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.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Historic preservation roundup

Standard Record & Hi-Fi presides on Northeast 65th Street as a vestige of 1940s-era commercial Seattle
Standard Record & Hi-Fi in the Roosevelt neighborhood of Seattle. This example of streamlined art deco commercial storefront from the 1940s is slated for demolition and will be replaced by a light rail station. The Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board decided against designating the building. It would be possible to incorporate the facade into the light rail station. Photo: Benjamin Benschneider, Seattle Times.

1. Conservation districts. An interesting set of articles in the Reading Eagle, "Historic district scope scaled down" and "Conservation sector in Lancaster praised as big plus for city" about creating not a historic district--because a historic district has "too rigid" a set of regulations concerning architectural details and materials--but a "conservation district," which only considers three things: demolition requests; new construction; and significant alteration.

In the past I haven't been too favorable on the idea of conservation districts, because I think materials and architectural quality do matter.

On the other hand, I do think that in DC at least, with the rise of property rights fervor and the lack of super good public relations and outreach on the part of preservation in the city, along with the fact that a majority of the City Council doesn't seem to be too favorable to preservation--seeing it as a hindrance to development (and yes, it can be, that's the point) and how the law requires a vote amongst affected property owners, that it becomes much harder to create a historic district in DC, especially one of major size--the big historic districts in DC, such as in Georgetown (actually created by a special law passed by Congress in 1950) or the Capitol Hill Historic District, which has as many as 8,000 buildings, were created when the laws were different and in different times--so maybe it's time for me to compromise, and give in on the idea of conservation districts as being much better than nothing, given that nothing is the level of protection accorded to so many buildings in DC, despite their eligibility for historic designation.

In Reading, the proponents of the conservation district argue that it can be a step to a full-blown historic district, as people experience that the reality of historic building regulations can be dealt with.

I argue that there is limited social, community and organizational capital, so the likelihood of incremental change from one type of historic district to another is unlikely, because it's too much work.

2. Religious exceptions to historic designation. I don't agree with it. In fact, churchly demolition of designated buildings by Capitol Hill Baptist Church, because they claimed they couldn't afford to pay for upkeep, so they tore down the buildings for parking, led to the creation of DC's local historic preservation laws. (One case going on in the city now is a church that wants to tear down buildings that they haven't maintained for a parking lot. See "A Tale of Two Razes" from the City Paper.)

In New York City, churches are organizing opposition to the creation of a historic district in the East Village. See "Historic District Plans in East Village Stir Opposition" from the New York Times.

3. The value of historic preservation to local character, authenticity and the local economy. In the context of DC, I argue that historic architecture, the pedestrian-centric urban design of the city from the Walking City era (1800-1890) and history, identity and authenticity are three of the city's key competitive advantages as a place to live especially vis-a-vis other locations in the Washington Metropolitan area.

Additionally, preservationists saved the city by stabilizing many of the city's fine urban neighborhoods during the many decades when trends for residential choice did not favor urban living.

Sadly, because we preservationists don't do a good job making this point, and instead are derided for holding back change (sometimes the derision is justified, because it is true that preservationists do have to figure out how to act in the 21st Century, when the goal isn't stabilizing neighborhoods that people don't want to live in, but is instead, accommodating new residents, people who want to live in the city, and whose income supports better municipal services and a broader array of retail options and attractions), the essentiality of preservation to the city's current resurgence is unheralded if not disputed.

The Seattle Times' Pacific Northwest Magazine has a nice piece, "Seattle's old buildings: Opportunities, not obstacles," that recounts these types of arguments in terms of Seattle. The article may not say all that much that is new (to me anyway), but the photos are fabulous and it's always nice to see the argument repeated.

4. Plus, speaking of Seattle, I mentioned awhile back that they are creating a "historic theater district" there, as a way to help preserve "old" theater buildings there. Some people have criticized this, because the district isn't contiguous, it's more of a type of building historic district. See "Council to vote on forming historic theater district" from the Seattle Times.
Proposed Historic Theater District, Seattle

In any case, the Playhouse Theater District in Cleveland is a driving force for Downtown revitalization in Cleveland, which given the fact that the Cleveland metropolitan area continues to lose population, is key for helping the city to maintain economic vitality in the face of regional decline. See "In Cleveland, a Model of Economic Viability in the Arts" from the Wall Street Journal.

5. Incorporating "old" buildings into new projects. One thing worth separating out from the Seattle Times piece is that it starts out with a description of the old Standard Radio & Hi-Fi store in the Roosevelt neighborhood of Seattle, which is pictured in the image at the top of the entry.

This streamlined art deco building is being demolished for a light rail station. Something similar is happening in Calgary, Alberta, I think, but now I can't find the article. And of course, it happened in plenty of places in DC when the subway stations were constructed here.

6. Main Street conference in Baltimore, April 1st-4th. The National Main Street conference is in Baltimore this year. If you're into historic preservation and commercial district revitalization, it's probably the best place to learn a lot very quickly about commercial district revitalization in terms of the asset-based approach--assets aren't just "old buildings," they are people and organizations and of course, money.

While it is very difficult work, I am a hard core believer in the Main Street approach, although it's damn hard, if not near impossible to make work, especially in "hetereogeneous" communities like H Street.

It's hard, because you need to have some locational advantages, you have to be able to get some working consensus of different stakeholders, and while the merchants are the most motivated, they have to be willing to give up some control to residents, who bring different skill sets and desires to the table as well.

Plus, it's very easy to become an "events manager" by default. While I could do that, I'd rather do planning, business recruitment, etc., but it's the events that build out your promotional calendar and end up controlling your time...

