Historic Preservation Philadelphia Planning Rightsizing

What Does “Right Size” Mean for Historic Preservation?

by Michael R. Allen

Last week I participated in two gatherings held consecutively in St. Louis’ kindred city, Philadelphia: the Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference, hosted by the Center for Community Progress, and the Right Size, Right Place Forum hosted by the emergent Preservation Rightsizing Network. While I was a session moderator and presenter, respectively, I would have attended each of these events regardless. The preservationist impulse of my younger career has hit head-on the realization that historic district creation, demolition protest and the fabled building “mothballing” are transitory tools at best — not options that resolve vacancy and threats, but stabs at creating possibilities. The hard work lies within those possibilities.

Right-sizing could mean surveying fragile resources in neighborhoods like The Ville in St. Louis. These buildings on Aldine Avenue were included in a 2009-10 survey that concluded there was no National Register historic district possible that would include them.

The first challenge remains framing the term “rightsizing.” Our panel took aim at the prevalent and oversimplified connotation that “rightsizing” means demolition of supposed liability properties. Perhaps we erred in our offensive, as we received very intelligent critique reminding the panel that “right size” need not be restricted to subtractive activities. Indeed, “right-sizing” can also refer to infill projects that add density to stable neighborhoods, renovation of historic buildings that add new residents or businesses, interim or permanent uses for vacant lots, and the creation of historic districts to guide policy-making. The “right size” of every American city is not necessarily smaller. However, much of the discussion on “rightsizing” (or “managed decline,” or “shrinking cities”) nearly obsesses over population loss and resource scarcity, without being more accurate about the complexity of planning in what are more accurately called changing rather than shrinking cities.

Thus, the realm of Reclaiming Vacant Properties might seem to be foreign soil for the preservationist, and there were but a handful of us practitioners amid the critical mass of landbank professionals, planners and community development folks. Yet the opening plenary showed a wider recognition that existing buildings are assets than some might expect. A panel of mayors from South Bend, Gary, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Allenton — company St. Louis should embrace, not shun — turned up some interesting comments by Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory. Mallory admitted that he personally joins a city staffer on drives to look at each building on the city’s demolition lists. The mayor then makes his recommendations for demolition to the city. Mallory explained that he doesn’t want demolition to create holes in viable blocks, lowering property values and removing potential city revenue and population.

The 2006 restoration of the  Lucian Moore Residence (1883) in Detroit's depleted Brush Park Historic District is rightsizing too. Source: Andrew Jameson, Wikipedia Commons.
The 2006 restoration of the Lucian Moore Residence (1883) in Detroit’s depleted Brush Park Historic District is rightsizing too. Source: Andrew Jameson, Wikipedia Commons.

Still, a questioner at the end of the plenary posed the oft-stated opinion that rehabilitation of historic buildings is usually more expensive than new construction, a false dichotomy. The dichotomy that is more likely in cities with significant vacancy is the gap between a renovated historic building and a long-term vacant lot. The question underscored that the language of historic preservation has yet to reach many people working in community development. Yet the panel that I moderated, “Building on Historic Assets,’ attracted over 60 people even put up against the Detroit Future City panel. There is an intersection of interest when preservation practitioners show up in unlikely places.

Our challenge in the right-sizing world is posing historic preservation as practice, specialized knowledge about place that is as essentially to good planning as the knowledge brought by tax foreclosure experts, architects and urban planners. Yet our key values should not be diluted in the process. As Advisory Council on Historic Preservation member Brad White stated on our panel at Reclaiming Vacant Cities, the message is not even that historic buildings have value, it’s that buildings have value. Period. Buildings have economic value, social value, artistic value and ecological value. All of these are traits that planners tout with new green space projects, affordable housing developments, downtown retail, and other endeavors based on new construction. How do we remind people that existing buildings offer every bit of the value of new buildings, with the added values of energy conserved by already being built, and material quality that this country will never see again?

Renovating 27 historic buildings and removing a failed pedestrian mall in St. Louis’ Old North is also right-sizing.

