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, May 31, 2012

The last day of National Historic Preservation Month...

Dick Wolf at a presentation.  Photo by Bruce Guthrie.

I had big visions for how I would blog about historic preservation issues including preservation policies and my take on the state of the field, throughout the month of May, which is preservation month.  I also intended to run some book reviews on important books in the field.  I didn't get to this, abetted in part by a massive failure within yahoomail--the access function to past emails is not working, so I couldn't access notes I'd written about what to cover.

But the past week gives us another cause for reflection, because of the death of two stalwarts in the local preservation movement, Everett Ortner in Brooklyn, and Richard (Dick) Wolf in DC.

Ortner was a co-founder with his wife, Evelyn, who predeceased him, of what became New York City's Brownstone Revival Coalition.  They helped spearhead a reconsideration of Manhattan and Brooklyn neighborhoods as places to live rather than as places to flee--what we would call "urban pioneering."  Basically they were at the start of the urban pioneering/living in the city movement, in the face of urban renewal and urban freeway movement, both of which were the kiss of death for many cities, even though such initiatives were thought to be the solution and augur for next generation growth.  See "Everett Ortner, Leader in Brooklyn Brownstones' Revival, Dies at 92" from the New York Times.

Yesterday, the Capitol Hill Restoration Society announced the death of Dick Wolf, who died on Wednesday from pancreatic cancer, and the City Paper has an article about him, "Capitol Hill Crusader Dick Wolf Passes Away."  A CHRS statement lists Dick's many involvements in key historic preservation and planning actions:

• establishing the DC Historic Preservation Act;
• establishing the DC Comprehensive Plan, the Ward 6 Plan, and zoning to carry out the intent of the Comprehensive Plan;
• including the importance of the residential neighborhood in the Architect of the Capitol’s Master Plan;
• establishing the Capitol Hill Historic District in 1976;
• re-developing Eastern Market, and the efforts to preserve and re-open the market after the disastrous fire;
• redeveloping the Ellen Wilson houses into the national award-winning Townhomes on Capitol Hill [a HOPEVI project];
• promoting the Main Street Project which transformed Barrack’s Row into a lively commercial district;
• supporting the rezoning of the MedLINK property [Capitol Hill Hospital, on Massachusetts Avenue] to retain a scale consistent with the surrounding neighborhood;
• successfully opposing a large glass curtain-wall office building at 14th and Pennsylvania (current site of Harris Teeter) and stopping a church at 6th and A Streets, NE from demolishing an entire block of historic homes to create a mega-headquarters;
• supporting the CHRS Beyond the Boundaries Project, to document the buildings, and record the history of Capitol Hill south of H Street, NE and east to 19th Street. 

Dick was a pain in the ass, irascible, and didn't listen to other people.  I don't know if that was because he was "old", because of his experience dealing with duplicity by developers and city officials for so many years, or just his personality.

As the epicenter for a lot of changes in the city--redevelopment of Union Station, office building construction, neighborhood revitalization, the Southeast-Southwest Freeway, the subway system--you couldn't help but realize that what happened in Capitol Hill was also happening elsewhere in the city.

Wolf shaped one very important aspect of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society that is relatively unique amongst "neighborhood" preservation groups--its more outward outlook and concern for what happens to the areas bordering Capitol Hill.  

As a result, CHRS ended up passing a resolution setting the boundaries of its interest area, which is far larger than the specific and legal boundaries of the Capitol Hill Historic District, and the organization has worked to assist people and organizations on preservation and development issues in those areas.

That was the case with historic preservation and H Street revitalization issues in my old H Street neighborhood in DC, which is located just outside of the boundary of the CHHD, which ends at F Street NE.

This helps groups today.

But he didn't just tell people what to do.  He was one of the volunteers a couple years ago when the annual CHRS House and Garden Tour focused on the area around H Street.

On the other hand, I'd say he was by no means perfect.  I won't list my disagreements, but one particular one is over streetcars.  He saw them as a scourge for the city, while I see streetcars as offering better and more comfortable ways to get around the city without having to drive a car.  Too many "neighborhood" "preservation" groups are focused on maintaining automobility and parking space inventory, and the CHRS and Dick have been guilty of this too.

He was from the generation where the car was seen as freeing and streetcars were "old technology" and I have to believe that this shaped his thinking about streetcars and the 21st century city.

But there is no question that I learned from my various interactions with him, even though I think that we differed in what we thought was possible because he came to the fore during the time when the city's primary neighborhood need was to stabilize an otherwise shrinking and declining city, while my involvements have peaked more towards the time when the city has an opportunity to grow, with the H Street NE commercial district being a prime example of this kind of opportunity.

I don't know how much of that was generational or just his irascible personality.  My joke with planning people is that I worry that I will end up like him--although in person I am generally not too confrontational unless the presenters are dropping 70% or more of b.s., and then I can't hold it in...

In both cases, Brooklyn/New York City and Capitol Hill/Washington, DC are a little worse off today, with the loss of these pro-city stalwarts.

I hope we have it within us to step up, follow, and continue to shape the future of the city and its neighborhoods in a positive, innovative, and forward thinking way.

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