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.)
State 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.
Labels: historic preservation, real estate development, real estate market, suburban revitalization, sutainable land use and resource planning, transit and economic development, urban design/placemaking