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.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Historic preservation isn't just a designation, it's also a tool of revitalization

Update: Dan Reed reminds me that I should have mentioned the Flower Theatre Project, which is a community effort focused on revitalization of the theatre in the context of the area's revitalization program.

So the Gazette has a piece, "Long Branch redevelopment plans spur continued feedback," (also see the 2012 entry from GGW, "Silver Spring's Flower Theatre could bloom once again") about revitalization planning in the Long Branch sector of Montgomery County.  This area is considered comparatively impoverished compared to other areas of the county, and has been the subject of a great deal of planning and investment.

The area will also be served by a station on the proposed Purple Line light rail line, so it will be impacted by having better and greater access to high quality transit service, which will in turn affect the neighborhood, leading to a variety of changes, and providing new and different opportunities for development, change, and the repurposing of currently underutilized buildings.

Left: Photo of the Flower Theatre.  Image from an entry by the Silver Spring Singular blog.

David Rotenstein, a historic preservation consultant and someone who I would term a historic preservation purist, is quoted in the piece as saying the building is unremarkable. I think that's a really inconsidered statement. From the article:

Speakers also disagreed on the plan’s recommendation for the historic designation of the Flower Theatre and Shopping Center, which some supported, while others argued it would limit redevelopment efforts.

Leslie Miles, chair of the county Historic Preservation Commission, said the commission recently voted in favor of the theatre and shopping center’s designation, support that was echoed by Mary Reardon, vice president of Montgomery Preservation Inc., and Marcie Stickle, advocacy chair for the Silver Spring Historical Society.

Historian David Rotenstein — who has studied the property in the past — said, however, the shopping center is “a common and unremarkable example of postwar architecture” and does not deserve historic designation.

Others discussed the theater’s potential role.  Amanda Hurley, of Silver Spring, said the Flower Theatre, “a beloved local landmark,” has been the subject of studies and recommendations and could become a “community anchor.”

What is the purpose of historic preservation?

Compared to every other building in the United States or other cinemas or other shopping complexes or other art deco buildings, the Flower Theatre shopping complex may be "unremarkable."  Although I would not agree.

In any case, that is not the scale at which historic preservation designation decisions are made.  What matters in this instance is the significance of the building on at least five dimensions:  (1) architectural and use; (2) neighborhood-cultural-social; (3) countywide; (4) regional and/or state; and (5) nationally. The building can be significant and worthy of designation on one or more of these dimensions and it isn't necessary to meet the criteria of significance for each in order to be designated.

Many people still believe that the point of historic preservation is the preservation of particularly worthy buildings and sites associated with key people, architecture, and events--like Mount Vernon, President George Washington's plantation, or Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress met and the Declaration of Independence was signed, etc.

That I think is the sentiment expressed by Mr. Rotenstein with regard to his comment about the Flower Avenue Playhouse, that the building isn't particularly memorable, when compared say to the Washington Monument or to the finest examples of art deco architecture still extant nationally.

This is the case even though the architect of the building, John Zink, was a regionally and nationally significant architect because of his work designing many theater buildings that were constructed throughout Maryland, Virginia, and DC, and many of his theater buildings (including the Senator in Baltimore, and the Newton in the Brookland neighborhood of DC) have been individually designated or are designated as part of broader neighborhood historic districts (the Takoma Theatre in the Takoma neighborhood of DC).

... and despite the fact that the Flower Theatre is a relatively rare example of somewhat untouched art deco architecture in Montgomery County.  Silver Spring's downtown was the site of many art deco buildings, but many have been demolished or changed significantly from their original design.

Neighborhood and commercial district historic preservation 

But since the 1920s, with the development of the movement to create a "neighborhood" historic district in Charleston, South Carolina, preservation has also been about preservation of the vernacular and community, not just great buildings.

I call this kind of historic preservation preserving the nexus of architecture (mostly buildings), place (including urban design), and history (people). Another way to think about this is in terms of the concept of the cultural landscape.

This is the type of preservation most often associated with the creation of neighborhood historic districts or the designation of key buildings that are significant within neighborhoods particularly, even if there are other similar types of buildings present elsewhere in the locality.

