Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

1/3 right, maybe, but 2/3 wrong definitely on preservation as an urban revitalization strategy

The architecture critic of the New Republic has an op-ed in yesterday's New York Times about preservation, "Taming Historic Preservation/Death by Nostalgia," which to my way of thinking mostly misses the point.

The absolutely accurate point is that except for processes around historic preservation laws, there are few other means for citizens to weigh in more carefully and significantly in local development matters. So people often seize on preservation when it isn't always appropriate, as a way to derail development plans that they don't like. This gives preservation a bad name.

The piece mentions the recent exhibition at the New Museum in New York. Sadly, I wasn't able to get to the exhibit before it closed last week. See the review of the exhibit from the New York Times, "'Cronocaos,' by Rem Koolhaas: An Architect's fear that preservation distorts" as well as this response from the New York Landmarks Conservancy, not to mention this somewhat negative review from Design Observer.

From the later review:

...the show draws on ideas that have been floating around architectural circles for several years now — particularly the view among many academics that preservation movements around the world, working hand in hand with governments and developers, have become a force for gentrification and social displacement, driving out the poor to make room for wealthy homeowners and tourists.

Mr. Koolhaas’s vision is even more apocalyptic. A skilled provocateur, he paints a picture of an army of well-meaning but clueless preservationists who, in their zeal to protect the world’s architectural legacies, end up debasing them by creating tasteful scenery for docile consumers while airbrushing out the most difficult chapters of history. The result, he argues, is a new form of historical amnesia, one that, perversely, only further alienates us from the past.

While I am the first to admit this can happen, I don't see how tearing down districts for some context-less "sculptural" building which often fails to serve either function or community is any better than the seeming nostalgia he laments.

The point that is missed in all of these arguments is the reality of preservation overall, as a strategy designed to revalue disinvested location and property, through a focus on architecture and urban design.

Preservation, overall, stabilizes and improves the value of neighborhoods and commercial districts. Frankly, this is more important than whether or not an architect gets to build what s/he thinks is a great piece of art.

What I think both Koolhaas and Goldhagen likely have little real connection to is the difficulty of stabilizing, maintaining, and improving declining and disinvested neighborhoods and commercial districts, and center cities generally, places that have been deaccessioned as a result of sprawl, population leakage, and abandonment, and the necessity of finding an urban design and revitalization tool that can sustainably deal with this fact and improve otherwise disinvested communities.

Preservation is a multi-pronged strategy, whereas constructing some trophy building or convention center, more often than not, is merely a roll of the dice, and far too often, the dice don't come up the way you want them to.

Another way to think about it is the old DOS error message in the face of a hard disk failure:

C:>Abort, Retry, Fail?

Yesterday I visited briefly a community for which I wrote a commercial district revitalization framework plan in 2008--before the onsite of the real estate crash. I haven't been here for a couple years, and I am amazed at how many retail businesses have closed over that period--some of the best or more important retailers in the district--and I am struck by the scale difference between working on revitalization in Manhattan, Brooklyn, or Washington, DC vs. almost everywhere else in the United States.

Most places have broken local economies, minimal economic demand, and limited options for improvement, at least in the intermediate term.

The word devastation comes to mind. I mean, it is serious. Or I saw some photos last week of Morristown, Tennessee, which had the misfortune of a kind of malling of the downtown into an ersatz mall by the creation of a second story walkway across many of the blocks and the building fronts. So many of the buildings are empty. What are they supposed to do?
Second floor retail, Downtown Morristown, Tennessee
Morristown, Tennessee. Photo by Gate Pratt. How do you propose to fill these empty buildings?

Or I had a conversation yesterday with a colleague about a neighborhood next to the state capital in Albany, New York. How a neighborhood with great building stock one half mile from the state capital could be depressed is beyond me, but then I remember how some of the neighborhoods within walking distance of the U.S. Capitol for so many years (e.g., see yesterday's Post real estate section article about Stanton Park, "Revitalized Stanton Park Neighborhood Feels Like Microcosm of DC") had real problems.

In those settings, the fact that preservation provides many tools for dealing is a good thing. Goldhagen seriously misrepresents tax credit programs for preservation, which do not provide tax credits for ersatz work--the National Park Service takes these projects very seriously, and at least in DC, reviews the projects carefully, and do not allow tax credit projects to make changes that diminish the quality of the building's architectural integrity.

In traditional center cities with extremely weak real estate markets like Cleveland, Baltimore, Providence, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and even in more successful markets like New York City and Boston, preservation tax credit projects have been key to revitalization efforts with many properties that otherwise would not "pencil" out using traditional financing. (The same goes with historic theater restorations and various other "white elephant" type projects across the country.)

Even in DC, where e.g., preservation tax credits provided about 20% of the funding for the restoration of what is now called the Atlas Performing Arts Center on the H Street NE corridor, and this was a key building block for what is heralded now as a national success story (I think the corridor still looks pretty bad, but think of how far it has come).

Not every real estate submarket within a region is a roaring success, and preservation both as a planning process and as a financing mechanism ends up being key to sustainable urban revitalization, especially for weak submarkets.

I am the first to admit that there are many flaws within the preservation process, that we could do a better job, and it is difficult to deal with some of the issues of what would otherwise be normal change in a community that is stymied by preservation laws.

On the other hand, in those places in cities where preservation zoning is not in effect, I see so much terrible work, that frankly, I have a hard time agreeing with anyone that claims that preservation is mostly a hindrance and not a help.

The claims about nostalgia have a grain of truth, but the real issue is much more complex--the change in how retail sectors work, which means that typical convenience retail goods (food, hardware, housewares, etc.) are hard to provide cost effectively in small stores, complemented by global capital seeking out the best and strongest markets (what Professor Loretta Lees calls "hyper-gentrification"), and the super-rich acquiring second, third, and fourth (etc.) homes in desirable places (DC, Charleston, New York City, London, Paris, Barcelona, etc.).

The creation of a global real estate market isn't the fault of people seeking preservation zoning to stabilize their declining neighborhood.

And for the most part, I don't see the big projects touted by people like Rem Koolhaas ending up having more significant and sustainable positive impact on communities than preservation.

To get a good handle on preservation-based revitalization strategies, I recommend Roberta Gratz's Cities: Back from the Edge--it's easy to understand than Jane Jacobs, but it's like a primer based on Jacobs, and each chapter functions like a case study.

Wilkie and Moe's Changing Places is more specifically about preservation but it's out of print. Still worth reading though.

I haven't been convinced yet that there is a better revitalization strategy out there that isn't preservation-based. Although yes, I wanted to see that exhibit and regret that I wasn't able to...

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