Historic Preservation: A Tool For Making People Matter

In his article in the February issue of the Pecan Press, Larry Gilg presents conservation as an alternative to preservation.  I would like to challenge some of his claims.

We should not preserve, we should conserve.

Hyde Park conserves by carefully managing its resources—old houses and neighborhood character.  To conserve, Hyde Park has two Neighborhood Conservation Combining Districts (NCCDs) for the areas north and south of 45th Street.  Their purpose, according to the Austin Land Development Code, includes preservation: “To preserve neighborhoods with distinctive architectural styles that were substantially built out at least 30 years ago.  An NCCD is a zoning overlay that can modify the base zoning district and create new site development standards and prescribe the allowable and conditional uses in an area in order to promote new development, redevelopment, or significant remodeling that is in character with the existing neighborhood.”

The NCCD and LHD have a pro-infrastructure bias because they include few instances of such words as person or people.

These are legal documents; their vocabulary is determined by their function.  The neighborhood plan describes a desired outcome by discussing human issues; the NCCD and LHD are tools that help Hyde Park achieve that outcome.

 The LHD requires extraordinary effort to obtain a building permit.

David Conner, chair of the Development Review Committee (DRC) for the past 8 years, can provide numerous cases to the contrary.  He states, “I wish Larry would have given specific examples of where the LHD design standards stopped someone from doing something to their properties.  As far as I know there has not been one case.…In fact, there are more projects underway now in the LHD than before.  Good compatible projects, and both homeowners and their neighbors like them.  Drive down Avenue C, Avenue D, Avenue F.  Nothing in the LHD ordinance stopped anything.”

John Williams, former HPNA president, adds, “Development and remodels within the LHD are not nearly as restrictive as some neighbors believe.  I say this from first-hand experience by having just gone through a remodel process at my own house, which is a contributing structure within the LHD.  The extra step of presenting plans to the Historic Landmark Commission, getting on its agenda, and having it issue a Certificate of Appropriateness was done at the same time the city’s residential building permit office conducted its reviews of our plans.  It was not a big deal to go through this process with the Historic Landmark Commission.”

 The LHD is “counterproductive, weak and fraudulent.”

If so, why have only two demolitions occurred since it went into effect?  There is no way to prevent a demolition except to specify within LHD standards that certain structures cannot be demolished.  The Hyde Park LHD prevents the demolition of contributing structures except in extreme circumstances.  One of the demolitions provided extreme circumstances: structural engineers confirmed it was beyond rehabilitation, and it was in the flood plain.  A structure that fits the LHD design standards is replacing it.  The other demolition was potentially contributing and was replaced by a superduplex.  Given the issues encountered by the developers, it would probably have been just as cost-effective to return the structure to contributing status and take advantage of the tax benefits available for that purpose.

In comparison, during the past three years, the area of Greater Hyde Park outside the LHD has seen nine demolitions.  A few were or will be replaced by single family homes; the remainder were or will be replaced by duplexes (4602 and 4605 Avenue C, 4527 Speedway, 4904 Duval, 4532 and 5011 Avenue F, 4705 Rowena, 804 45th Street, and 703-705 49th Street, where three superduplexes are being constructed).

There has been much discussion about superduplexes on the Hyde Park listserv recently, but I have yet to see someone say that he or she would be happy to live next door to one.  In the words of Adrian Skinner, HPNA co-secretary and Greater Hyde Park dweller, “I would ask you to consider taking a tour of Hyde Park north of 45th Street to see the stark difference in our development concerns.  Where putting people before property is a concern, I would direct you to the developer “people” who scrap an old home and build a 3400 square foot duplex (read “stealth dorm”) in its place.  How would these views on preservation be informed if superduplexes were being built next door to you?”

At issue in the article is the idea that historic preservation cares more about infrastructure than about people.  While there are philosophical, economic, and sustainability reasons to preserve historical structures, there are also quality-of-life issues.

A Preservation Handbook for Historic Residential Properties & Districts in Salt Lake City states, “When groups of older buildings occur as a historic district, they can create a local environmental character which is so much greater than the sum of its parts.  The district is defined on a human scale, which encourages walking and neighborly interaction.…This physical sense of neighborhood cohesion can enhance community stability, reinforce desirable social patterns and networks, and contribute to a sense of reassurance and security.  Many residents of historic districts, for example, note how easily they get to know their neighbors, and enjoy the fact that they are recognized by others who live in the vicinity.”

Community stability, social networks, reassurance, and security are people-centric, not infrastructure-centric, values.  However, the infrastructure helps to create and nurture these people-centric values.  Historic neighborhoods tend to be walkable and human-scaled, which encourages socializing among neighbors.  Many Hyde Parkers cite these features among the reasons they live here.  Contemporary, car-centric neighborhoods lack the amenities that encourage social interaction among neighbors.  “Renewed interest in traditional design techniques stems in part from the failure of modern city planning to reproduce the livability of many older neighborhoods.”  (Bothwell, Stephanie E., Gindroz, Raymond, and Lang, Robert E. (1998), “Restoring Community through Traditional Neighborhood Design: A Case Study of Diggs Town Public Housing,” Housing Policy Debate 9(i):89-114.)

The study cited immediately above describes the improvement in neighborliness among the residents of a public housing development when traditional neighborhood design principles were applied to their development.  “In this study, we find that traditional structure…promotes social interactions that lead to the formation of social capital.”(Bothwell)  “Social capital refers to the norms and networks of civic society that lubricate cooperative action among both citizens and their institutions.”  (Putnam, Robert. (1998), Forward to Housing Policy Debate 9(i): v-viii.)

By way of anecdotal evidence, I look at my own block.  One of my neighbors mows the grass for his older neighbor whenever he mows his own.  Neighbors up the street organized Hyde Park’s first Egg Scramble.  At least three neighbors on my block helped me out with food and animal care when I was recovering from surgery.

Mr. Gilg criticizes the neighborhood association for “suing the city for not prohibiting neighbors from exercising property rights that exist elsewhere in Austin,” referring to the demolition of the Bradford-Nohra house.  But the freedom to demolish at will and to replace without restrictions in present-day Central Austin is not likely to produce houses that promote community.  Every superduplex or McMansion that replaces a traditional house diminishes the livability of a neighborhood.  Neighborhoods consisting of superduplexes and McMansions don’t have Fire Station Festivals, Egg Scrambles, It’s My Park! Days, potlucks, game nights, and ice cream socials.

Put simply, historic preservation “makes people matter.”  By preserving the infrastructure, it provides the tools that increase neighborliness and community.

–Lorre Weidlich, former LHD Chair

With thanks to Adrian Skinner, David Conner, Karen McGraw, Kevin Heyburn, and John Williams for their assistance.  However, the final article is my own and represents my viewpoint only, not any other individual or organization.