Two concepts are key: (1) the period of significance--the time period for which the history of the neighborhood, including the predominant architectural styles, is significant in terms of preserving and recognizing the neighborhood; and (2) the context of the built environment.

Thematic historic preservation and the scale at which preservation is practiced

Another element is the preservation of particular types of buildings in the context of a nation, state, region, county, or community.  This is tougher because there are big gaps in how preservation decisions are made, and planning at these various scales is hard to do generally, and really hard to do when you are crossing jurisdictional boundaries.  For example, to have a good representation of theater and cinema buildings in the Washington region, you have to deal with the policies of three different states and many separate jurisdictions.  As a practical matter this never happens.

That being said, the Flower Avenue Playhouse to which the article is referring to is, in the context of the history of movie presentation in the Washington region, quite unique with regard to the ouevre of cinema buildings constructed in Montgomery County.  (See Robert K. Headley. Motion Picture Exhibitions in Washington, DC: An Illustrated History of Parlors, Palaces and Multiplexes in the Metropolitan Area, 1894-1997. H-Net book review)

It's one of the only theater buildings constructed around or before 1950 that was built in an area that wasn't a key town center (like Silver Spring, Bethesda, Rockville, or Gaithersburg) in Montgomery County.  It was one of the last of these types of buildings, as cinemas came to be built in places that were more accessible by the car, on arterials rather than in more traditional commercial districts, and then mostly within shopping centers.

This is another reason why historic designation for the building is reasonable.

(Note that the concept of state and national designated "heritage areas," based on the organizing framework of the cultural landscape, addresses heritage preservation over a large district sharing a common identity, history, and theme.  The Alliance of National Heritage Areas is a support organization for state and nationally-designated heritage areas.)

Purple Line routing and station mapState and federal historic preservation tax credits are often the difference between revitalization and continued disinvestment in weaker real estate markets

Finally, perhaps the most important reason to designate the Flower Theatre is to be able to provide financial assistance to the revitalization effort, through tax credits.  A designated building is eligible for tax credits.  An undesignated building is not.  And as discussed above, on a comparative basis, the Long Branch area (graphic of the Purple Line routing, including a station in Long Branch, above, from the Washington Post) of Montgomery County is less successful, and providing inducements for improvement is something that the County is already doing.

Federal (up to 20% of the cost of the rehabilitation), State of Maryland (20% to 25% of the cost of the rehabilitation); and Local (10% of the cost of rehabilitation) historic preservation tax credits are available to buildings that are historically designated in Montgomery County, Maryland.  That is up to 55% of the cost and that can make a significant difference financially in whether or not to rehabilitate.

I am shocked that Mr. Rotenstein doesn't think that is a significant reason to move forward with designation as well.

Historic preservation as a regulation/rule/law

Another important concept is what does historic mean?  For many people, especially real estate developers, it is a legal definition.

If a building or neighborhood is legally designated historic, then it is historic and is to be protected. If the building or neighborhood is eligible for designation as historic, but isn't designated, is the building or neighborhood worthy of stewardship, or just a bunch of buildings able to be altered beyond recognition?

To most developers, lack of historic designation means that the building has no historic significance, even if it does, but hasn't been designated.

Although there are many developers who seek out historic preservation tax credits when appropriate, or pursue projects that can only be realized through the provision of preservation and other tax credits and other incentive programs.


For many reasons, historic preservation designation is a useful technique as part of the toolbox of  neighborhood and community stabilization and improvement strategies, and should be considered as a desirable strategy with regard to the improvement of the Long Branch neighborhood of Montgomery County Maryland and the revitalization of the Flower Theatre, an art deco cinema building and shopping complex that is a key and distinctive element of the commercial district in that neighborhood.

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At 11:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

what happens when historic preservation groups that are unelected go out of control and seek to domainate an entrie neighborhood, intimidate the property owners and all the while- forget all about their original charter to protect historic buildings? Also what happens when historic preservation is co-opted by groups that seek to preserve badly made buildings that are eyesores - and what happens when HP advocates seek to hold up mass transit and appropriate transit oriented development?

