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, August 26, 2016

Preservation advocacy may be more successful when companies are vulnerable to public pressure: Baltimore County vs. Fairfax County, Virginia vs. Robbinsdale, Minnesota

In "Without remedies there's nothing you can do: historic preservation in Chicago and DC"
and "Historic Preservation Tuesday: Saving buildings vs. the right to petition to redress grievances" I argue that when historic preservation efforts are successful mostly it is because communities have put into place processes for nominating and landmarking buildings.

Campaigns without legal backup or the ability within local law to trigger "remedies" tend to fail.

As the previous entries make clear, to protect buildings at the local level, local laws, regulations, and designations are required.  Most people don't understand that a property listed on "the National Register of Historic Places" only protects a building vis a vis "federal undertakings."  Only if a "local" project were funded by the federal government would it be subject to the National Historic Preservation Act.

Because most communities haven't done full inventories of buildings worth saving, or if they have they haven't moved from the identification phase to formally protecting the buildings, for example see the 2004 series in the Chicago Tribune:

-- "Squandered Heritage Part 1: Search and Destroy"
-- "Squandered Heritage Part 2: Demolition Machine
-- "Squandered Heritage Part 3: Alternatives

or laws allow the Executive and/or the Legislative Branch final approval on landmark decisions or the authority to revoke landmark status, or if the local law doesn't provide the way to file a landmark nomination to stay a demolition, plenty of historic preservation efforts end in failure.  (The City of Chicago added a demolition delay provision to its building regulation regulations after the Tribune series was published.)

Comparing four different contemporary historic preservation advocacy efforts--in suburban Minneapolis, Baltimore County, Maryland, and McLean/Fairfax County, Virginia--provides some insight into this, how to be successful in "saving buildings" is either a matter of law or a matter of being able to successfully pressure either a developer or tenant.

Seven points of pressure:

- Government in terms of existing laws and regulations concerning land use generally and historic preservation specifically, and whether or not appointed officials will support or deny their support of a preservation effort.

In extraordinary cases, the local government may step in and acquire a property in order to preserve it ("Kenton County Buys Bavarian Brewery Building, Will Move Government To Historic Site," River City News).  In the Kenton County case, a developer who bought a vacant manufacturing site anticipating that it could be used as a casino wanted to demolish the buildings after the casino project was scuttled.  The City of Covington sued to prevent the demolition and later the County Government stepped in.

Another issue is preservation of buildings owned by local governments, and whether or not they do a good job of it. Many do not and/or are overwhelmed by the cost of maintaining buildings. Some governments do an amazing job of preserving and maintaining such buildings.  This is even an issue with the federal government, e.g., "National Park Service turns 100, but facilities not being kept up," Columbus Dispatch).

Prentice Women's Hospital, Chicago.

Other prominent examples are the demolition of buildings determined to be obsolete, such as the Prentice-Women's Hospital in Chicago ("Is the demolition of Prentice Hospital another Penn Station Moment?," ArchDaily) or the County Government Building in Orange County, New York. There tends to be less interest in preserving buildings of more recent construction.

- Elected Officials in terms of whether or not they will support or deny their support to a preservation effort, how they direct appointed officials to act, and their willingness to try to persuade property owners and developers to take a different tack. 

This is particularly important when the Executive Branch is responsible for planning functions, and City/County Councils have the final decision-making authority.

Unfortunately elected officials and therefore government often will cave when a developer states that a business venture--economic development--won't go forward if encumbered if historic buildings must be retained.

- Real Estate Developer/Property Owner.   Without historic preservation protections in place before the onset of a project, it is very difficult to "save" a building.  However, it the developer wants to save the building they will.

But most developers are focused on "land" and the opportunity to refashion it, and see existing buildings as obstacles.

 However, a minority of developers seek out and rehabilitate historic buildings, especially in cities, because of the ability to monetize value from historic identity and authenticity.  Getting these developers to buy historic properties rather than developers lacking concern for historic architecture is the best course of action.

- Tenant. In rare instances major tenants may be susceptible to pressure in terms of supporting historic preservation efforts. Most retail chains have specific design and building formats (there is a great new book on this topic concerning Walmart, ) that are somewhat flexible, but generally they do not favor "old" or historic buildings except in one-off but multiple circumstances.

Broadway Theater Rite Aid, Seattle.

One example is CVS, which likes to locate stores in old theaters. Rite Aid has done the same in the Capitol Hill district of Seattle, as have both Walgreens and CVS in New Orleans.

Generally in center cities chains will locate stores in historic buildings but they tend to be unwilling to do this when they have other choices, building new stores from the ground up, incorporating their standard designs, which they consider to be key elements of branding identity.

