Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Defense against Developer Dark Arts: Historic Districts' Unpredictable Charm

A commenter recently criticized the use of the word NIMBY here, and they had good reason. It's not a very helpful word: It polarizes, simplifies, and stereotypes. At the same time, it does point to something real, an opposition to or fear of change itself.

The context for the word's usage was a discussion of change in a historic district.

With Fairview and the State Hospital percolating along, the recent Heritage Neighborhood designation for Grant and soon-to-be designation for SESNA, and the failure a few years back of a Historic District in the Fairmount neighborhood - all these together point to ways that our conception of historic preservation is problematic.

I want to suggest that a big part the problem is that rather than conceiving of historic preservation as a "bridge," a bridge linking past, present, and future, instead we have too often framed historic preservation as defense against "intrusion." And what that really means is an attempt to insulate districts and places from change. It's an exceptionally static notion of preservation and history, and in this it is often allied with a fundamentally NIMBYist notion of a city, a neighborhood, and their history.

We need a more flexible sense of historic preservation that values the past not so much as a bulwark against threats from the present and future, but more as something with value to bring into the future itself. Something that retrieves value and makes it bloom again: Preservation is a perennial, not an annual fixed and preserved in the amber and glow of nostalgia.

Purity and Danger in the Historic District

Gaiety Hill Bush's Pasture Park HD Map, 1986
The defensive rhetoric is most clearly seen in the 1986 nomination (126pp) for the the Gaiety Hill-Bush's Pasture Park Historic District:
Since the late 1970's, there have been no major intrusions within the district. Major intrusions have not occurred partly because of an economic slowdown and a trend toward residential upgrading and the desirability of living in the close-in, inner city neighborhood.

The major intrusions are along Liberty Street which serves as a major arterial to downtown Salem. These intrusions, which have been excluded from the district, consist mainly of medical offices and other commercial offices which are drawn to the area by its proximity to the hospital, downtown and landscape qualities of the area. The recent consolidation and expansion of the Salem Hospital adjacent to the north end of the district will exert tremendous pressures upon the historic district to make way for commercial expansion and demolition. Recognition of the historical qualities of one of Salem's few remaining close-in neighborhoods should help reduce this pressure....

Bush's Pasture Park contains one major intrusion. A 9-acre parcel of this property was sold to Willamette University in 1946 and now contains McCulloch Stadium and ballfields. Its location below the ridge line and isolation at the north middle part of the park significantly reduces any impact it might have on the integrity of the district. In addition, public improvements such as the tennis courts and playgrounds have been placed and controlled with sensitivity to the original pasture character of the Bush estate.
The rhetoric is all about defending the boundaries and about the purity of the interior. It's all about the threat of alien forms. It's totally defensive in posture, and defines itself against a kind of "other."

It seems like a clear instance of in-group/out-group definition and all the psychological dynamics that implies.

Some of the same rhetoric is in the 1987 nomination (117pp) for the Court Street-Chemeketa Street Historic District:
Despite its proximity to downtown Salem, the district is relatively well-protected from the severe impact of traffic because of the nature of its geographic and man-made boundaries. Mill Creek provides Court Street with a dead end to the east and protects Chemeketa street on the north between 14th nd 17th streets.The uninterrupted stretch of Court from 14th to 17th streets helps to provide the district with a firm southern edge. The closures of Court and Chemeketa streets deflect through traffic to and from the downtown area and are planted buffer zones helping to define the district. The major intrusion is 17th street, an arterial running north and south through the district for a distance of approximately two blocks. Apart from this intrusion; the area in general is a quiet residential zone.