At 11:54 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

This post alone should justify a grant from the Piedmont Environmental Council.

Yes, shorter RLayman, they knew how to build neighborhoods back in the day and it is worth saving them just for that reason.

My doubt is the newer stuff is really any more sustainable rather than just being "new". We'll find out in 50 years.

At 3:19 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Anon -- you raise two points. One is about unelected HP advocates being dictators. My recommendation is that in the case of historic districts, that the process for managing the historic district should actually be systematized in a manner that DC doesn't do.

Typically, in other jurisdictions a specified historic district committee is created, with members selected in various ways, usually confirmed by the local legislature, with specific terms and procedures that meet various due process and openness requirements.

DC doesn't really do this, and I think that's a problem.

Also, DC doesn't adequately provide outreach and information about historic preservation, requirements, why it's important, etc., either, and it should.

2. WRT your other point, about misuse of HP. Well this is tough....

a. partly it happens, at least in DC, because only does HP designation for buildings and district provide for citizen input in a regular fashion, whereas otherwise most building matters are "matter of right" and normally provide no opportunity for citizen involvement. (A good example is the Cafritz proposal for an apartment building on CT Ave. in Chevy Chase.)

So people will raise HP etc. on some matters, more as a strategem rather than out of a believe of HP justification.

I am generally not in favor of the use of HP for such strategems. It doesn't help HP and it causes people to become cynical about HP and its viability, appropriateness, and utility.

b. with regard to saving shitty buildings that are modern and for the most part "unworthy" again, I am not in favor. I do think urban design should trump strict HP in such situations (e.g., the CHristian Scientist Church issue) although I can support the designation of modern buildings based on the typical criteria for how such decisions are typically made.

in other words, you always have the HP designation vs. the special merit determination, which allows for demolition and replacement.

The thing is that the bar for special merit determinations should be very very very high.

c. as far as transit and HP goes, I have made my position on this very clear. It's related to the point about urban design and all my blatherings about the journal articles by Peter Muller and J.S. Adams on urban form and how certain types of urban form were designed in particular to maximize the utility of sustainable transport modes (walking, biking, and transit).

HP advocates need to up their game for the 21st century, especially if they argue that neighborhood historic district designation is in large part motivated by neighborhood stabilization. High quality transit is inextricably linked to neighborhood revitalization. In fact, my experience with it in the H St. neighborhood is what converted me into a transportation planner (originally I focused on commercial district revitalization).

At 9:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

initially, many of the people who first came to CH in the 70's to renovate the old houses liked the idea of a historic district because it added glamour and real estate value to properties- but these same people were far less concerned about the actual history and heritage of these houses and they deliberately made arbitrary rules that inconvienienced poorer white and black families- such as banning awnings in the historic district- this was a total sham and clearly targeted at the middle class no-lawyer non realtor set. Truth be told- most houses and large buildings HAD awnings on them in DC because air conditioning did not come about until after WW2 and it was still to expensive. Banning awnings effectively shut out those who could not afford AC- clearly a class issue in the guise of "hisoric preservation". This is one of many such examples those of us who have lived here on CH know about. Few are willing to speak up beacuse of the harsh retribution often enacted against property owners that are affected..

At 1:21 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

There are at least two books _History in Urban Districts_ and the book about the history of the Assn. of Preservation of Virginian Antiquities, that discuss the issue within HP of the process of historic designation also being a process of choosing some history (or architecture) to revere over others, as well as it also being an exclusion technique.

Yep, that's true. But I don't think that justifies a blanket condemnation of HP more generally.

At 2:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

again- HP needs a revival- and there needs to be a new group that come sup that does away with all of the NIMBYs associations and influences as well as the temptations to endorse real estate values as well as imposing an unrealistic standard on long time residents or those who are not super rich and able to afford all of the supposedly "historically accurate" details demanded of these people for "authenticity". I agree- they need to come into the 21st century in a big way- and these groups have lost a lot of credibility- look at the behaviors WRT the Hines and Tenleytown projects- and these two projects basically have NOTHING to do with real HP at all...


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