Conservation: Preservation As If People Mattered

The urban pioneers who rescued Hyde Park from inner-city decay in the 1970’s and 80’s realized that the power of a neighborhood lies in its community of neighbors: not ordinances, not legal defense funds, not the denigration of neighbors’ concerns, and not suing the city for not prohibiting neighbors from exercising property rights that exist elsewhere in Austin.  They supported innovation and creativity by their neighbors in their homesteads, took pride in the accomplishments of their neighbors’ efforts at renovation, and celebrated the fact that they were making things better and correcting past mistakes and inefficiencies in the built environment.

After a lively discussion of the 2014 budget at the January general Hyde Park Neighborhood Association (HPNA) meeting, an email appeared on the HPNA Steering Committee listserv proposing that the committee engage in a general discussion about the “non-preservation movement we saw at tonight’s general meeting.”  Without going into detail as to what prompted this suggestion, the phrase “non-preservation movement” is very provocative and deserves further consideration.

The word “preserve” has its roots in the Latin praeservare, to guard beforehand.  A closely related word, “conserve,” also shares Latin roots: conservare, to guard together.  These words have epitomized two diverging views for protecting the country’s natural resources for over 100 years.

conservation

The environmental community was once very particular in its wording.  The task of ensuring the protection of wilderness areas broke into two philosophical approaches which became defined as preservation and conservation.  Simply put, preservation is deemed necessary for an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man as an individual leaves “nothing but footprints”; the nature preserve, for example, is  managed by preservationists for the good of the land itself.  People are seen as intrusive and allowed to exist in the preserve only under special circumstances.  Conservation, on the other hand, is nicely encapsulated in the Forest Service mission statement: “caring for the land and serving people.”  People are not only welcome to visit, but are vital inhabitants and the stewards responsible for the long term health of the habitat.

These two philosophical approaches both seek to attain a long-term, sustainable environment by different means.  The same can be said of the debates over neighborhood protection in Hyde Park today.

Land use regulations (land development code, zoning districts, etc.) are developed by the government of the City of Austin to provide guidance and stability to the development process within the city.  In rewriting the land development code in 1982 (implemented in 1985), city leaders recognized that one size does not fit all when it comes to separate, distinct areas or neighborhoods within the city.  Therefore, the code contains provisions for neighborhood organizations to propose certain specific directives that supersede city regulations.  After proposal, review and debate, these directives may be adopted into ordinance by the City Council and, along with the citywide ordinances, become the official land development regulations for that area.

HPNA has adopted specific directives that are now codified in several ordinances, including a Neighborhood Plan (NP), a Neighborhood Conservation Combining District (NCCD), and a Local Historic District (LHD).  Without going into the details or the pros and cons of each ordinance, the guiding philosophy of these, especially the NCCD and the LHD, is a prevalent preservation mentality, where certain development rights allowed under citywide ordinances are not permitted within Hyde Park; beyond that, extraordinary land use limitations are imposed on homeowners if their property is deemed to be a “contributing structure” within the LHD boundaries.

The succession of documents through time has gotten progressively less and less about people and more and more about restricting people’s rights in support of retaining the existing housing stock.  A word search of our NP (adopted April 2000) turns up 17 instances of the word “people,” 27 occurrences of “neighbors,” and 9 instances of “child” or “children.”  Phrases like “people oriented district is a high priority,” “variety of people with common values,” and “preserve residential character” reinforce the idea that a primary purpose of the built environment of a good settlement is to support the basic human values of people who live there.  Goal Six of the NP is “Foster a genuine community of neighbors of every age and background.”  The only instances of the words “restrict” or “restriction” are in the section on the Hyde Park Baptist Church conceptual plan.  At this point, all seems well with the Hyde Park community.

However, the NCCD (adopted January 2002), which was intended to be the permitting ordinance for the NP, contains only a single instance of the word “person” (“a person may not reduce the parking spaces . . .”); no instances of such words as people, resident, child(ren), play(ground) or neighbor are to be found in this document.

The LHD regulations are embodied in The Hyde Park Preservation Plan and Design Standards document dated December 9, 2010.  There are only two instances of the word “person” (both limiting homeowners’ rights), and no instances of such words as neighbors, people, residents, citizens, man, woman or child.  The omission of any reference to people in these governing ordinances is stark.  The community life of the neighborhood is discounted by an exclusive emphasis on retaining the existing form, historical correctness, and materials of properties in Hyde Park.  This has had a disheartening effect on the neighborhood solidarity that HPNA worked hard to foster in the past.

The LHD finally tipped the balance of neighborhood protection strategies from a people-focus to an infrastructure-focus.  By including the majority of buildings in Hyde Park on the list of contributing structures, the district makes a mockery of historic preservation.  Requiring these contributing structures to meet extraordinary requirements to obtain a building permit implies that any change to the original facade that is different is, by definition, wrong.  And with no attempt to develop a narrative as to how the historic context contributes to neighborliness, the LHD is a counterproductive, weak and fraudulent substitute for an effective historic conservation program.  It exhibits an infuriating lack of trust in neighbors’ intelligence and commitment to community by relying on a city bureaucracy to judge the appropriateness of their renovation efforts.  While most neighbors highly value and support protection of truly historic properties, they scoff at the nondescript, recently remodeled or modernized structures that have been trumpeted as contributing to the historic district in the LHD.  It seems preposterous to imagine that those who deemed these structures to be contributors to the historic district could sit in judgment as to the historic value of a homeowner’s proposal for a renovation to his homestead.  But they do.

Historic and architectural preservation of Hyde Park has become a mantra, an unexamined concept simply accepted as a universal good.  Speaking out against a particular tenet that purports to provide neighborhood protection through preservation can be a lonely stance to take at an HPNA meeting.  When neighbors question the preservation decisions made at these meetings, they are often met with a statement to the effect of “If people aren’t happy with the decisions we make, well, they need to come to the meetings and vote.”  It is daunting for anyone, and especially those who are new to HPNA, to speak up at meetings, let alone vote against prevailing dogma—more so if they feel that they will be deemed heretical for their view.  One such experience can be enough to discourage a person from returning.

It would be a challenge for HPNA to take a conservation approach to neighborhood protection, trusting their neighbors to make wise decisions in maintaining Hyde Park as a good place for people to live, rather than developing ordinances that seek preservation for preservation’s sake.  But a conservation approach to neighborhood protection can bring out the best in a community, providing neighbors the opportunity to be creative stewards of their own environment, rather than embracing a list of “thou shalt nots” from a government bureaucracy.

Historic and architectural preservation threatens to become today’s urban equivalent of the suburban gated community, and the preservationists among us see themselves as keepers of the gate.  I’m not sure whether there is a non-preservation movement in Hyde Park; but if we ever want to return to a conservation approach to neighborhood protection, sign me up to help.

–Larry Gilg