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Preservation and Smart Growth can be friends, not rivals

Kaid Benfield, NRDC's Smart Growth director, looks at the mistrust between Smart Growth environmentalists and preservationists. On the one hand, he points out, some of the most walkable communities are also our most historic, from Paris to Capitol Hill. On the other hand, preservation also sometimes becomes a tool to oppose sustainable neighborhoods, like the effort to landmark the Wisconsin Avenue Giant as a cudgel against development.

Photo by James Moore on Flickr.

As a result, many Smart Growth advocates think preservationists are just a bunch of NIMBYs, and many preservationists think Smart Growth people just want to tear down neighborhoods wholesale and put up giant high rises. Then there are the Smart Growth preservationists, who get caught in the middle. We need to recognize that both sides' goals matter. Historic buildings have value and need protection, and good urban design is much better for our communities and the environment than bad. When the historic is also the walkable, as in Georgetown, the two movements should reinforce each other and create a doubly strong case for preservation. When they conflict, as at Third Church, we must balance the two in a way that gives neither absolute supremacy.

Benfield asks,

Are we going to start saving Walmarts, which the National Trust [for Historic Preservation] has opposed in one community after another, when they are 50 years old just because they are 50 years old? The date is not all that far away. And, make no mistake: they will be representative of a period and style of architecture. If that's the principal test, they will pass. What about urban freeways that sliced through and destroyed historic neighborhoods? They, too, are now part of history.
Thus far, preservation movement leaders have resisted debate about whether there are significant structures we ought not preserve. At a DC Preservation League panel on modern structures, panelists focused entirely on how to convince the public to preserve any modern building, assuming that preserving was always the right choice. When Benfield posed this question to a preservation friend, he got "a roll of the eyes and a quick rebuke that modernist buildings are just as historic as any other, and what people hate today might be what they like tomorrow. History is history."

But, Benfield says, that misses the point. "I was not arguing against the landmarking of modernist buildings," he said. "In fact, I am a fan of modernist architecture ... My point, rather, was that we need to be more discerning about what is worth fighting for and what isn't, lest we lose our support. And that we need to be alert—preservationists and environmentalists alike—to those who harm our values by misusing them."

Historic preservation is a political movement, as is environmentalism. When people trot out environmental or preservation arguments to defend something like the Wisconsin Giant, where strong community support stands behind change, it drives people away from the broader goals of that movement. And when advocates argue that their particular issue trumps all others, regardless of context, as preservation would if it started landmarking Wal-Marts across the nation, it risks moving into irrelevance. Environmentalists, preservationists, and Smart Growth advocates alike should bear that in mind.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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"a roll of the eyes and a quick rebuke that modernist buildings are just as historic as any other, and what people hate today might be what they like tomorrow. History is history."

IMO the HPRB did the 14th street community a solid by asking Shalom-Baranes to redesign the Condo at 14th and S so there are hits and misses, but the general point is well taken. This is the minefield of subjectivity which in more homogeneous and tranidional countries such as Italy, there isn't as much arguing as we seem to have here. That being said, until the architectural community and academia specifically acknowledge on some level the public's general preference for traditional styles, you will continue to have a lot of these arguments about whether to save brutalist buildings and the like, even if the stated and built goal of some mosernist architects was to be anti-urban, anti-beauty, and anti-human.

There are plenty of beautiful modernist buildings, but the idea that modernism is above being a style is what clouds the judgement of so many architects. When in doubt, ask your mother what she thinks of a building.

by Thayer-D on Feb 25, 2009 3:22 pm • linkreport

It seems dangerous to leave the power to decide what's 'historic' or 'aesthetically important' or whatever in the hands of a few people.

It seems like a convenient way to be able to circumvent rules or to prevent the transfer or land from happening, i.e. imposing the will of a few but politically active on the rights of the citizens of the city.

by MPC on Feb 25, 2009 3:26 pm • linkreport

Third Church is a good example of where preservationists and urbanists collide, but the conflict is probably a little overstated. The Third Church is pretty bad for urbanism, but it's not that bad for it. It's just that it's bad for urbanism and its effing ugly to boot.