- Residents.  Residents independent of preservation advocates may or may not support a preservation effort.  Either way, support or opposition can tip a campaign to success or failure.  However, typically people don't care that much, and plenty of people are negative either for "property rights" concerns or out of the general belief in the US that "new is better."

- Money.  If a preservation advocacy initiative has the money to buy a building and preserve it, they usually can.  Because preservation groups usually don't have the money they need to preserve all the buildings worth preserving, most of these efforts are about persuading other parties or using "other people's money,"

- Related to money is "property control."  If a preservation group owns the property, even if derelict, they're in a better position to shape the outcome.

towsoneast_lochravenblvd_030610_bellocFlickr photo by Pat Gavin.

Baltimore County -- Bel Loc Diner, Googie architecture style vs. standard suburban Starbucks

I wrote about this a few months back, "Bel-Loc Diner in Baltimore County to be torn down for a Starbucks."

In Baltimore County, the developer of a potential Starbucks site is not interested in rehabilitating the diner for a Starbucks, instead preferring to build the standard suburban Starbucks format, while saving a sign.  Starbucks is happy with this even though they are tenants in great Googie architecture elsewhere.

The executive branch of the County Government is fine with that, because they see the new store as "economic development" for a corridor that is in need of revitalization, and don't see the value of historic preservation as an element of the corridor's identity. The Councilmember is on the fence, but ultimately the Executive Branch calls the shots.

Preservation Maryland and Preservation Alliance of Baltimore County have campaigns to save the building, but seem unable to impact any of the five pressure points for success.  There isn't a concerted campaign by residents to save the building, although this isn't a surprise, because of how American built culture favors "the new."

Unfortunately, a campaign to designate the building in advance of this particular proposal did not occur, but even if it did, the County would have been likely to approve a demolition.  However, had designation been in place, it would have created a much different "space" for discussions on how to proceed.  If Starbucks really wanted to be at that location, likely they would have acquiesced and saved the building.  But not being forced to save the building means they prefer the easy way forward.

Baltimore County -- Presbyterian Mansion

Photo: The Presbyterian Home of Maryland, based in Towson, is closing. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

A different preservation matter is also ongoing ("Baltimore County backs out of deal to move workers to Towson Presbyterian Home," Baltimore Sun), at an earlier phase in the development of the site compared to the Bel-Loc Diner.  A 4 acre nursing home campus is being vacated.  It has been purchased by one of Baltimore's primary developers, who proposed saving the main building, rehabilitating it, and renting it out to the County Government for offices.

Local residents opposed that particular use--not necessarily preservation of the building-arguing that it would generate extranormal amounts of traffic, and the County scuttled its proposal.

However, that could mean that the developer demolishes the building and constructs new housing on the site, which may generate as much traffic, just at different times.

This reminds me of other examples when opposition by residents to particular projects results, down the road, in worse outcomes (a Walmart instead of housing, etc.) because at the time opponents couldn't conceptualize scenarios and outcomes that were worse. From the article:
Residents of the Southland Hills community are planning a rally Sunday to draw attention to their concerns about the building and generate support for landmark designation.

"We're a neighborhood and we want to remain a neighborhood," said Kate Knott, another Southland Hills resident.

Adler said Caves Valley [the developer] will oppose landmark status for the building. Now that offices are off the table, he said the company is evaluating whether the existing building can be incorporated in a residential project — or must be torn down to build new.

The company has the property, which is zoned for up to 5.5 homes per acre, under contract. Presbyterian Home officials have said the contract is subject to a 60-day study period, which runs through mid-October.
McLean, Virginia -- a house dating to the 1700s

Washington's NBC station reported (Historic McLean Home Set for Demolition") on plans by a developer to demolish a house dating to the 1700s, said to have significant connections to historical events associated with the War of 1812 and the Civil, to build three new houses in its place.
House slated to be demolished in McLean, Virginia
Fairfax County's comprehensive plan calls for inventorying potential historic resources, but mostly this goal remains unattained.  While the County has a process for landmarking individual buildings, the State of Virginia does not authorize local jurisdiction to enact interim protections for "old" potentially designatable buildings threatened by demolition.  By contrast other states, cities, and counties, including DC, have such a process.

Whether or not local officials in Fairfax County are prepared to stick their necks out and try to save the building--this could be done by attempts at "suasion" with the developer--there is no way to file a landmark nomination to save the building once a demolition permit has been issued, and it has.

Likely the only alternative to demolition would be for the government or private entities to step in and buy the property.  This happens on occasion, but not very often.  It's facilitated when there are "revolving funds" and other mechanisms in place on a standing basis.

Terrace Theatre, Robbinsdale, Minnesota

Robbinsdale, a suburb of Minneapolis, doesn't prioritize preservation in its city plan and doesn't consider older architecture to be historic unless it is "high architecture" or associated with particularly significant events.

