One of the greatest misconceptions regarding heritage conservation raised its head earlier this month in the form of an editorial in the Rivard Report.
This particular misbelief goes like this, and has for more than a century: If we focus too much on saving the past we won’t have a future or any new development.
Author Ed Glaeser made this argument regarding Manhattan in his book Triumph of the City earlier in the decade. I loved the book, with its myriad of brilliant insights but his assertion of this misbelief 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.
No city in the United States has designated as landmarks more than about 3 or 4 percent of its buildings. So is the argument then 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?
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, by the way), 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.
So here is the misperception in its unadulterated form from Robert Rivard’s April 1 commentary: “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” misconception, this has actually inspired development (including a supertall on a vacant lot) and investment. If San Antonio were to cover the 40 percent of its downtown that is currently surface parking, then we might need to worry about a slippery slope.
Now, to be fair to my friend Robert 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.
It turns out the viewsheds being proposed in San Antonio will affect 2 percent of downtown.
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 South St. Mary’s Street and Cesar Chavez Boulevard. 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 City’s Viewshed Technical Advisory Committee, so I am well acquainted with the specifics of how viewshed ordinances work. This information, like all knowledge, aims to dispel fear, especially of this misbelief.
The Council’s Arts, Culture, and Heritage Committee will consider changes to the viewshed ordinance on Tuesday. A date has not yet been set for a Council vote on the issue.