My town recently adopted a historic preservation ordinance. I think the ordinance works against efforts to make low-cost housing available, and to develop cultural resources. Stimulus for the ordinance came primarily from among the campus neighborhood, where homeowners wanted to preserve the look of the neighborhood, against a tide of rental activity. I already know homeowners who will refuse to comply with the new restrictive code.
The challenge in preserving old structures is to find modern day uses that will preserve the material and societal value of the properties. I investigated the history of land use in my town and published an article telling a forgotten history of a 1963 land clearance that replaced the black business district with a local newspaper office, a post office, and HUD housing projects. I identified a house that was registered on the National Registry of historic places, and worked with others to charter a NFP to obtain the structure. The origninal resident was a blind ragtime musician who was a well liked philanthropist among his post-emancipation African American community. The builder was a prominant pre-emancipation African American businessmen, The house had been a funeral home for almost 50 years, and represented a lot of value to the local neighborhood, as a spiritual gathering place. In forming a board for the NFP, we recruited historians, social psychologists and architects. I arranged a meeting with the CDBG granting board and helped to write a successful application for the quarter million we needed.
Before the project was completed, however, the momentum turned toward city ownership of the property, and a management plan that tended to exclude most community uses of the property. We could not discuss adding a ADA qualified staircase or elevator to the building - the historians insisted it would distort the architectural integrity of the house. We had never originally intended to preserve the building as an architectural resource - rather as a community cultural resource.
Yet, the social psychologist determined that every part of the building that was not there in 1920 needs to be demolished - including the concrete block garage at the rear of the building would make a ideal site for an ongoing community bicycle project, but it is not welcome in the preservation plans of these professional historians. The agencies that we identified who could have been lessors and contributed enough to repay the CDBG loan were excluded because historic preservation ordinances forbade ever allowing access (under ADA rules) to the upstairs.
The only option, within the narrow constraints of the historians, was to allow the city sole ownership, and require the city to subsidize the property indefinitely. In that case, historic preservation and community development were not consistent.
Let me offer another example. In the early 1970's Wisconsin Chippewa tribes began a legal effort to gain recognition of their right to regulate members' hunting and fishing activities off of the reservation, according to terms of 19th century treaties. As the case worked through the courts, and the tribes were successful, anti-Indian protesters and the state department of economic development both advanced an argument that the tribes should only be allowed to spear fish if they did it from birch bark canoes, with birch torches. Aluminum boats, battery operated lights, and professional fisheries management were not part of the treaty agreement, according to the protesters, the governor (Work-fare author Tommy Thompson) and his tourism director. Well, the courts proved Tommy and his mob of anti-Indian protesters wrong. Preservation of cultural resources does not necessarily entail freezing something in time - rather it involves developing threads that tie modern uses with historic intents.
Some of these same conflicts are evolving in southern hemisphere areas where indigenous people rely on forest resources that many good-hearted (and well-fed) Yankees would rather preserve as they are. Preferred remedies have included integrative uses that will insure that future generations of residents will have a vested interest in preserving the forest resource.
What would I have done, for the campus neighborhood, to achieve the same ends as a historic preservation ordinance? I would have organized student owned cooperatives, so that the student residents of the neighborhood would have control of the properties they inhabit. As fellow homeowners, they would share interests in historic preservation with the other homeowners in the neighborhood, and would likely find ways of doing so without passing esoteric laws that call wood, glass, concrete and shingles "fabric." And of course the student coop houses would be integrated into a community-wide trust so that their rental payments could build an equity pool that will serve to provide low-cost housing (and equity retention) for other needy residents who have been impacted by the development of the University.
Perhaps this essay will have some value in stimulating discussion, which in turn will only have value if it leads to ACTION.