Musings of a Minnesotan Preservationist

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about historic preservation as a social cause. This is not entirely new for me (I spend an embarrassing amount of time thinking about these things), but I have slightly changed my view on the topic given recent events. I get so frustrated by the way I see preservation presented in the media. Recent examples being coverage of conflict between Nicole Curtis and the Minneapolis City Council over demolition of a house on Colfax Avenue (see my post on this topic here) or tensions between preservation groups and developers amid the proposed construction of a high rise tower within a historic district and next to Nye’s Polonaise Room. It seems the only time we hear about preservationists is when they are fighting with someone and they’re often depicted as “not in my backyard” fanatics. In an effort to reframe what I believe to be a huge misconception, I’d like to offer up some alternative views for your consumption.

photograph of New York skyline at midday

NYC has old AND new buildings. If I’m a preservationist, does that mean I have to hate all the new buildings?

Preservationists can be urbanists, too

I would like to start by dispelling any idea that preservationists are automatically anti-density. I would say the majority of preservation-minded people I’ve come into contact with understand the need for dense development. As a preservationist, I think our collective viewpoint is more on the side of advocating for thoughtful land-use. I often hear people say “just because it’s old doesn’t make it historic and worth preserving” – that’s true and I agree, but I’d counter by stating that just because a project adds density doesn’t mean it fits the culture or needs of the community.

I truly believe at the end of the day, we’re all just looking to create beautiful, fun, vibrant and economically viable places. So, if I understand the need for added density and you understand the need for protecting a community’s sense of place – can’t we find a way to accomplish both? For the sake of our cities, I certainly hope we can.

There are varying degrees of preservationists

Can we also agree to get away from the idea that any one individual has to be wholly on one side or another for a particular topic? There are no absolutes and often even the most devoted individual may not live by the word of their ideals all the time. I equate “preservation” as a movement within the environmental movement. I think of myself as an environmentalist, but there have certainly been times where I’ve thrown an aluminum can in the garbage rather than walk out of my way to the recycling. Does my laziness mean I cannot associate myself with the environmental movement? I don’t think so. Likewise, if you support preserving buildings when appropriate and you enjoy neighborhoods with a mixture of old and new structures, I consider you to be a preservationist.

Just as with any group of people, we have our eccentrics. There are those people who tend to isolate themselves, raising the barriers to entry, implying you have to be in for all of it or nothing. While I can appreciate how these individuals feel and where this mindset comes from, I don’t agree with it. Preservation isn’t an all or nothing thing. Cities, and their buildings, have to be allowed to grow and change. I suspect in the future we will see a wider variety of preservationists –pulling from all different fields of study and cultural backgrounds. This will give way to a new type of preservation that is less about saving individual buildings and more about planning for a city’s evolution that supports growth and change while preserving what makes it special.

Proactive preservationists exist

My biggest frustration with historic preservation is how incredibly reactive it is and even when we attempt to be proactive, how that will often fail. Taking the issue with Nye’s for example – the neighborhood is within a historic district. So, at some point (in 1971 to be exact) people got together and agreed this fantastic area was worth protecting.  And yet the protections go ignored and insensitive, towering developments are constructed slowly eroding its historic context. The problem is our system isn’t really set up to protect the everyday, vernacular buildings. Historic preservation was originally meant to protect those buildings of material historic significance. And people struggle with the idea of what makes a place “historic”.

I would like to spend less time focusing on this definition and divert the conversation to our aspirations for the look and feel of our cities. More emphasis should be placed on answering the question of “does this development serve a greater purpose in our neighborhood than what already exists?” or “does this new construction have the potential to greatly alter the surrounding neighborhood in an undesirable way?”  I know you’re thinking, those questions are subjective and everyone will have different feelings about the answers. It just sucks when we have to factor in people’s feelings. Trust me, I know. This struggle is real. But to me, it’s not the answers to these questions that matters as much as the discussion that will result.

I guess what I’m saying is preservationists have a right to be a part of these conversations. We’re not a nuisance, an afterthought or a “nice to have” part of city planning. Our voice matters and should not be discounted solely based on a misconceived idea of who we are as group.

Street Scene Dusk

This post originally appeared on Claire’s blog: www.fortheloveofmnblog.com


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19 Responses to Musings of a Minnesotan Preservationist

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke April 8, 2015 at 11:50 am #

    thanks for sharing this; i think there is a lot of common ground!

