My favorite bugaboo about heritage conservation rose its head this Easter/April Fool’s morning in the form of an editorial in the Rivard Report. The bugaboo goes like this, and has for over a century: If we focus too much on saving the past we won’t have a future or any new development.
Ed Glaeser made this argument regarding Manhattan in his book Triumph of the City earlier in the decade. I loved the book, which had a myriad of brilliant insights and then this bugaboo which was so simplistic it required no response. Manhattan has been saving TONS of its building inventory for three generations with no ill effect to its vibrancy or economy. Just visit Times Square.
Prisoner of the past abandoned by development
No United States city has designated as landmarks more than about 3 or 4 percent of its buildings. So the argument basically is that development is such a precarious and precious business that it can’t survive on a free-fire zone that covers 96 percent of the landscape. Really?
San Antonio from the Tower of the Americas, 2014.
The really fascinating thing about this statistic is that it hasn’t changed in 30 years. Yes, more sites and districts get designated as historic (and keep developing, BTW) but plenty more new stuff gets added. The whole reason Glaeser went after Manhattan is that the statistic there is much higher, although when you include all five boroughs it is back to normal.
That’s the Triborough Bridge
So here is the bugaboo in its unadulterated form from today’s : “it could reach a tipping point where just about anything and everything is accorded historic status. In a world where everything is historic, nothing is historic.”
So where is that? Where did that happen? And if it didn’t happen anywhere, why is it a valid argument? Where is it ABOUT to happen?
Chicago designated ONE MILE of downtown building frontage 15 years ago. Contrary to our favorite bugaboo, this has actually inspired development (including a supertall on a vacant lot) and investment. Once San Antonio covers the 40% of its downtown that is currently surface parking, we might begin to worry about a slippery slope.
View from King William (designated 1967) to Tower of the Americas.
Now, to be fair to my friend Bob Rivard, the impetus for the piece was the proposed viewshed ordinance, inspired by the development near the Hays Street Bridge, to protect iconic views. This would seem to potentially thwart projects that aren’t designated. Interestingly, Austin – not a town known for preservation – has one of the most complicated viewshed protections in place for the Capitol.
The reality is that any protection system functions not as a prohibition but as a site of negotiation. This already happens with the Historic and Design Review Commission, which considered viewsheds of the Tower Life Building in reviewing a new development at St. Mary’s and Cesar Chavez. Good planning is buttressed by landmark laws and viewshed laws, not because they prohibit, but because they provide a review platform that integrates development into the urban fabric.
Disclosure: I serve on the Viewshed Technical Advisory Panel, so I am well acquainted with the specifics of how viewshed ordinances work. This information, like all knowledge, dispels fear, especially of this bugaboo.