Sunday, April 24, 2005

History is more or less bunk

With the winter departure of Ann Arbor's Historic District Coordinator, things are not looking good for preservation in Ann Arbor. Historic districts are frequently associated with anti-development stances in this city, but I think the historic districts have an important role to play in future development of Ann Arbor, difficult as that may be to reconcile.

First, we should recognize the importance that historic district ordinances have played (both in Ann Arbor and in other cities) in preserving the frequently better-built and more attractive architecture of the past. The buildings on Main Street and State Street and the houses of the Old West Side and Old Fourth Ward are testament to the foresight of residents some 25 years ago when development pressure would have torn them down or "modernized" them into a crappy state that we would surely be regretting today. At least part of Ann Arbor's vitality can be attributed to its ease of walkability, preserved during the years America was gutting its downtowns.

Now, we should reconsider and even reaffirm the importance of legal protections of historic buildings today. Considering most of what has been built in this town in, say, the last 30 years, and even the last ten years -- is there anything built recently that can match the architecture and urban attitude of buildings now one hundred years old? There is not. When we preserve or adaptively re-use old buildings, we are not merely holding onto the past; we are maintaining buildings that are better suited to our community uses, that are more comprehensible to our eyes, and that better promote the kinds of lives we want to live. I submit anyone look at the new Life Sciences buildings and the Biomedical Research Building (Venturi, Scott Brown, architects) and tell me they would rather have that in their community than something like the Natural Science building (Albert Kahn, architect). Both were designed for modern biological research purposes. One is attractive; the other is not. One makes a pedestrian feel good about walking near it, the other only has room for cars. One has grass and landscaping around it, integrated into a thoughtful mall and other, similarly styled and scaled buildings nearby; the other offers sheer surfaces and wind tunnels to force anyone back inside who even thought about walking around outside. Let me also point out the LSI complex is turned inward and from the inner "courtyard" or whatever one might call it, does not offer visual connections to the rest of the Michigan campus. Anyway...

That said -- current blocks to development in historic districts (including, notably, accessory dwelling units) have served to keep cranking property values -- taxes, mortgages, and rents up sky high. This is ludicrous and only leads to a backlash when city employees and average joes are unable to afford living in Ann Arbor.

Property owners in historic districts and members of neighborhood associations MUST come together with student representatives, development interests and local business owners to negotiate compromises to provide for development in Ann Arbor. The future of the city (20-40 years) are too important to be taking self-interested, principled stands on any particular projects. People are complaining about the two houses on the Glen Ann block being lost to new development. These rentals should be donated to a community interest group and moved elsewhere in the city. These houses really are remnants of a bygone era, when the university had about 8,000 students and faculty probably lived there. The notion that that block is an historic district anymore is ludicrous, what with the BioMed building looming stories above, along with the Power Center a block up, and the old gas station on the corner. This block SHOULD be redeveloped into a set of six-or-so story complexes. However, the city SHOULD mandate that the houses be moved and the building designs be of a sympathetic design (NOT to the ugly BioMed building).

There is a place both for preservation and urban development in Ann Arbor. Indeed, reconciling the two are essential to the city's future.


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