Historic Preservation: Taming the “Four-Headed Monster”?

Owlish points to this thought-provoking op-ed in the New York Times from a few days back by the architecture critic for The New Republic, Sarah Williams Goldhagen, responding to architect Rem Koolhaas’ recent accusations that preservationists “cherry-pick the past”, “destroy people’s complex sense of the urban environment” and all too often are caught snogging with developers.

Here’s a blurb from Koolhaas’ exhibit description on the New Exhibitions Museum website…

Koolhaas seeks to find what the future of our memory will look like, and how our obsession with heritage is creating an artificial re-engineered version of our memory. Lacking a set of coherent strategies or policies and generally not engaged by architects and designers, preservation is an under-examined topic, but increasingly relevant as we enter an age of “Cronocaos,” in which the boundaries between preservation, construction, and demolition collapse, forever changing the course of linear evolution of time.

Hmm…I wonder what Koolhaas would say a natural, non-“re-engineered” memory looks like.

Williams argues that while there’s some truth to Koolhaas’ critiques – and I would perhaps add a dash of “Hello Pot, my name is Kettle!” – preservation is not actually the cause these problems.  Instead, it’s a stop-gap measure acting as a very blunt tool in lieu of more comprehensive city planning departments, which should be considering preservation and development in the same breath.

She goes on to give an insightful and concise history of the preservation movement – including when things came to a head in the mid-1960s when the public decided it had had enough with urban renewal projects blindly tearing down their physical history (see NYC’s Penn Station above) – up to the present day when in many cities around the country “decisions about managing urban development are frequently framed as decisions about what or what not to preserve, with little sense of how those decisions affect the surrounding neighborhood.”

She concludes…

Instead of bashing preservation, we should restrict it to its proper domain. Design review boards, staffed by professionals trained in aesthetics and urban issues and able to influence planning and preservation decisions, should become an integral part of the urban development process. At the same time, city planning offices must be returned to their former, powerful role in urban policy.

We can argue all day about the “proper” role of government in urban planning, but it’s hard to argue that preservation ordinances all too often step in to fill a larger policy void in the present day.  Decatur has had its fair share of examples of historic districts spurred on mainly to impose height of size limits  – from Old Decatur’s historic status stemming from the never-built condos on Hillyer to the Oakhurst kerfuffle over whether it should become a historic district due to the number of tear downs and larger new construction.

The 2010 Strategic Plan task 3a aims at tackling some of what’s lacking in our current planning, by adopting “new transitional design standards to integrate commercial, mixed-use, and residential districts.”, while Goal 4 looks to “encourage the preservation of neighborhoods and appropriate
reuse of historic structures.”  It will be interesting to see how an if these policies combined will create an even more precise and acceptable preservation policy going forward.

Strategic Plan To-Do List: Protect Neighborhoods, Promote Growth

Local historic districts, development in commercial districts and potential live-work housing are key components of Decatur Strategic Plan Goal #3…

Goal 3: Protect existing neighborhoods while promoting growth in desired areas and adopting standards that guide future growth

Decatur’s neighborhoods are the foundation for the high quality of life that the city enjoys today, and must be preserved and protected. However, if the city is to adequately respond to changing demographics, it must accommodate new housing and retail options. The community expressed the desire to accommodate new growth and protect existing neighborhoods by continued emphasis on appropriately scaled and designed development within existing commercial districts.

Task 3A Adopt new transitional design standards.

In recent decades, Decatur has used buffers and height limits to transition between existing neighborhoods and new development. These have focused on separating such areas, rather than unifying them. As an alternative, new design techniques should be explored to provide appropriate connection between new development and existing neighborhoods, such as improved architectural design, scale and massing, and landscaping.

Task 3B Continue to encourage private residential, retail, and commercial development in existing commercial districts.

Commercial districts are ideally suited to accommodate the housing types needed to serve Decatur’s future. Development here should provide multifamily units for sale or rent, townhouses, live-work units, senior housing, and other options.

Task 3C Encourage the creation of new local historic districts.

The creation of local historic districts is the best tool at Decatur’s disposal for ensuring the physical preservation of historic neighborhoods. The City should support efforts to establish additional historic districts.

Task 3D Strive to realize long-term build-out visions for commercial areas expressed in the Concept Plans.

Please see the Concept Plans for examples of how new development in these areas could occur.