Therefore a cinema building dating to the 1950s doesn't seem out of the ordinary or worth protecting, although the city plan does see the opportunity for adaptively reusing the building.

While the cinema hasn't been operating for many years, "obsolete" in part because of how the cinema industry has shifted to very buildings with 10 to 25 screens, there has been an ongoing campaign to "save" the building, focused more on persuasion, because the city doesn't have a historic preservation protection ordinance.

-- The Historic Terrace Theatre – Since 1951
-- Save the Terrace – Robbinsdale Historical Society

The developer of the site, a former shopping center, isn't particularly interested in preserving the building, although one could argue doing so would fit in with how new shopping centers are adding entertainment and "third place" kinds of options to round out their offerings to keep customers on-site longer ("A fresh take on 'Retailtainment' and future of fun," Chain Store Age). From the article:
Retail has been the foundation of shopping centers throughout their existence, but new entertainment concepts are making inroads in traditional retail venues.

Even in mixed-use venues, it is generally accepted that a critical mass of traditional retail is the highlight, and that other uses are complementary pieces, designed to drive traffic and support the retail component. While the industry has been slowly evolving away from that traditional model for some time now (dining and entertainment uses in particular have emerged as more significant pieces of the commercial puzzle) that trend has exploded in recent years. A wide range of dynamic and engaging new entertainment uses have sprung up, and have functioned as increasingly prominent features on the development landscape.

Today, entertainment is no longer a side dish: it’s the main course. And it’s a meal that landlords and commercial development decision-makers are increasingly interested in ordering.
While the advocacy campaign ("More than 2,000 sign petition to preserve Robbinsdale's historic Terrace Theater:The Robbinsdale building could be pricey to reopen," Minneapolis Star-Tribune) hasn't been successful with either the developer ("Robbinsdale's dilemma: Save Terrace Theatre or open new grocery") or the city ("Robbinsdale to consider Terrace demo with or without Hy-Vee"), their campaign targeting the anchor tenant has been.

In a surprising turn, the main tenant for the proposed development, Hy-Vee, a Des Moines-based supermarket company that has been expanding in the Minneapolis market, has backed off the project because of public pressure around saving the theater ("Hy-Vee halts Robbinsdale grocery store plans due to local resistance," Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal).

Normally, that would be enough to get the developer to modify their plans, because typically construction finance loans aren't released without a certain number of committed tenants, in particular the anchor, and a Hy-Vee, one of the nation's more successful independent supermarket chains, is almost impossible to replace.

Despite Hy-Vee pulling out, at least for now, in a hearing earlier this week the city approved the demolition ("Robbinsdale council approves Terrace Theatre teardown; lawsuit filed to halt demolition") and seemingly, the developer plans to move forward.

In the Bel-Loc Diner situation in Baltimore County, there's no question that if Starbucks preferred to use the diner building, but rehabilitated and enhanced, that's what would happen.

The Robbinsdale situation is a little different, because Hy-Vee wouldn't be a tenant in the Terrace Theatre building, instead it would be preserved and operated as a separate initiative, for which the developer has no tenant, and neither the advocacy group nor the city have money for such a project.

This is an odd instance where a preservation advocacy campaign gets a solid win -- the key tenant backs out of a project because of how the action might harm relationships with current and future customers -- but for some reason, the developer doesn't care.

General lessons

I think the general lesson is once a building is under threat, it's usually too late to save it in the face of other plans.

1.  Don't wait to nominate a building.

2.  Make sure you have/create strong local laws and a process for protecting threatened buildings.

3.  Inventory historic resources in your community in advance of them being threatened.

4.  Legalize a process for providing interim protections for buildings under threat, which might require the creation of laws at the state level too.

5.  Develop relationships with developers interested or willing to take on projects involving historic buildings.

6.  Try to line up money that can be used to buy buildings and fund rehabilitation.

7.  Help find uses/tenants for historic buildings. Obviously, a profitable use for a building keeps it occupied.

Unfortunately in the case of the Terrace Theatre, a "cinema drafthouse" type use is already present at the New Hope Cinema Grill located in an adjacent town, less than four miles away.

For communities other than Robbinsdale, the New Hope Cinema Grill is actually a great model for how to bring back a historic theater building--even though this particular operation isn't legacy and in a historic theater but in an old shopping center.

It started out as a way to occupy part of a mostly vacant shopping center. It shows movies, runs a comedy club operation, and holds special events.  They expanded the operation in other vacant spaces next door, adding a bar and grill done in a movies theme, which also scheduledslive music,ed in buildings adjacent to the theater ("Outtakes Bar & Grill opening in New Hope," Sun-Post) ,

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