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.

Friday, April 17, 2015

When historic preservation gets a bad name: Spring Valley edition

Parking Lot, Spring Valley Retail Center
Parking lot at the Spring Valley Retail Center. Google Street View image.

The Washington City Paper reports ("A Lot to Lose: Can a Parking Lot Be an Historic Landmark?") that Spring Valley residents fighting a development proposal that would replace a parking lot with a building at the Spring Valley Retail Center--once an outlying department store for the now defunct Garfinckel's chain but now best known for having an expanded Crate & Barrel furniture store, are arguing that the parking lot is fundamental to the form of the complex and should be protected as a historic landmark.

The article discusses the work of architectural historian/American Studies Professor Richard Longstreth, but not specifically his journal article on the development of parking-centric shopping centers in the region ("The Neighborhood Shopping Center in Washington, DC, 1930-1941").  The Park and Shop in Cleveland Park and the Silver Spring Shopping Center are the most prominent examples.  (Carytown in Richmond has a great example as well.)
Silver Spring Shopping Center
Silver Spring Shopping Center vintage postcard.

Interestingly, smart growth advocates have criticized historic preservationists for arguing that parking lots in the case of the Silver Spring or Connecticut Avenue park and shops are integral to the overall ensemble, and that without saving the parking lot, the site loses its relevance as an historic landmark and artifact.

Spring Valley Shopping Center. 

But all parking lots aren't equal or worth saving and a strong case can be made that the parking lot at the Spring Valley Retail Center doesn't possess architectural and cultural significance, even though the park and shop across the street, the Spring Valley Shopping Center, like the Cleveland Park and Silver Spring examples, does rise to the level of saving, were the issue to come up.

This effort is an example of nimbyism, of residents opposed to any development whatsoever seizing on historic preservation laws and regulations as a way to subvert the project.  In DC law, in most instances, only do historic preservation protections require citizen involvement and more focused review.

I was thinking about this the other day, seeing a building going up next to I-395 on 2nd Street NW, and remembering the rowhouses that had been there.  Years ago a tenant in one of the buildings contacted me, wanting to file a historic landmark nomination, not so much to save the buildings but as a negotiating tactic with the property owner.  I said a nomination wouldn't be approved and it's a lot of effort to engage in a sure-to-fail effort, and I didn't agree to help.

Instead of people seizing on historic preservation processes as a tool to try to stop any project, whether or not the site/building is of historic significance, there should be building regulation review processes that provide for citizen input while recognizing that opposing development as a matter of course shouldn't be privileged as part of the review process, that instead decision-making should be judicious.

In the meantime, people who aren't preservationists mis/using preservation tactics end up demeaning and diminishing the historic preservation movement and process more generally, which makes articulating a strong historic preservation message all the more important.

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At 1:20 PM, Anonymous Eric F. said...

there should be building regulation review processes that provide for citizen input

Yes, it's called the Comprehensive Plan and the existing zoning regulations. Citizens are always able to proactively rezone land--- even other people's land!--- if they don't like what might get built. Furthermore, they can participate in the Comp. Plan and potential small area plans to ensure their visions for a site are set into policy.

Instead, we have a case where people failed to participate and now want to change the rules on other people's property through a last-ditch effort by making a specious argument to "save ye olde historic parking lot."

At 3:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

its only a matter of time before that insane grouping of elderly recalcitrants called the CHRS does something like this- perhaps for the Safeway surface parking lot- or maybe to "preserve open space" along 8th street SE? It is very much of a concern of theirs- if not their CHIEF concern since the demolition of truly historic structures does not really warrant their attention- such as happened along NJ Avenue SE back around 2000 near the Navy Yard when a developer knocked down a building that predated the Civil War by decades- although technically "outside" of their historic district- they could have halted this dastardly deed- but they sat by idling since it was a disreputable and seedy gay club area and had lots of lower class black people living nearby. Of course their excuse is that it was outside the district- but this never stopped CHRS from bullying in on issues- such as Union Station and H street NE- not to mention expanding their strangluation of potential growth and business opportunities for new young people by pushing their "historic district" BS onto Barney Circle and NE DC over by Kingman Park. These people need to get a life and to stop barking up the wrong tree. HP has been highjacked- for a long time- by total NIMBYs and do- gooder fools.

At 3:54 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

There are two levels of review, gros-grain and fine grain. Comp. Plan is gros-grain. It doesn't substitute for fine grain review.


I thought the justification for community opposition was ridiculous. You can't build for every eventuality in a zoning code. That's why you have variances and exceptions and a process for review and approval.

Nonetheless, the "ensemble" quality of a place (see Semes) provides a justification for fine grained review of projects.

That doesn't mean yes or no necessarily, but focused on how the project integrates within a place.

At 3:55 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

I should say, gros grain doesn't substitute for fine grain review, but it does set the stage for it.

At 7:04 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

actually, there are/should be 3-4ree levels of plan:

- the Comp. or Master Plan
- functional (transpo, education, housing, historic preservation, etc.)
- area and neighborhood plans
- fine-grained review of specific projects


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