What is a much better example of preservation types completely ignoring the concerns of urbanism is the fact that the DCPL has identified as endangered the "Southwest Urban Renewal Area and Plan".

If you want an example of the preservationists giving a big middle-finger to urbanism, check out this:

Because of vast open space due to the original plan which limited building occupancy to only 30% of the total

land area of each site, many of these residential projects are technically “underdeveloped”. Current zoning

standards and the DC Office of Planning’s promotion of major in-fill near Metro stations makes the

Southwest Renewal Area a prime target for intense development, thus causing degradation of the integrity of

the neighborhood’s design.
The NIMBY credentials of this listing are proven by the fact that it was nominated by one of the coops in the neighborhood. So yes, preservation is a political movement.

by Reid on Feb 25, 2009 4:13 pm • linkreport

"lest we lose our support."?

"lest we lose our support.?????

Historic Preservation has long since lost my support.

If the significance of a building needs to be argued then the building is probably not worth saving in my opinion. What is the goal? A history lesson? Or to just freeze dry a look of a certain time and place?

To be frank there is no real harm done if everybody could do whatever they wanted with a their property within zoning regulations. Would their be any sickness or a breakdown in the fabric of society if their is a glass and steel structure next to a 200 year old stick frame row home next to brick structure from 75 years ago? In fact the outcome of an orthodoxy in design is not better!!!

by CitizenZ on Feb 25, 2009 5:05 pm • linkreport

Another example, again, in Montgomery County

by Marco on Feb 25, 2009 6:04 pm • linkreport

Both sides have a point. Preservationists want to ensure that nothing with true historical significance is torn down. That seems unrealistic to me, as there are other ways to remember something historic than to retain another ugly building. A preservation community professional close to me loves Third Church because it is a unique design by a world-renowned architect's office (that of I.M. Pei) - however, it was not designed by Pei himself, which in my view should diminish its value from a preservation perspective.

We've had similar debates about the (god-awful) J. Edgar Hoover Building. One cannot deny that FBI Director Hoover did some "historic" things in that building - but is spying on M.L.King and other civil rights leaders REALLY something to celebrate by retaining another (butt-ugly) monstrosity? I had the pleasure of walking by that thing everyday for a while. I compelled me to contemplate creating a new organization called "Tear It Down" or "Operation Plunger".

There has to be room in the preservation movement to acknowledge that not all unloved but "historically significant" buildings should be preserved. I have yet to hear a compelling case for preserving the Hoover Building.

by Glenn on Feb 26, 2009 12:26 pm • linkreport

There is a difference between preserving existing noteworthy buildings and dictating the style of new buildings. The former is sometimes wise, but the latter is stifling. It's like having the city run by one huge homeowners association. Variety and even a bit of chaos are make cities fun and vibrant.

Also, I love some old buildings, but honestly, you can't recreate the past. You just end up with mediocre historisizing shmaltz.

by Daniel on Feb 26, 2009 3:24 pm • linkreport


No one is proposing dictating any building styles as far as I know, and within traditional styles there is a far greater variety of styles in just about any American city versus "traditional" society cities, so we agree there.

Just remember that almost all of the old buildings you and others love are reformulations of previous older buildings.

BTW that goes for the contemporary modernist style buildings also.

by Thayer-D on Feb 26, 2009 3:58 pm • linkreport

Yes, indeed. The Cairo, for instance, is fabulously tacky interpretation of "moorish" and other styles. And then there's always those "tudor" houses. Or perhaps the neo- in neoclassical?

But to me, having an historic preservation board vet all buildings in a given area is functionally the same as dictating a style. Especially when they always prefer the same style of building.

by Daniel on Feb 26, 2009 4:20 pm • linkreport

If you are against preservation boards, fair enough, but you still aren't able to conceptually differentiate between "historisizing shmaltz" modernism or traditionalism beyond experssing your personal opinion.

Did you ever notice those elephants carved into the edges of the first floor window sills? Thanks Schneider

by Thayer-D on Feb 26, 2009 4:41 pm • linkreport

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