Public commitment to the stabilization of the district and the preservation of its residential nature has been considerable in recent years. The closures of Court and Chemeketa streets were approved by the Salem City Council as part of a $191,000 Federally funded street reversal project in downtown Salem. Federal funding was dependent, in part, on the money being used to reduce traffic impact on established residential neighborhoods, and traffic counts show that many fewer vehicles new pass along Court and Chemeketa than was the case before the closures were installed. Experiments are underway in 1987 to reduce the traffic impact along 17th street as well. Because 17th will be connected to Mission street in the course of the Mission widening project, the City Council has agreed to the experiment of re-striping 17th street north of Court from four to three lanes in an effort to pull traffic flow away from the front lot lines along 17th. The re-striping occurred in July, 1986....

The overall character of the District is that of a late 19th and early 20th century neighborhood with occasional later intrusions in the form of apartment complexes, duplexes, and single family dwellings....

Collectively, the numerous automobile garages and general-purpose sheds which serve the houses of the district contribute to the district's character on a subordinate level. Typically, the garages are small, box-like frame constructions with gable roofs, and they are usually oriented with their gable ends and entrances fronting an alley. By their uniform scale and serial arrangement at the rear lot lines, they provide definition and design continuity along the district's east-west alleyways.
The concept here is blind to its own autoism. The placement of garages on the alley here don't contribute to walkable sidewalks and front porches or anything, but rather "provide definition...along the alleyways." 17th Street is an "intrusion." The streets themselves are the problem, not the autoism on them. Home-owners with cars and garages are innocent; it is the driver from outside and their activity, as well as the city-developer partnership that serves them, who is the problem.

There is a kind of xenophobia, a fear of a variously defined "other," an other defined in space, in time, or a sort of professional affiliation (those evil developers!), that is encoded in the way we define and structure our Historic Districts. Crucially, the "other" is flexible and shifts from context to context. Variously it can be developers, cars and traffic, modern construction. It's a bit of a palimpsest, and so hard to pin down in a schematic or programmatic way. It's a symbol, something more of feeling, not a clearly defined thing deployed in a linear argument.

(Digression: 1. Isn't this impulse NIMBYism? 2. Regardless, whether is it or is not NIMBYism, it is definitely a thing, and we need a more neutral name for it. What should we call it? Maybe you've read something that discusses this?)

The Historic Districts aren't Working

So going back to what occasioned this note, in the Gaiety Hill bit from 1986, it clearly predicts what we are dealing with today:
The recent consolidation and expansion of the Salem Hospital adjacent to the north end of the district will exert tremendous pressures upon the historic district to make way for commercial expansion and demolition.
Exactly as predicted, the Hospital purchased the Blind School for "demolition" first and then "commercial expansion."

The Historic District failed to prevent this outcome. It didn't do what we wanted it to do. As Defense against Developer Dark Arts, the charm misfired. (Even though it was outside of a Historic District, our approach to Historic Preservation also failed Le Breton at Fairview. Something's not working right.)

The argument here is that the all-or-nothing nature of the bulwark against change that the Historic District is supposed to constitute in fact hinders our ability to shape new development in ways that enhances or at least is less detrimental to our Historic Districts and other historically significant buildings.

One way of looking at it is that our Historic Districts sometimes let the perfect defeat the merely good, and then the perfect doesn't even happen because it's too idealized. The barbarians are at the gate and we starve ourselves. We get junk.

There are many ways the Districts have been successful, and we almost certainly have a greater stock of undemolished older homes because of them, but they also have failed in crucial ways and led to outcomes we might not always desire. It continues to be a source of amazement that by design our Historic Preservation codes can tell you what kind of window to install, but can't save a building. There's a disproportion here.

Multiple Trends and Forces argue for Change

Strong Towns recently pointed to an interesting discussion of a related issue.
From review of How Real Estate Developers Think: Designs, Profits and Community:
“Most people have a hard time seeing change as positive,” [author Peter] Brown said during a forum last month at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “And who brings us change? Real estate developers.”

“They’re gonna block your views,” he continued. “They’re gonna shadow your building. Who knows what’s going to happen,” he said.

