November 15, 2017

Why Create Historic Design Guidelines?


Homes define the character of a neighborhood, and neighborhoods define the character of a city. When those neighborhoods are historic districts, they then define the city’s past and help guide the city’s future.


Many American cities realize the significance of historic districts, from increasing public awareness of local history to revitalizing entire communities. Long Beach, California, is one such city. It boasts 17 historic districts that represent different periods of its early development, its architecture, or both. Most of the districts have historic resources dating from the 1920s, which was the city’s greatest period of economic boom following its incorporation in 1909 and before the start of World War II in the 1940s.


To help the owners of the properties within these historic districts, the City of Long Beach, with the help of GPA Consulting’s architectural historians, is developing a comprehensive set of Historic Design Guidelines that cover the architectural styles and character-defining exterior features found within each of the districts, as well as the maintenance and repair of these features. These guidelines also offer appropriate, modern-day alternatives for property owners needing or wanting to make changes to one or more exterior feature. Historic Design Guidelines, while not mandatory in and of themselves, are beneficiary in that they offer guidance for appropriate changes, which in turn helps to streamline a city’s review process for obtaining a Certificate of Appropriateness. This review process is typically carried out by Planning Department staffs and preservation commissions or boards.



“Specific municipalities that are Certified Local Governments, or CLGs, have made a commitment to historic resources in their jurisdiction,” said Amanda Duane, an associate architectural historian, who is working on the Long Beach guidelines. A CLG is a federal preservation program administered by the National Parks Service. CLGs can receive grants to aid in preservation efforts and technical assistance from state and federal preservation staff. “Historic Design Guidelines are a tool to help them achieve that goal,” Duane added. “They act as a framework to help guide the decision-making process when certain types of changes are proposed within a historic district.”


While preservation is a goal of historic districts, Duane said there must be some flexibility to accommodate modern-day living and safety. Changes property owners commonly want to make or need to make include room additions, new roofs, screen windows and doors, window awnings, and perimeter fencing. Any change to the exterior of a property in a historic district must be approved by a city’s designated party, whether that is a Planning Department staff member or a historic preservation commission. These parties must balance preservation with other concerns, such as environmental and socioeconomic factors, as well as existing constraints on the site or within the zoning code. “You want to be flexible and leave some room for different scenarios in the guidelines,” said Duane, adding that the guidelines should address whether these changes are appropriate, and not leave them up to interpretation. “The Planning Department would help property owners come up with acceptable alternatives.”


The guidelines are not often a part of a city’s historic preservation ordinance. A design review, however, is typically required and included in the code. A good set of design guidelines will take the ordinance and review into consideration, and help the staff or commission in their decision-making process.



Historic Design Guidelines not only benefit owners of properties in historic districts and the administrators that review plans, but also provide excellent information for property owners outside of historic districts who may want to make changes to a period home. Some guidelines, such as the ones in development for the City of Long Beach, include Style Guides for different types of architecture.



“The best place to start for property owners who are interested in making historically compatible renovations for their homes would probably be to contact their local Planning Department to see whether there is a planning tool, such as historic district guidelines, in place.”


Amanda Duane is an Associate Architectural Historian at GPA. Amanda has contributed to a number of large-scale historic resource surveys and rehabilitation projects and has a gift for gathering and distilling complex information into a user-friendly format. Her projects include the development of design guidelines, several themes for the Los Angeles Citywide Historic Context Statement, Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record reports for buildings and bridges, and Federal Rehabilitation Tax Credit applications.