Sometimes we answer the question we’re asked when what we ought to do is answer one that is completely different. What to change about the media? That’s beyond quixotic. Looking at the introductory page of this very website what I recall is that this effort is not about altering what’s said by the media about unpolished gems like the city of Springfield, it’s about reaching the people who are interested in doing the polishing and trying to get down to the real obstacles to progress.
Historic preservation is a correspondingly important topic because these cities did have a heyday, there was a peak before there was a decline. That fact compounded by the reality that much of what has been built since 1945 is of lesser quality in terms of design and materials makes preserving what was built before that time advantageous. There are some people on either side of historic preservation debates who believe that an “everything old is better than anything new” attitude which underlies the entire concept, but the reality that I see as a member of a local historical commission is quite different.
A recent petitioner requested that a demolition delay order be waived in order that he might be able to move ahead on plans for a new hotel less than a block away from the new MGM resort casino. Based on the information we were given that evening the commission denied the request by a 5-1 margin, but we clearly communicated to the petitioner that this decision was not absolute. I spoke to him at length after the meeting about the process and, as I became point person for the commission on the topic, I made phone calls and arranged meeting to become better informed on the case.
This culminated 3 months later with a meeting with the petitioner and a local developer who had just completed renovations and repairs to a nearly identical building across the street. That developer explained that he had looked into redeveloping the structure in question and that it was not feasible to do so with property values as they are in the neighborhood. That conversation, and viewing the deterioration of the structure close up with the petitioner convinced me that lifting the delay would be the right decision. I urged him to return to the commission on a date certain and that I would express that view to the other commissioners. I told him that I was confident that the delay order would be lifted and that he would be able to proceed almost immediately.
Two of the photos I took while viewing the building in question with the petitioner and the developer of the Park Street Lofts:
He never did. I don’t have a problem with that in and of itself. If 5 or 6 months no longer mattered in terms of moving forward on the project relative to the delay of demolition, that was certainly an issue for the man with skin in the game to judge, and not I.
Imagine my surprise however when last month two stories (masslive and wwlp)appeared in the media in which the developer expressed to reporters that he was finally able to move forward with construction only now that the delay had elapsed. While technically true that the delay was still in place, he was well aware that the persistence of the delay order was not due to the local commission’s intransigence or indifference, but rather that we had actively sought to do our due diligence regarding our responsibilities related to historic preservation and development. But instead of acknowledging that we had actively worked with him and likely would have lifted the delay months earlier, he and the reporters allowed for the narrative to be perpetuated that the Historical Commission is simply anti development.
In the end the two reports were tiny additions to the narrative of growth and rebirth in the city, the historic preservation aspect of the story was a minor one. For some reason in both cases the reporters interviewed members of an advocacy group for historic preservation (of which I am a member) instead of the governmental body which decides whether or not to lift demolition delay orders for reasons of historic preservation. Whatever the motivations anyone paying attention to local media would assume that we continue in our role as “hysterical commissioners”, indifferent to the impacts of our decisions on our community and its prosperity, our only interest being to see to it that the city become some sort of spectacular ruin for future visitors to gaze at in wonderment.