level the whole thing was a study in surrealism. On another level, it also showed the best of our Democratic and media system.

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