Two preservation professionals who are working on strategies for asset-based “right size” planning are Donovan Rypkema and Cara Bertron at PlaceEconomics. The PlaceEconomics Rightsizing Cities Initiative promotes “planning decisions and regenerative opportunities that are deeply rooted in local landscapes and character.” So far, PlaceEconomics has worked on a pilot ReLocal program in Muncie, Indiana. Although the project delves into decisions about demolition, the goal is to get planning agencies to consider the economic benefits of preservation and the costs of demolition — to look beyond policies that encourage demolition as the only blight remedy. As Rypkema often says in his frequent lectures, demolishing a building removes one option for a property — and why would cities want to narrow their options?

Government officials are not our only needed allies — we must reach people who live in places whose revitalization we can foresee and assist. The people who live in neighborhoods affected by right-size initiatives, or just large housing or redevelopment projects, are predominantly poor and in many cases largely African-American. The historic preservation movement has never done well at reaching out to these groups, in some cases because we aren’t listening. I work with urban preservation groups in St. Louis and other cities, and none have more than a few African-Americans on their boards or staffs. Poor people aren’t represented at all. If we are going to help right-size cities, we have to realize that cities are collections of people before they are collections of buildings — and we are going to have to treat urban neighborhoods as something other than the frontiers we seek to intellectually colonize.

Two houses sit alone on Garfield Avenue in the Greater Ville in St. Louis. The vacant houses are assessed at a higher property tax rate than any of the numerous vacant lots around them. Preservation is not just about saving buildings, it is about working to retain value when possible.

Building real alliances in distressed neighborhoods will entail listening, building more inclusive leadership structures on preservation campaigns and within preservation organizations. We need to shed some of our old skin. Many preservation battles don’t involve demolition — they involve keeping homeowners and renters in their homes, so buildings don’t go vacant. Foreclosure mediation, home repair, eminent domain resistance, mediation with code compliance are all aspects of preservation work that historic preservationists need to get better at. Communities typically welcome practitioners who offer resources for them. We have to develop capacity to provide those resources, and then remember that they are in service to the real ground-level leaders.

Preservation practitioners have the chance to help define “rightsizing,” and through that process redefine urban preservation so that it is more responsive to 21st century needs and possibilities. Historic preservationists should have been talking to urban planners and residents of poor neighborhoods more often for decades. What happened in Philadelphia is just part of a larger and long-term dialogue that will place historic preservation more centrally in urban development and right-sizing — alongside disciplines that are not questioned when they claim seats at the table. We should not be shy about taking a seat, but we should make sure we are ready to collaborate, listen, and develop new methods.

Abandonment North St. Louis Old North Planning

Sustainable Land Lab Competition First Phase Submission Due December 10

Led by Washington University in St. Louis, the Sustainable Land Lab kicked off with an event on Friday, November 2 at the Contemporary Art Museum. (By the way, Ron Sims’ moving talk from the kick-off is now available on the website as a podcast.) The Sustainable Land Lab picks up the intellectual threads of GOOD Ideas for Cities and Pruitt Igoe Now and attempts to weave a program in which innovative urban land use projects are implements on vacant parcels in Old North — a neighborhood where experimenting with the urban condition is welcome.

Sustainable Land Lab is focused on implementation: teams that win will get land and money, and the chance to make things actually happen. Preservation Research Office is delighted to advise the competition and help teams with our knowledge of Old North and urban abandonment.

The first round of submissions is due December 10, so there is not much time to create your concept. Get details here and join in an amazing and spirited experiment.

Gate District Planning South St. Louis

Out of Place Or Right At Home? Either Way, Allowable Under St. Louis’ Zoning Ordinance

by Michael R. Allen

The new house at 2838-46 Lafayette Avenue. Out of place or right at home in the Gate District?

With change coming to the Sixth Ward aldermanic seat, perhaps it is timely to consider the new house at 2838-46 Lafayette Avenue in the Gate District. While the Gate District’s reconstruction has led to many new houses built with non-urban forms for a net decrease in the historic density of the neighborhood, none of the houses built since the Duane-Plater-Zyberk-authored master plan was adopted in 1991 have been quite as, uh, non-urban as this recently-completed one-story house. The house’s floor heights are far too short for it to complement surrounding building stock (which admittedly is somewhat depleted), its width occupies three lots and thus starts an imbalance in the rhythm of its street face and its setback from the street is excessively deep for Lafayette Avenue. The problem isn’t style or age, because there are two new houses across the street that work well enough for the urban setting.

