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.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Preservation problems in San Francisco (and elsewhere)

The New York Times has a story, "An Unlikely Group Rebels Against Preservation Districts," about resistance to historic preservation designation in San Francisco, because residents see the regulation that comes with it as a burden.

The article discusses how with a recent change in the law, the historic preservation review board in San Francisco now has enforcement powers and it didn't before.

But the opposition to increased enforcement, pro-property rights sentiments, etc., seem to me to be almost universal, judging by the articles I read from around the country that concern historic preservation.

But as the entry "Food for Thought…" from the Preservation Maryland blog states:

I find it curious that everyone thinks of anything having to do with historic preservation as being the ‘historical society.’ Honestly, if you weren’t a person involved in historic preservation how would you know what all the different organizations are or what they do? How would you know that the National Park Service is the keeper of the National Register and not the National Trust? You wouldn’t and sometimes when people are trying to wrap their minds around it all it gets pretty confusing. So if the general public automatically reaches out to the historical society for everything preservation oriented that means our local historical societies play a very critical role in terms of public relations for the rest of us in the field. What that speaks to is the need for these organizations to have the knowledge they need to direct people to the correct resources and potentially a revamped mission in some ways. Today a lot of historical societies are going through an interesting metamorphosis. They’re trying to be more relevant, innovative and dynamic in a culture that for many years has been somewhat static. It’s a challenge, but one way is for historical societies to become greater advocates for historic preservation. Without the houses and landscapes, how can you make the history come to life? Just something to think about as we edge towards the end of the year. Let’s try something different, go in a new direction and better yet, support each other in important ways that help all boats rise.

DC uses the same standards as the National Register of Historic Places. To be on the NR, there has to be an affirmative vote of the affected district. With that condition, in my opinion it's almost impossible to create a historic district of significant size now. The biggest historic districts in DC, e.g., Capitol Hill Historic District, with more than 6,000 buildings, were created long before that requirement was in effect, plus at a time when each individual building didn't have to be documented.

But people do rebel against the enforcement. DC has historic district building enforcement, but not enough inspectors, under the regular building regulations.

Preservationists haven't done a good job in making the case for HP in the 21st century. It's a shame because in cities like DC, preservationists saved the city--the attractive residential neighborhoods in the core specifically--during the many decades when trends did not favor urban living.
Brownstone Awaiting A Wrecking Ball, NYC 1959, by Dmitri Kessel
Brownstone Awaiting A Wrecking Ball, NYC 1959, by Dmitri Kessel.

It's especially bothersome to me that smart growthers, although I understand the sentiment, deride HP because they see it as obstructive. At the same time, there is some room for criticism.

I think preservation came to the fore during the time of the shrinking city and disinvestment and loss of population was the major issue, so they focused on stabilization and house-by-house investment, while today the city has the opportunity to grow--in population, property tax revenue, sales tax revenue, and in the case of DC, income tax revenue, with the addition of selective infill and land use intensification (the city needs this because household sizes have declined, therefore to increase population, we need more housing units)-- preservationists don't have a framework to work with.
Ad, Allegro Condominiums
Condominium advertisement, 2007.

The solution is to pass design review and maintenance building regulations (including concerning demolition) that are city-wide, based on the age of a building, regardless of whether or not buildings are located within defined historic districts.

People might not like the additional level of review, but for the most part it's warranted. It's the rare house in areas that aren't designated that is "upgraded" with respect for its historic character, style, and materials. Too often it's butchered, added onto in ersatz ways, etc.

A little more review is a good thing, especially given the fact that buildings altered in significant ways can have a negative impact on the property value of adjoining properties and the neighborhood overall.

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