  2. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller April 8, 2015 at 12:06 pm #

    These things are difficult to discuss in the abstract because, in general, everyone agrees about abstract values. The hard part is how to implement them and how to balance them when they conflict.

    That said, let me quote a bit of your post and ask some questions:

    “Taking the issue with Nye’s for example – the neighborhood is within a historic district. So, at some point (in 1971 to be exact) people got together and agreed this fantastic area was worth protecting. And yet the protections go ignored and insensitive, towering developments are constructed slowly eroding its historic context.”

    Should the people of 1971 get to bind all future generations? What if they were wrong or if conditions changed? Or what if the subsequent generations that decided against following their rules just disagree?

    Specifically, as to Nye’s, I guess I don’t understand what the height of a new building (especially when all or mostly on a surface parking lot) has to do with the historic character of the neighboring old buildings or neighborhood. Or maybe to put it differently, why is the existing parking lot not even more incongruous with the historic district than the proposed development?

    • Matt Steele
      Matt Steele April 8, 2015 at 1:28 pm #

      Exactly, I’m confused about the Nye’s example as well. It seems like the current proposal is the best of all worlds – the developer is preserving two historic structures on the block (including moving one of them), while replacing a surface parking lot with hundreds of new housing units and the opportunity for more businesses and services in the neighborhood. I doubt people are clamoring to preserve the parking lot, and so far I have yet to hear any concern about losing the two “auxiliary buildings” that are part of the current Nye’s hodgepodge (though retaining the Chopin Room sign would be cool). From my perspective, the Nye’s proposal seems like a slam dunk for everyone involved, but I really would like to hear if there are more concerns so we can further the dialog. Thanks.

      • Adam Miller
        Adam Miller April 8, 2015 at 2:17 pm #

        It definitely seems like what we should be asking developers to do.

        That said, I’ve seen people assert that the plan for the historic district says buildings should be no taller than four stories (I think). I don’t understand that at all, but I have to admit that I’ve not done much to educate myself about it.

        The only concern I’ve heard that I would personally take seriously was that prior construction in the area caused damage to Our Lady of Lourdes. Whatever happens on the Nye’s sight needs to be done in such a way as to not repeat that problem.

          • Adam Miller
            Adam Miller April 8, 2015 at 3:22 pm #

            Thanks, Bill, you’ve really helped with the difficult part, but if you think I’m reading those design guidelines, you’re mistaken 😉

            • Matt Steele April 8, 2015 at 4:13 pm #

              I’m not understanding how a historic district can or should define the form of a net-new land use. Isn’t that what we have zoning codes and overlay districts for? Sure, preserve the stuff that’s historic, but don’t use preservation to prevent converting a parking lot into a tower.

              If anything, added tax base, population, land values, etc would ease historical preservation where it is needed, on other blocks.

              • Adam Miller
                Adam Miller April 8, 2015 at 5:32 pm #

                I don’t know, but I’m no expert in these things.

                Your last point, though, seems like a really good one.

              • Matthias Leyrer
                Matthias Leyrer April 9, 2015 at 8:32 am #

                I think the real question here is why does Matt have two different pictures for his account?

                • Claire VanderEyk
                  Claire VanderEyk April 9, 2015 at 8:36 am #

                  LOL! It is so funny that you mention that because I was wondering the same thing!

            • Bill Lindeke
              Bill Lindeke April 8, 2015 at 4:30 pm #

              LOL that was my over the top snark for the week. my apologies.

    • Claire VanderEyk
      Claire VanderEyk April 9, 2015 at 8:35 am #

      Thank you so much for the discussion, Adam and Matt. Couple things I want to clarify – I’m not necessarily criticizing the proposed development for the Nye’s site. I’m ALL about making use of surface parking lots. My point in referencing this particular issue is that historic districts were meant to be a way for us preservationists to be “proactive” and I’m not sure they’re serving that purpose. If the idea was to protect the area from high rise towers – that is definitely not happening. Note that I’m not saying that I think the area should be protected from construction of such buildings. This isn’t really about my personal opinion on the way to preserve communities. The post was more about re-framing the way that “preservationists” as a group are viewed. I often feel that when I say that I’m a preservationist my views are discounted simply because of the negative connotation that term seems to carry. I want to broaden the meaning of being a preservationist.