College Hill North St. Louis Planning Preservation Board South St. Louis Southampton

Thoughts on Citywide Preservation Review

by Michael R. Allen

On Monday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published an article by reporter Tim Logan that raised the issue of the city’s lack of citywide demolition review. The article, which ran on the front page above the fold, took as a starting point the sudden, lonesome death of the Avalon Theater on South Kingshighway. Since the Avalon was outside of one of the city’s preservation review districts, it bit the dust — or, rather, became dust bitten by passers-by — without any review.

Multi-family buildings in the 5000 block of Winona Avenue, in the Southampton neighborhood.

Logan’s article included a promising set of quotes from two aldermen. The first came from Carol Howard (D-14th), who represents the eastern part of the Southampton neighborhood where the Avalon was located. The demolition experience has spurred Howard to seek demolition review for her ward, one of south city’s only wards that lacks review. Howard also endorses a return to citywide review, which St. Louis had before 1999. “It’s a tool, I think, that makes for better decisions,” she told Logan.

A view that could be read as dissenting came from Alderman Antonio French (D-21st), whose constituents include this writer. French’s first bill upon being elected in 2009 put the 21st Ward into preservation review for the first time since 1999. Yet the alderman wants to remove review for part of the College Hill neighborhood added to his ward in redistricting. French wants to concentrate preservation efforts on the intact largely Penrose and O’Fallon neighborhoods in his ward. “What works for Penrose and O’Fallon may not work for College Hill,” said the alderman.

The building at 1431 Prairie Avenue in College Hill is one of the last buildings left on its block.

Am I the only person who sees that both Alderwoman Howard and Alderman French are right? St. Louis does need citywide review, and building conservation strategies for depleted neighborhoods like College Hill — where many blocks are devoid of more than five or six historic buildings — need not entail preserving every remaining historic building.

Yet the crux of these two points’ convergence is that these decisions need to be made by qualified professional planners working in the interest of all city residents. Aldermen who serve geographic areas whose boundaries change every ten years, who lack training in urban planning and historic preservation, and who have to seek re-election are not the best people to make decisions for the long-term interests of the city’s built environment. Yet aldermen create the legislation under which review takes place, establishing guidelines that represent the public interest.

Alderman French might be suggesting that a citywide demolition review ordinance be informed by theories of planned shrinkage. Again, having professionals examining demolition seems like the best way to make that happen. Citywide review does not mean preservation of everything in the city, it means a system in which preservation planning is made under legal criteria interpreted by professionals who are free from political motivations. Applicants for demolition, aldermen, neighbors and preservationists will have a predictable public process with the same rule for every building.

If that sounds familiar, it’s what this city had before the Board of Aldermen passed the current preservation ordinance in 1999.

Gravois Park Planning South St. Louis Tower Grove South

A Positive Outcome on South Grand

by Michael R. Allen

Both sides of South Grand Avenue between Winnebago and Chippewa Avenues are much improved due to the diligence of concerned citizens taking effective action. Above is a photograph of the Grand South Senior Apartments at the southeast corner of Grand and Winnebago in Gravois Park, completed last year. The building introduces contemporary architecture, adds density and created several storefronts on the site of a mid-century Sears store demolished in 1994. This sort of infill is desirable and practical, and the design is not breathtaking. Why does it warrant an entire essay?

Well, this outcome was far from certain back in 2005. At that time, the site was owned by the Pyramid Companies, which had purchased the Sears site and adjacent city-owned land as part of the Keystone Place project. Although the redevelopment and blighting ordinances for the Keystone Place project outlined mixed-use moderate-density infill on the Sears site and forbade any drive-through commercial, Pyramid suddenly announced a bizarre request for a zoning variance to allow the relocation of the McDonald’s franchise across the street. (The sordid details can be read at Urban Review.)

Pyramid proposed moving McDonald’s to a new drive-through restaurant on the Sears site and acquiring the McDonald’s site for construction of a Grand South Senior Apartments. Keystone Place residents had bought expensive new homes from Pyramid with the assurance of the redevelopment ordinance protected them from fast food across the alley. Gravois Park residents and Alderman Craig Schmid (D-20th) also were riled by the attempt to breach a redevelopment law sought by Pyramid itself just ten years prior.

