This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Ryan Avent tweets:

Preservation is often a good idea, but cities and citizens should recognize and face the real, high opportunity costs:

He links to an article in City Journal by Ed Glaeser, who writes:

It is wise and good to protect the most cherished parts of a city’s architectural history. But New York’s vast historic districts, which include thousands of utterly undistinguished structures, don’t accomplish that goal. Worse, they impede new construction, keeping real estate in New York City enormously expensive (despite a housing crash), especially in its most desirable, historically protected areas. It’s time to ask whether New York’s big historic districts make sense.

Glaeser overstates the case. The historic areas that he thinks have gotten out of control constitute less than 1% of Manhattan’s total area. But I do think there’s something to the argument.

I’ve written about this tension before — between New Urbanists and preservationists — in response to another piece by Glaeser revisiting the legacy of Jane Jacobs.

The Congress for the New Urbanism’s website has several positive articles on historic preservation, and indeed, preserving America’s pre-automobile, human-scale thoroughfares is an obvious thing to do when you’re trying to reduce car dependency. But at some point, doesn’t the desire to preserve urban areas for people outweigh the desire to save every run-down house in the neighborhood?

6 Replies to “New Urbanism and Preservation”

  1. This reminds me of Dan Bertolet’s solution to the Ballard Denny’s problem.

    I’d love to see this actually happen with small historic buildings. In one respect it already does – see that corner building just north of the stadiums with a giant new building sticking out of it. But a small house could easily be moved to the top of a new building (allow height limits to be violated for this purpose, of course) along with a green roof for a yard. I imagine this would be a valuable house – I’d certainly love to live in an old historic house with a now beautiful view.

  2. Well, what I’ve seen of Seattle lately has certainly not included saving every run-down old house. I would agree that when a Denny’s in Ballard gets ‘historical’ status something is going wrong with the process. It may be that there are so many newcomers to Seattle that the whole idea of history becomes bunk.

    Part of this has to do with the vernacular, and that is what some neighborhoods in Seattle have irretrievably lost. Tear the fabric and the threads lose significance when they’re no longer part of a pattern.

    I just have a real hard time thinking it’s time to start tearing down the historical stuff, because there’s no ugly meaningless stuff left to develop. I think you have a ways to go there still.

  3. Everything is historic at some level. I don’t want to save every mid-century modern building, but I’d also hate to see them all disappear just because they happen to be run down right now. When a building has an especially influential architect or owner I think it’s a good candidate, but then it takes a lot of commitment (or money) to do the work of not just getting it listed but also maintained. I’d like to see more historic districts; my in-laws used to live in Tacoma North Slope and that’s a great example.

  4. Good points, all. I don’t mean to disparage preservation, which, like Avent I generally think is a good idea. I just want to acknowledge that there’s a tension — or at least the potential for tension — between the goals of the preservationists and the goals of the new urbanists, who want to build denser, more environmentally-friendly cities.

    I suspect this will get more acute in the future, as preservationists make more attempts to preserve the architecture of the automobile era. The Ballard Denny’s and the Surrey Downs neighborhood in Bellevue are two recent examples of this.

    Re: the “run down house;” that house on Jefferson just bugs me for some reason. I know some guy lived there once. But he doesn’t live there anymore, and most of the interesting stuff he might have kept in the house is gone. So what are you preserving, exactly? I mean, it’s not like it’s Teddy Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill estate or something.

    I love cities full of historic buildings, but I love cities full of _people_ even more.

  5. A great example of this battle is here. In the middle, beautiful old building with intricate stone and tile work on its fascade but which is single story and currently houses an auto dealer. On the right, developers that want to build a big dense building. On the left, local advocates trying to save this building. When the advocates miss a deadline to protect the building, developers come in and intentionally destroy the intricate stonework so that the advocates won’t have anything to protect in the next round. Advocates no longer have anything to protect, and back away. Developer sits on defaced land, and eventually moves forward with demolition. The Govenor, Mayor, and a Senator show up at the site boasting about federal funding to help rebuild the area. And the winner is: the developer!

    Don’t get me wrong, I’d much rather have density than a single story car dealership with some nice stone work, but that was a dirty trick and should probably be illegal.

  6. Modernizing in Seattle has an unfortunate history. Our main library used to be a beautiful Carnegie building, which was replaced, long before the surrounding buildings, by a modern library- since reviled and replaced itself, by an even more modern building.

    Meanwhile, in the neighborhoods, the vernacular has been replaced by the indigeneous, as scores of architects attempt by hackneyed treatments to impart ‘individuality’ to their uniform build-to-the-envelope two and three story development.

    Not sure Frank is drawing a clear enough line between the new urbanist, whose goals are the same as the old urbanist, and New Urbanism, which imagines that new development outside the city might take the form of ‘urbanism’ instead of suburbanism.

    Anyway, all this got me to thinking of Cleveland Union Terminal, a massive project in concentration and consolidation of people and resources. Maybe it’s easier to do these things if you replace the historical structure with one that is even more attractive.

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