For people in the region, you can attend the conference for free in return for volunteering some of your time to assist the people running the conference. If you're interested, email me, and I'll send you the contact information.

7. DC Historic Preservation Review Board #1. The City Paper reports in "Nancy Metzger and Historic Preservation’s Public Relations Problem" that Nancy Metzger's nomination to the HPRB is being criticized because she's too hard core a preservationist. F*** that.

Most of DC's zoning and building regulation processes are set up to ease new construction.

The system ought to have some checks and balances. The historic preservation law, regulations, and process, for good and bad, provides some checks.

I have a line "when you ask for nothing, that's what you get. When you ask for the world, you don't get it, but you get a lot more than nothing."

Without people pushing for the hard decisions, the hard course of action, you get very little movement toward it.

The funny thing is that amongst some preservationists in the city, Nancy is considered part of the system, and apt to support the government position even when challenged by more hardcore positions. Funny how the perception of "militance" is relative.

Disclosure: Nancy Metzger has provided advice and support over the years on various preservation projects or landmark nominations I'd been involved in. I learned from her, probably shared a dinner or two, and think she's an incredibly nice person who is one of the people who saved Capitol Hill during the many decades when inner-city living was considered "not of sound mind" by most "good Americans."

The City Paper quotes the testimony of David Garber as a kind of admonition:

I know that these nominees are qualified to be official advocates for the District's built heritage. But I also want to challenge them to see our old and historic places both as important aesthetic and cultural artifacts and as the patterns and teachers for a built future that might not look just like what's come before. Celebrate history, but encourage contemporary design in its interpretation. Require a village scale where appropriate, but allow for greater density where our infrastructure is built to handle it. Be vigilant about context and scale, but allow our library of good urbanism to be shaped by best practices sourced from around the world and across centuries and styles. See change as an asset to be worked with instead of as an enemy to be guarded against. Old is important, but so is eclecticism, environmental sustainability, and urbanizing development.

But to me, that's what historic preservation does already.

I don't always agree with the decision making, but I think that's because of many other faults within our general planning processes in the city, faults that I write about frequently.

Now David Garber is also a small housing redeveloper/flipper ("Lucrative New Life for the Obsolete: House Flippers Are Back Post Bubble," Express, January 28, 2011). Maybe he does great work. My experience in many parts of the city is that most people who do this kind of work do a bad job, be that as it may, what he says historic preservation should do is what it already does, what is called for by the Secretary of Interior Standards for Rehabilitation.
Now I don't necessarily agree with the focus on new construction looking decidedly new. I am more in line with Steven Semes' ideas (author of The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism, and Historic Preservation, review of the book from Traditional Building Magazine).

From the review:

This book rejects the Modernist ideology that is embedded in current preservation philosophy, which has led to government promotion of architecturally dissonant construction in historic places. Instead, Semes argues persuasively that visual wholeness and architectural continuity of historic areas should be the paramount design imperative. In many historic settings, new traditional architecture provides the best route to harmony with existing building fabric, and Semes calls for rethinking preservation policies that have blocked the use of compatibly styled traditional design.

But that doesn't mean that you can build new buildings that are both "big" which is what many smart growthers want and simultaneously "contextually designed to be complementary to historic buildings." For example, the most successful new condominium building in New York City was designed by Robert A.M. Stern to be just like a "pre-war" building.

But when I think about the alternatives to the historic preservation laws in DC, which are either no special provisions--like most of the city--or urban renewal and social housing disasters, the former in Southwest DC and pre-2005 H Street NE, the latter in many other places, I don't see a better alternative.

I do see a lot of people who are so caught up in the moment that they are unfamiliar with the past, both in terms of architectural history and urban history, and they are unfamiliar with (and I hate to say this) DC's exceptionalism of the moment in that it is now a "strong real estate market" whereas most other cities and metropolitan areas are not similarly "blessed".

Taking some time to make better, more informed decisions, is a good thing, not a bad thing.

Things have been s*** in many neighborhoods in the city a long time--many decades.

If a lot remains undeveloped for 18 months, even 5 years longer--e.g., 5 years is the difference in time between having a 50,000 s.f. BP gas station on the 300 block of H Street NE versus have a 200+ unit apartment building with a Giant Supermarket on the ground floor, that's okay.

8. DC Historic Preservation Review Board #2: Because you're "young" does that mean your appointment to a board is a victory for myopia and idiocracy?

The City Paper also reports, in "Smart Growthy Nominee for Historic Preservation Review Board," that Andrew Aurbach has been renominated to be on the HPRB.

Comparatively speaking, Andrew is young--43 years old or so--and committed to smart growth, and is involved in local campaigns as a resident committed to good government and being willing to work on campaigns helps get you situated to be selected for nomination to commissions and boards.

The comment about a victory for "myopic little twits" is a reference to a 2010 column, "D.C. election didn't just unseat abrasive Mayor Fenty. It was a populist revolt," by Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy, for ragging on the younger newer residents of the city who read blogs like Greater Greater Washington and advocate for crazy ass shit like streetcars and bike lanes, instead of grants to organizations willing to turn over most of the money to a Councilmember for his own use ("Harry Thomas's enablers" editorial in the Post).

Myopia and twitness aren't character flaws unique to the young, although the young often have the flaws, because their enthusiasms aren't always checked by rigorous debate (see "Brainstorming Doesn't Really Work" from the New Yorker--the basic point is that groups don't necessarily come up with better ideas than individuals, that ideas are made better through rigorous debate and challenge, that people come up with more and better ideas when they participate in such a process).

That being said, maybe Andrew is "young" age-wise and a smart growther, but I wouldn't call him myopic or a twit, while I might think that of many of the people that Courtland Milloy was thinking about when he wrote his column.

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