What ensued was wonderful: neighborhood residents organized against the change to the existing ordinance, and were joined by supporters of sound urban planning from across the city, including young members of the Urban St. Louis Forum. Even though the boundary of his ward was the alley east of the Sears site, Alderman Schmid stood up for his constiuents’ quality of life by opposing the proposed variance. Schmid attended a zoning adjustment hearing and spoke against the changes, eloquently explaining why development just ten feet outside of his ward affected his constituents’ quality of life as much as anything ten feet inside. Alderwoman Jennifer Florida (D-15th), whose ward included the Sears site, chastised Schmid, but his remarks provided cover for her ultimate decision to not support the variance sought by Pyramid.

The rest became history: the citizens of Gravois Park won. But so did Pyramid, and the residents of Tower Grove South to the west. Pyramid built Grand South Senior Apartments following its original redevelopment ordinance (although by the time the first resident moved in, Pyramid was bankrupt), and the pesky McDonald’s went out of business. At the end of 2009, the Mama Pho Vietnamese restauarant — which does not serve food by drive through ordering — opened in the old McDonald’s. This block of South Grand now has a new building and a re-purposed existing building, and no annoying drive-though on either side.

Planning St. Louis Board of Aldermen

Mayor’s Budget Suggestions Include Planning Cut

by Michael R. Allen

On January 18, Mayor Francis Slay released a list of budget changes he is suggesting to the St. Louis Board of Aldermen to address this year’s shortfall. Neither any alderman or Comptroller Darlene Green released any ideas ahead of the mayor, and none has released any since. Hopefully, we won’t just see a round of orders from the mayor’s menu — take this, leave that. After all, we are not discussing mere numbers but actual functions of government. The budget debate is as much about public service priorities as it is about money.

Readers of this blog will be most interested in the suggestion that the city eliminate the $130,000 annual payment from general revenue to the city’s Planning and Urban Design Agency. According to the mayor’s proposal, eliminating that subsidy will remove two full-time positions from the agency. One of those might be the Preservation Planner position in the Cultural Resources Office created by the Board of Aldermen in 2007. The Planning and Urban Design Agency has not even had a permanent director since Rollin Stanley’s departure in December 2007.

If we actually wanted a strong, pro-active planning agency, we would need more than the current staff level. Cutting two positions to save money is a step in the wrong direction, and the savings realized minuscule. Scratch that one off the list.

Midtown Planning

Laclede Town Remembered

by Michael R. Allen

Photograph from the Place and Memory Project.

Byron Kerman altered me to the fact that Laclede Town now has its own page in the Space and Memory Project database. The abandoned vestige of Laclede Town stood long enough to muddy the history of what was a noble and thriving community development experiment in Midtown.

The Laclede Town page includes an essay by Dominic Schaeffer that addresses the later perception and the early reality of Laclede Town. Here’s an excerpt:

Unfortunately, the abandoned, boarded-up houses stood far too long, leaving the impression to those passing by that it must have been a failure, “the end of an error.” But to those of us who were there, it was by no means a failure. Far from it.

Laclede Town’s success came as much from its social architecture as its physical design. In fact, architecturally Laclede Town was fairly middling for the 1960s. What distinguished Laclede Town from other urban renewal projects was that its layout accommodated gathering places — a coffee house, pub and small businesses. Laclede Town had a “town circle” that may not have mimicked the organically-occurring retail hubs of old city neighborhoods at least provided the sorts of uses found in them. Thus, Laclede Town mixed uses, and had a gathering place inside of its boundaries. On top of that, the legendary manager of the project, Jerome Berger, spent more time working with residents than on cutting ribbons.

The result of the arrangement was that Laclede Town’s residents could actually create community — not “community” epitomized by sterile award-winning housing towers, or community enshrined in a pretty rendering on a developer’s wall, but community that was happening within the development itself. That’s the type of social life that makes urban places livable. That’s something that must be able to happen architecturally as well as socially. Clearly, the architecture was not the only factor, because after Berger departed Laclede Town hit its decline and eventually fell abandoned.

Edwardsville, Illinois Historic Preservation Metro East Planning

Edwardsville Residents Rally for Buildings Housing Small Businesses

by Michael R. Allen

My coverage is a little late, but I wanted to give a shout out to the 50 people who demonstrated against demolition of historic commercial buildings last Friday in downtown Edwardsville. The Belleville News-Democrat (perhaps the region’s best daily paper) has coverage here.