But the fear of change — and the tendency to move quickly toward blanket opposition — often results in activists not getting the best outcome from their interaction.
More than this, if we want a lower-carbon city, if we want more affordable housing, if we want more walkable neighborhoods, will will have to come to terms with more "intrusion." Small-scaled neighborhood commercial pods will need to "encroach" on residential districts. Up-zoning and higher-density housing will "intrude." Our sort-and-separate schema of exclusionary Euclidean zoning will need to break down and admit more mixtures. We will need to change our mandatory inclusionary zoning for car housing. And we may need to have a more flexible notion of historic preservation.
Brown thinks the subjects of his book are vital to the growth of cities. As he writes, “throughout the history of the United States, where the great majority of land is privately owned, the buildings that make up American cities have been planned, designed and built almost entirely by developers, using private capital, one project at a time.”
Remodel or Remuddle?

Two of the major pieces of preservation at the south campus of the State Hospital illustrate some of this. The oldest portion of the Kirkbride building has been restored to a 19th century grandeur. It is magnificent.

Our restored Kirkbride asylum building in winter
The building from 1896 that houses the Columbarium at the State Hospital was significantly altered with distinctly modern touches.

Final construction details
It is this more dynamic bridging of past and future, one that evades pure categories of past and present, that sometimes, maybe often, seems more powerful and more helpful for us as we consider a changing city and our desires for meaningful and effective historic preservation.

Here are three examples of a basic Foursquare type and three different ways that the pure type has been modified and repurposed for a contemporary need. Two are remodels, one is a revival. (Maybe this is just coincidence, but the flexibility in the foursquare here is intriguing, and I wonder if there is something about its basic symmetry or something that makes it especially adaptable.)

Weller-Schramm House with mid-century garage
on side 1895/1944 - via Waymarking

Lever Fivesquare 1910/2015 - via Portland Architecture
Note the totally modern addition on the roof

New Foursquare with garage in back at Fairview Addition
Sometimes projects like these are derided as merely "remuddling" and the lost purity is lamented. And it's true that not all modifications stand the test of time. But when the choice is a remodel versus outright loss, we should not be so quick to dismiss the remodel. And it is possible that the changes also offer a way for the old to bloom, even if its flowering looks rather different.

The Supreme Court Building in 1913
The Waller-Schramm house may be most interesting in this regard. It probably deserves more discussion in Salem. It was originally built around 1895 across the street from the old Capitol on Waverley Street. When the Supreme Court building was constructed on the site, the house was moved to its current location on 17th Street. In the 1940s, new owners hired Pietro Belluschi to remodel it, and the mid-century garage clearly dates from this round of changes.

So the house bridges several different eras. Indeed, though it has much of a basic foursquare plan, it is also described as a "colonial revival"; even when it was built, it represented a stylistic hybrid.

This kind of hybridity and mixture is in some ways and some times a more useful model of historic preservation than an insistence on pure types and stylistic integrity. High style exemplars will always be important, but there is also creativity and usefulness in the mixed type, the mutt. (The distinction between "contributing" and "non-contributing" buildings in an Historic District may be too much an us-versus-them categorization.)

Additionally, a future owner could always conduct a full-scale restoration and go back as closely as possible to the pre-Belluschi plan.

Purity and Perfection are the Enemies Here

Change is inevitable, but our theories of a neighborhood
and of a city don't accommodate it very well
If you've read this far, you'll know this really doesn't prove anything. It remains too tentative and unwieldy. But hopefully the wandering is strong enough to suggest something: that we spend too much energy in mind and in space, in planning and in building, on boundary-making and on valuing pure, unmixed types and districts. Our conceptual and physical boundaries aren't working as well as we'd like, and maybe there's an opportunity for a more fluid and dynamic conception of types and boundaries. And of change. We need a theory of neighborhood change that doesn't from the outset define change in time and change in space as an inherent "intrusion."


Anonymous said...

