I’m back! In case you’re wondering where I’ve been – well I’m now the proud owner of a Master’s Degree in Design Studies from the Boston Architectural College!
As I turned the corner on my graduate studies I felt this inner battle that I have with myself about historic preservation and urban growth become more of a struggle. I find it frustrating because I don’t feel that the two need to be at odds, as they are often portrayed. I feel very strongly that preservation of buildings can be woven into a city’s plan for growth. In order to do this, I think we need to begin to think of preservation as a way of life for our cities and be more conscious of the built environment’s impact on our lives. I write this not just from the stand-point of a preservationist who adores old buildings, but also as an urbanist that loves to see cities grow and change. My hope is that these seemingly disparate objectives will begin to be seen as a cooperative means of creating interesting city neighborhoods. Accomplishing this won’t be easy, but I think there are three areas to start.
Redefine (or remove all together) the word “historic”
What does the word “historic” mean to you? I’m guessing it might elicit some pretty strong feelings. Maybe you feel that the term “historic” should be reserved for only architectural masterpieces or structures that played some role in an event or person’s life that has relevance historically. Perhaps, you (like me) feel that most buildings, new and old, ornate and simple, have some type of historic character. Obviously, those are two very different views of the word’s meaning. So, that brings up this argument – what makes a building historic and therefore worthy of preservation efforts? Well, I think that is missing the point. There’s a place for true “historic” preservation –many would agree that the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul is a historic building worthy of preservation, indicated by the bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate for the over $200 million dollar renovation budget. Focusing on this one simple word and trying to fit every building into two categories, “historic” or “not-historic”, can lead us down a path that has no resolution or common ground.
There are those who will never see worth in a dilapidated 19th century house, while others will see nothing but potential. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that, right? It’s not our fault that these conversations often get over shadowed by the “meaning of historic” debate. Our laws and policies are written to encourage us to make that determination when an existing building is threatened with demolition. Categories of local and national historic designation require the building to meet certain eligibility standards (and therefore require us to debate whether or not they do). This might lead some to believe that buildings that don’t meet this criteria are not worthy of preservation, but is that really the case? As our cities continue to age, and the existing building stock along with them, this question is only going become more common. There are far more ordinary, vernacular buildings than architectural masterpieces that make-up the Twin Cities. Isn’t it true that these buildings have just as much of an impact on the character of our neighborhoods? Imagine how different your neighborhood would look if every building over 50 years of age were replaced.
When I moved to Minneapolis, I lived in a relatively unassuming brownstone on Nicollet Avenue just past 24th Street. I used to walk my dog and marvel at the
downright beautiful mansions that pepper the Whittier neighborhood. Many have been repurposed to multi-family housing or event centers. And while I think these buildings are very significant and an excellent representation of the history of that neighborhood – so too are the set of three brownstones in which my friends and I lived. Without buildings like those, I just don’t think that Eat Street would have the same appeal. Are they historic? Perhaps not. But, I believe they are worth saving.
So, let’s stop grappling with the meaning of the word historic. When faced with decisions about the future of our buildings, let’s look at the community as a whole. What does the future of this neighborhood look like? And what impact would the loss of this building, or for that matter the addition of its proposed replacement, have on the neighborhood? Not every old building is historic, but not every old building is worthless either.
Accept that our cities are like living organisms and embrace their growth
I grew up outside of St. Cloud in Clear Lake, Minnesota. I had no idea until I moved to Minneapolis how much I loved being in an urban environment. One of my favorite things about living here is how it always seems to be changing – there’s a new restaurant opening, a concert or street festival to attend, a museum exhibit to explore. The Twin Cities area is an incredible place to live. So, it’s no wonder that we’re seeing an influx of people wanting to live here. I, for one, think that’s great! Come, live here, spend money here, create things here, start businesses here, we can all benefit! Our city will grow, new places will be created and old places will find new life.
Some don’t feel this way – and I don’t necessarily blame them. Some people see all this change as a threat to their communities and buildings that they love. I think it’s not difficult to understand why they don’t want to see their neighborhoods change – if they didn’t like it the way it is, they wouldn’t live there, right? All that being said, change can be a great thing. Sometimes, when creative developers are encouraged through zoning or financial incentives and tax credits, it can actually mean preserving some of the existing buildings through restoration or adaptive reuse. Some buildings might have to change a lot in order to retain relevancy and economic viability. I guess I’d rather see them find new life, how ever they can, rather than ending up in a landfill. So, instead of constantly fighting change – we should be trying to direct it in the way we want to see it happen.
Population growth, density creation and preservation are all equally important city objectives
So here’s what it comes down to and why I set out to write this in the first place – no “one” goal of a city’s plan for growth is more important than any other. Population growth is important because it increases a city’s tax base (i.e. more money to spend on public works projects), brings more diversity (not just of race, but age, income levels and backgrounds), and adds depth to the talent pool (lures business to incorporate here, entrepreneurs to start businesses here and artists/musicians/chefs/designers to create here). Density is important because we need places for these new people to live and it is much more sustainable to build up rather than out – this also, in turn, creates more walkable communities.
It seems that preservation gets lost in the shuffle of chasing down these other important goals. Often times it’s as if it is an after thought and all the sudden swarms of neighbors are rallying together to save an old building. This isn’t always the case, of course, but these situations receive far more media coverage (example: Dinkytown debate of 2014). But the simple truth is that preservation is just as important to a city’s growth as any other objective. Want proof? Go walk around Lowertown, St. Paul. Much of its revitalization has come from the Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation’s continued focus on the retention of the area’s historic fabric.
I hope that this has helped you to think about preservation and urban growth in a different way – whether you think that you care about it or not, it does affect you. Our cities will to grow, change and evolve whether we take part in the conversation or not. So here is my challenge to you: participate! Speak up for what you want – when you hear about a development project that you want to support or one that you want to stop, say something! We are not powerless in this fight to maintain our communities. We far outnumber the developers, city officials, planners and designers that are making decisions altering our neighborhoods. We’re all working towards a common goal of creating better Minnesota cities – let’s come together and find a way to make that happen!
Until next time…