Task 3E Reexamine historic design standards and restrictions against historic home demolition.

The preservation of neighborhood character is as much about protecting historic homes as it is ensuring compatible new construction. While new construction is now regulated by zoning, retaining the historic character of existing homes is also critical. A citywide reexamination of regulations affecting the preservation of historic homes should be undertaken, and regulatory changes made, if appropriate.

Task 3F: Study if live-work housing can be implemented in existing neighborhoods without a negative impact on nearby homes.

As technology and employment continue to evolve, more Decatur residents are running small businesses from their homes. Although current zoning regulates the types of home businesses that can occur, these may need to be reviewed or modified periodically to ensure their relevance.

Task 3G: Improve the predictability and efficiency of the process for new development approval by establishing development standards and requirements that are consistent with the goals of the strategic plan.

Ponce Court Makes Georgia Register of Historic Places

Already a local historic district with all the rules and regs that go along with that, Ponce de Leon Court is setting its sights on state and national recognition…along with some snazzy tax credit options.

From Regina at the Decatur Minute

Several residents of Ponce Court attended a hearing on June 4th at the Georgia State Historic Preservation Office and were given the great news that their neighborhood is considered worthy to be listed on the Georgia Register of Historic Places. One of the attendees was 82 year old Graham Thomas who lived on the street from 1920-1940. Next, the district nomination will be sent to the National Register of Historic Places in Washington DC where the nomination will hopefully be accepted and Ponce Court will be listed as an important historic district in the United States.

The proud and happy residents can now take advantage of significant property tax relief programs and income tax credits made available to properties listed on the Georgia and National Registers of Historic Places.

Duluth To Raze Historic Part of Theater

While many in Decatur pine for a historic theater, Duluth is knocking down theirs. From the AJC

Duluth will knock down the oldest section of its prized Red Clay Theatre on Wednesday.

Almost a month after razing about 80 feet of the theater at Ga. 120 and Main Street, the city will demolish the 1908 portion of the city-owned brick building. Despite efforts to salvage the section, officials said there were too many structural issues at too high a cost to repair.

According to the article, another portion of the theater was knocked down last month in order “to widen GA 120 and increase the historic district’s visibility from Buford Highway.”

Perhaps this is all just to make way for that Continental Divide Ice Cream Parlor.

Downtown Macy’s Reopens This Summer as Event Facility

Photo courtesy of AJC

There’s lots of excitement surrounding the reopening of Macy’s (previously Davison’s) downtown this summer after an extensive $16 million renovation. The AJC has a great little write up on the transformation of the department store into an event facility with restaurants.  (You can also click here for a couple of renderings and “before” pictures of the space.)

Money quote from the article: “The best way to save a building is to use it.”

Dang straight.  Let’s keep providing incentives to do just that.

h/t: Next Stop…Decatur

Federal Grant Will Fund Beacon Hill Complex Study

Scott points to a blurb in the print version of the AJC, but not yet online.

Decatur is one of 10 Georgia cities receiving federal money for historic preservation projects.

The city will receive $10,000 from the Historic Preservation Fund to do a condition assessment report and preservation plan for the Beacon Hill complex.

The complex on West Trinity housed pre-integration elementary and high schools for the city’s African-American students.  It has served as the city’s police department since the early 1980s.

The city has considered for years how to renovate the existing building for modern use, while retaining the historic character.

Conservation Groups Buying Up Land While the Getting Is Good

Looking back on it, few should be surprised that preservation efforts, both historic and environmental, were so aggressive prior to 2008.  The construction industry, which single-handedly does more to alter the natural and urban landscape than any other entity, was building at an artificially fast pace, boosted by demand that really wasn’t there.

So it should also be no surprise that in a post-boom era, conservation groups are making up for lost time, buying up land for a fraction of the price it once demanded.

From the New York Times

The victories [for conservation groups] reveal a green lining of sorts in a credit crisis that has depressed real estate prices, spawned foreclosures and derailed development projects across the nation.

The purchases by conservationists and state and local governments assure that thousands of acres will be put aside in perpetuity for parks, watershed protection or simply preservation of open space.

“We are getting a second bite at properties that never should have been developed in the first place,” said Will Rogers, president of the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit group that buys land for preservation. “We are working on dozens of these deals across the country, and I know other land trusts are as well.”