I agree with most of your points. The only thing I want to point out is that Salem doesn't have any neighborhood scaled commercial pods and I don't really see any hope that any will be developed or intrude into Salem's historic districts in the near future. The Hospital intrusion is just the opposite. Its the intrusion of an auto-scaled suburban office park into the Central Business District. The only intrusion I see in Salem is along these lines--suburban, auto-oriented development eroding what little urban character Salem has left. Salem has taken some steps forward, but on balance it has taken more steps back. Given the climate in Salem, which is a pretty unenlightned approach to development, the NIMBYism is justified.

Anonymous said...

This might not be directly relevant to your point about historic districts, but it is certainly relevant to your points about development. It's about big cities, but some of the same is true here.

"In an influential 1976 paper, Harvey Molotch wrote of "The City as Growth Machine," explaining that a powerful coalition of real estate interests, building trade unions, and public sector workers controlled urban politics and pushed it on a trajectory to ever more building.

Actual experience shows this is not the case. While Molotch's growth machine coalition does tend to mobilize around a handful of high-profile projects — often stadiums, convention centers, or redevelopment schemes focused on waterfront industrial areas — the vast majority of land use decisions go the other way. Instead of a growth machine, cities see a series of decisions made on a local basis generally in response to very parochial concerns about street parking and "neighborhood character" that completely ignore citywide economic impact.

Yale University legal scholar David Schleicher argues that urban growth machines fail because big-city politics in the United States lacks the element of partisan competition that forces elected officials to articulate a citywide vision."

Unknown said...

I’m really happy to see historic preservation getting some critical attention! As a historic preservationist who worked professionally in the field for nearly 9 years, I’d like to offer up a few comments. First, I think it’s important to understand that where cities have adopted their ideas of historic preservation and how to handle historic properties come directly from the programs and processes identified in the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. This includes evaluation criteria used for the National Register of Historic Places determination as well as the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties and Section 106 review and compliance. This national law is further carried out locally in Oregon under Planning Goal 5 OAR 660-023-200 which compels local government to use these criteria and standards. Much of what we’ve done in Salem -- and especially work done in the 1980s -- can be attributed in large part to compliance activity with the NHPA and Goal 5. That said, it’s interesting to note that the criteria and processes used to identify, register, and regulate historic properties haven’t really changed since the 1960s.

I also think it’s important to distinguish between the different types of historic preservationists, because they range in approach, methodology, and compliance. Some preservations don’t want to see a building changed -- period -- and it should stand as a monument to the past. Other preservations think that altering a building so that it can be effectively used in today’s world while still retaining the character-defining features is just fine (“a used building is a saved building” mindset). Still others think that the place is more important than the material, and so something can be destroyed and rebuilt over time, so long as the essence of what that place does remains the same (this approach is most common in Japan, China, etc.; our American culture emphasizes the material as most important).

Laurie Dougherty said...

I think the point here is the inadvisability of walling off whole neighborhoods from change just because it's old. What caught my attention was the idea of designating SESNA as a historic district. I live there. Much of SESNA is full of decades old single family housing, often poorly insulated with old and inefficient heating systems, with some duplexes and small apartment buildings scattered throughout. One hopeful thing on the horizon is the plan for State Street. Because of the proximity of a large part of the neighborhood to downtown, the Capitol and state offices, and Willamette University, SESNA could do with a good deal more medium scale density so people can bike and walk for work and errands. I would love to see affordable condos in this neighborhood. Great cities (and I have lived in a couple and been to several) are layered with a variety architectural styles from a variety of eras. They adapt and respond to new opportunities and challenges. One of the biggest challenges - and opportunities - we face now is climate change and the need to reduce our energy and resource use footprint. Cities, if conscientiously developed and renewed are well suited to conserving energy, land and infrastructure. Salem doesn't look, act or think like a city to me. It seems more like one vast suburb (of what?) and, unfortunately, I think a lot of people want to keep it that way.