Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Historic Districts, Property Rights, and Creativity

I'm finally getting around to following up on my post from November, in which I was touching on the issue of property rights and the potential of a Sears Hill Historic District. In this post, I will talk about the very idea of a historic district, and its effect on property rights, and on design creativity.

Most municipalities have zoning regulations, and some, like Staunton, have designated historic districts. These regulations have been ruled as legal by the Supreme Court, in cases going back to the early 20th century. It is often easy to forget that these things weren't just dreamed up out of thin are in order to control what someone can do with their property. There were strong reasons for implementing them at the time. In Staunton those reasons had do with the rapid destruction of the historic fabric of the city, and the corresponding effect this was having on other properties, and on the tourist industry. In other words, hard headed business people, and property owners were seeing the value of their property go down due to the actions of other property owners who were not as conscientious.

In the past their was a strong peer pressure to maintain one's property, and a sense of civic pride that encouraged people to build beautiful buildings. These days these mechanisms have broken down. The owner of the property may not even live in the state, much less live in Staunton. Because of this, a legal mechanism was created to replace the old peer pressure. The Historic Districts were established. Removal of historic buildings was stopped, and renovation began. After that, there was an interesting phenomenon: property values in the historic districts went up. This encouraged more renovation work, and so on. Investing in one's property, and doing it right create more wealth and more profit from rising rents, etc.

So what is the down side from this kind of regulation of property? Well, the owner must go through the effort to think through a renovation, or better still, hire a design professional to help. The owner has to submit the design to the Preservation Commission for review (Full disclosure: I am on the Commission). The owner can't just put substandard or non-historic materials willy- nilly on his or her building. I happen to think these aren't "downsides". They are simply doing the job right. Then there is another potential problem: taking the idea too far.

OK, what I mean here is that some people always want to turn these kind of regulations into a straight-jacket. To literally dictate exactly what must be built as well as how. To prescribe exactly what look or style a building must be, even a new building. The problem with this idea is that it wants to freeze a district in whatever period it is determined it fits into. However, in Staunton, and in most places, there are many kinds of historic (see my earlier post on the art-moderne house in Newtown). Cities and towns do need to grow and evolve. History didn't stop in 1900. There needs to be room for new work even in historic districts, in order to create new history. As long as the new design fits with the district in objective criteria, like massing, height, materials, etc., it should be allowed. Quality counts for something.

Historic districts, then, should have a firm, but light touch, and allow for creative design. As for those who can't, or won't abide by the rules, well, at least here in Staunton, the vast majority of the area of the city is not in any historic district. Direct your attention there.