The bottom line: a law firm wants to demolish six small-scale storefront buildings now home to small businesses. These buildings are all historic, with some older than 100 years. However, some of the buildings were reclad or greatly altered over time. Indeed, some of them are barely recognizable as historic buildings.

However, the tenants and others oppose the move not just because these buildings are old. The opposition stems from recognition that downtown Edwardsville needs buildings like these to retain small business and vital street scapes. Giant new office buildings take away not only the low rents that foster commerce, but the differentiation in a block face that makes it a welcoming environment. Preservation here is not essentially about saving something old, or something pretty, but something that encourages a mode of business conducive to building community. Maybe someday someone will restore the facades of these buildings, but even if that never happens the buildings are working just fine.

Downtown Edwardsville’s commercial district has seen a resurgence of small business activity, and retaining storefronts is essential to future growth. Like many downtowns, Edwardsville’s has plenty of surface lots where a new office building could be built. There is no reason why the lawyers seeking their own building and the small businesses cannot coexist.

Green Space Planning St. Charles County

St. Charles County Preserving Open Space

by Michael R. Allen

A story from Saturday’s St. Charles County Journal, “Green acres: Couple donate land for park,” by Kalen Ponche, caught my eye. St. Charles County residents Dave and Mary Jane Wolk did not want their 67-acre property to be subdivided, so they are donating it to the St. Charles County Parks Department for eventual park space. According the article, the Wolks’ land is not the only park acquisition in the immediate future:

The county plans to spend $3.34 million for a 60-acre property owned by Robert J. and Patricia Day Barnard and a contiguous, 115-acre property owned by New Melle Lakes Development Co. and Apted-Hulling Inc.

(Anyone else surprised to see Apted-Hulling still around?) Besides these sizable acquisitions, the parks system in the county has received other donations from concerned families:

The Wolks are the fourth family to donate land to the county park system. Two of those donations are parks in reserve – 91 acres northwest of O’Fallon donated by Dolores Freymuth, and 100 acres south of Highway 364 (Page Avenue extension) and west of the Missouri River donated by Bill and Nancy Knowles. Officials hope to open the Old Boyd Plantation and Towne Park, donated by Betty Towne, next year.

The St. Charles County Parks Department now owns 2,855 acres and hopes to own 4,000 acres by 2015. These numbers are encouraging. If the past 25 years were years where St. Charles County leaders aggressively pursued development of rich farm land, maybe the next 25 will be years of sensible land conservation. As growth declines in that county, the time is right to safeguard land.

New York City Planning St. Louis Board of Aldermen

Can St. Louis Lure Small Businesses?

by Michael R. Allen

This week New Geography published an interesting article by Steve Null entitled “New York City Closes Shop”. The article reports that under the anti-small business policies of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, over 83,000 small businesses have been forced to close since 2001. That astounding figure represents just the recent effort to “crack down” on commerce that predecessors Rudy Giuliani, David Dinkins and Ed Koch all enforced as well.

Has this trend pushed small business out of the Big Apple? If so, what can smaller cities do to lure some of the entrepreneurs that might end up looking for a more encouraging urban business environment?

While Chicago has been a beneficiary of New York’s terrible policies, St. Louis could lure some of the business. St. Louis has an abundance of historic commercial districts, where old buildings offer cheap rents and low purchase prices. Small business owners can afford to rent a small space in New York and maybe an entire building in Chicago. In St. Louis, they can buy a building — or two. The low cost of living is a base incentive.

The 8200 block of North Broadway in the Baden neighborhood, 2006.
However, St. Louis needs more than a low cost of living and old buildings to draw businesses from larger cities. We need better urban planning policies to promote commercial districts by retaining storefront buildings and keeping out fast food, drug stores and other uses that break up urban streetscapes needed to draw shoppers. We need public sector investment in infrastructure like sidewalks, alleys and lighting. The business license fees and sales tax rates in the city are too high, especially on food and drink. Most of all, we need to break down the ward-by-ward differences in business and license policy with strict citywide standards that make sense to people from the outside world.

I’m not suggesting that a wave of would-be New Yorkers are coming. In fact, many of the small business owners we need to attract are those who chose Clayton, St. Charles or Belleville — or Memphis, Cleveland or Kansas City — over the city proper. The bottom line is that we have to create a city that not only has sensible small business policy but actively encourages small business to keep our neighborhood commercial districts thriving.

I would be very interested in comments from city small business owners.