Zoning, housing and preservation

March 20, 2023 Blog, Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, Economics, Historic Districts, History Comments (0) 281

One of the issues of the current decade is the push against single-family zoning, usually from the perspective of increasing the supply of affordable housing, but also arguably from a climate change perspective. In either case, more density is desired. So, how does preservation fit into this? Well, many of the YIMBY proponents of same accuse historic district preservation of being a cloaked kind of exclusionary zoning.

Georgetown, DC

Like many such apprehensions of the historic preservation/heritage conservation field, there is truth in it — if you go far back enough in time. (Pro tip – you need to go back at least 30 years and ignore everything that has happened since).

In fact, historic preservationists have been advocating for ADUs (accessory dwelling units) in districts for the last 30 years – as a technique to insure preservation by offering additional income to owners. I remember it from the Oak Park Illinois Preservation Plan Lisa DiChiera wrote in 1993-94. We have long seen adding extra units as a way to increase density and HELP preserve beloved community fabric.

ADU (casita) in King William, San Antonio

When I do my talk on the history of historic districts, I note that arguably the first modern historic district inspired by residents and not tourists was Georgetown in 1950. It literally took an act of Congress and was perceived – correctly – of causing gentrification and displacing African-Americans. Which it did. A similar thing happened a couple of years later with the first revolving fund in Charleston. Zoning itself emerges in California in the 19th century as a way to exclude the Chinese, and even the density-based New York City zoning of 1916 was adopted by hundreds of suburbs, in part as a way to exclude people.

Ansonborough, Charleston

Historic districts, however, took a different turn starting in the 1960s as they were tweaked by community activists to become something a museum curator would never recognize. This process itself also took 30 years, so that by the time I was fighting alongside community members in North Kenwood, Chicago in 1991-93 to create a historic district, the goal was quite the opposite in terms of race and income. (Race Against Renewal, Future Anterior, Winter 2005)

They included the one on the left but not the one on the right

But it would take a little longer to push the preservation practice a little further in terms of building types. You see, in North Kenwood they refused to include any multi-family apartment buildings in the historic district. You could put in two-flats and three-flats but they excluded century-old architecturally intact six-flats and 12-flats. It would take a couple more years for the preservation community to accept the multi-family as worthy of preservation, even though I argued it in North Kenwood in 1991. When 409 Edgecombe in Harlem, New York became a landmark in the mid-90s, the whole scheme changed. Within a few years, the old Hamilton Heights historic district – which had excluded multi-family – had filled in and marched a dozen blocks up St. Nicholas with four separate additions. Multifamily was now decidedly historic.

409 Edgecombe, Harlem, New York. The apex of Sugar Hill. Thurgood Marshall, Walter White and W.E. B. DuBois among its many illustrious residents in the 20th century.

So, if the YIMBYs accuse preservation of exclusionary zoning, you can let them know they were correct in 1915 and 1950 and there was a lingering effect into the early 1990s.

But they’ve been wrong since.

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