I’ve already written a handful of pieces on historic preservation. In my earliest essay bearing directly on the topic I make the argument that economic vitality is the only guarantor of long term historic preservation. In retrospect, and after reading some thoughtful arguments regarding the relationship of growth and historic preservation, I must admit that my argument is only valid for places like Springfield where economic decline and abandonment are the primary drivers of destruction and demolition; in places like New York City or Portland, Oregon it is precisely economic vitality which drives demolition.
It shouldn’t be too surprising that two places experiencing such different, and in many cases, opposing realities would see such widely different impacts from historic preservation. The first issue which leaps from the page is the claim, no doubt true, that “historic preservation is an obstacle to increasing density in the city”. In Springfield the exact opposite is true: historic preservation is a tool for maintaining density. Apart from the MGM development I cannot think of a single proposal brought before the local historical commission on the demolition of an historic property, whether during the time I have been a member or during the years I spent as an observer, which didn’t propose a decrease in density.
Every proposal has been for “open space”:
The claim is made that studies demonstrate an impact between governmental oversight and racial and economic division. In a place where the White middle class is shrinking, like Springfield, historic districts represent islands of true diversity. All of the city’s historic districts are located either at the core of the city or in the inner ring surrounding it. My district is populated overwhelmingly by the poor and racial minorities, but the White middle class population is much greater than in similar neighborhoods not given that denomination. The same is true for every district in the city; true diversity is much greater within than without. The Whitest of the White neighborhoods are not historic districts, and the most overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods are also not historic districts.
It seems that nearly everyone agrees that some historic preservation for the sake of historic preservation is necessary; so far so good. But after that, arguments which are at their core debates regarding values and aesthetics take over.
Sometime after the 1930’s this gas station in the South End was torn down:
The newer one can service more cars at once and provides space for convenience shopping. For me, now that I know what once existed a few blocks from my home for providing people with petrol, I can’t imagine doing so at the current one without weeping.
Looking through those same photos I saw that this parking lot behind my house:
When we hear the expression “the ends justify the means” most often we shudder. It brings to mind historical analogies of omelettes and broken eggs. From an urbanist perspective, from a “Strong Towns” perspective, historic preservation is the best tool we have for improving the city in this place and at this time. In other places, and perhaps here at sometime in the future it will become an obstacle to “better outcomes”.
In the same way that I argued that in the debate over “chaotic and smart” versus “orderly but stupid” that the only real goal should be smart and that whether one used orderly or chaotic means to get to that end was of no particular importance, I would argue that, armed with the knowledge that we have regarding the outcomes which are most beneficial to a community in terms of long term prosperity, we should use arguments for historic preservation to bolster other arguments for the subjective goal of “better urbanism”; like, for example, not tearing down this historic building at the most important intersection of the city for a surface parking lot:
To facilitate the development of all this:
I weighed the necessity, value, and location of the parking relative to the value, necessity and location of the development it was to facilitate while taking into account the historic value and condition of the historic structure and found that the destruction of the school was acceptable. It was a value judgement. Enough members of the board agreed to allow the plan to move forward with our support.
In other cases homes which would have been razed for parking or development have instead been moved to vacant lots nearby because of the intervention of the historical commission.
It may be that in a high growth environment that historic preservation can only be a drag on progress, but I think the issue may have almost as much to do with process as with circumstances. Here, unlike the circumstances mentioned in Joe Cortwright’s piece on Portland, the creation of a local historic district requires a very public and political process including the support of the city council. Our commission is made up of at least two representatives of preservationist groups, but there are also designated spaces for architects and realtors, as well as three open seats for any city resident the mayor views as qualified. Once their two year terms expire any commissioner can be removed by the mayor at will and replaced by a new nominee who must go through a city council approval process.
The balance between politics and preservation means that no one is ever 100% satisfied with the outcomes. It’s a messy and imperfect process. I’ve voted, many times now, for things I utterly detested because it was what clearly needed to be done. On the other hand I know that we have nudged neighborhoods in the right direction, provided an outlet for democratic action, and saved structures vital to the city’s long term viability.
Without it my city would be worse off. If the process isn’t doing that for your community, try changing the process.