      All that being said, when it comes to the Nye’s site. I definitely feel it is adventurous for that site to be redeveloped, and I agree that the idea of incorporating the more iconic Nye’s buildings into a new structure that adds density to area could be a great compromise. I’m personally not sure that this particular building design is the way to do it but I’m absolutely not opposed to the idea.

      • Wayne April 9, 2015 at 11:06 am #

        I’m curious about what, specifically, in the design that you dislike? Is it the fact that it’s a ‘tower’ or over 4 stories high? Because building something that short is probably not really economically viable if you also want to preserve these buildings.

        • Claire VanderEyk
          Claire VanderEyk April 9, 2015 at 3:48 pm #

          I personally think it is too tall. Not saying that it has to be four stories or less, but its current proposed height is excessive in my opinion. I also think the design is such a huge departure from what exists (and I personally think it is a really boring design) that it doesn’t seem like it will add much architecturally to the area. I’d rather see either a really neat innovative looking building, or a building that blends with what already exists. But that is all subjective, what one person finds boring another might find remarkable.

          • Adam Miller
            Adam Miller April 9, 2015 at 4:15 pm #

            Recognizing that much of is is subjective (and I’d argue not really anyone but the owner’s decision to make), how much too tall? I think the proposal is 29 stories. Is 20 okay? How do you decide how tall is too tall?

            I guess to some degree I can see arguing for the four stories the guidelines call for, as much as those guidelines don’t make any sense to me. But once you’re into something that can reasonably be called a tower (maybe 8 stories?) is there really much difference?

            Anyway, this rending looks pretty good to me, although maybe they could use different materials on the Hennepin-facing facades that would more clearly reference the older buildings: http://media.bizj.us/view/img/5043991/nyesbigfromesgarchitects*600.jpg

  3. Steve H April 9, 2015 at 8:47 am #

    This is a good piece, especially the part about the importance of having conversations and respecting different viewpoints. As a nearby resident I was very happy with the Nye’s proposal. I thought it did a very good job of balanceing preservation versus development and density. My biggest issue was the reaction over concerns that Our Lady of Lourdes church rasied over the devleopment. Granted, some of their concerns have more validity than others. I think the risk of construction related damage to the chuch is very real and should be taken seriously. I was astonished by the vitrolic reactions to the church’s concerns (just go to the forum and you’ll see what I mean). Just because you disagree with a position, you can still respect it. I used to be a regular reader of the streets.mn, however the arrogance is just a bit too much to take.

  4. Casey April 9, 2015 at 4:45 pm #

    “Preservationists can be urbanists, too
    I would like to start by dispelling any idea that preservationists are automatically anti-density.”

    I agree! Which is why one of my main problems with the Colfax situation was that the boarding house was only listed for a very short time before any investor had a chance to know much about it.

    Also if you want to talk about density with this project consider the fact that a rooming house is more dense than a small apartment complex when you you look at total square foot per unit. It has also now contributed to the shortage of affordable housing.

    • Peter Bajurny April 9, 2015 at 5:02 pm #

      Let’s just conveniently ignore the fact that no preservationist had a plan to preserve the boarding house.

      But this is barely the place to hash out specific Nye’s arguments, and it’s certainly not the place to hash out Colfax arguments.

    • Alex Cecchini
      Alex Cecchini April 10, 2015 at 9:42 am #

      “a rooming house is more dense than a small apartment complex”

      Yes, it is. I think there may be like 7 total people in the entire metro who have actively advocated for re-legalizing single room occupancy housing (also removing the unrelated occupancy limit). Instead, we’re still seeing the opposite happen across the country (http://www.citylab.com/housing/2015/04/why-a-seattle-suburb-legally-defined-what-a-family-is/389835/).

      This whole discussion is good because it points out that “urbanists” and “preservationists” can’t be painted with a single brush for each. There are preservationists who successfully lobbied for downzoning swaths of neighborhoods decades ago (and won) who also believe that single family homeownership is the path to making cities better. The Mpls council just denied a group’s appeal to halt the 50′ high Linden Hills development, while Highland Park residents fight a 4 story mixed use proposal, almost certainly preservationists exist in both camps.

      At the same time, there are folks (myself and Peter included) who tend to think the type of zoning & preservation restrictions on development have had all sorts of negative consequences on housing affordability, the environment (indirectly or directly), and equity over the last 60+ years, and probably just accept any proposal maybe a bit too aggressively.

      This is why we need sites like streets.mn, and the forums, and probably much more, to weed out the nuance and have respectful discourse.