Hating Bourbon Street

In the spirit of Mardi Gras, this Design Observer article shares not only an interesting history of Bourbon Street but also great insight into the debate of authenticity. Central to historic preservation theory, this idea appears in many of my classes — either in establishing the integrity of a place or in questioning the appropriateness of an adaptive-reuse project. As I leave for Ecuador tomorrow as part of my Urban Regeneration course, I am certain I will be looking for signs of uniqueness and originality in Quito, a World Heritage Site. Check back for a post about the trip!


Philly Recognition!

For any prospective students uncertain of calling Philly home — fear not! The Huffington Post has provided 31 Reasons Philadelphia is the Most Underrated City in America! Our program often uses various neighborhoods of Philadelphia as our classrooms and, with great food, art and sports, you’ll have plenty to explore outside of the campus.

Giving Preservation a Voice in AC

Following up from my last post on the Atlantic City studio, at the end of last semester each of the ten students created an intervention in response to our conservation plan, which included policy-, interpretation-, and design-based proposals. Through this plan, we sought to shed light on the power and potential of a preservation approach to realize sustainable development objectives and create livable, culturally-robust communities.

In part because of the newly elected Mayor, and due to our effort over the course of the semester to engage with local stakeholders, we were asked to present our findings in Atlantic City last week. About fifty people gathered at the public event organized by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, for which we have received positive feedback from local and state officials. One student — Maggie Smith — proposed a preservation ordinance and is presenting this implementation to the City Council this coming week! Stay tuned for updates and a link to the forthcoming local NBC news video.

Sam Kuntz and Maggie Smith being interviewed by the local NBC news.

Sam Kuntz and Maggie Smith being interviewed by the local NBC news.

A Midsemester Night’s (lack of a) Dream

Studio reviews were last week — and a full two-hour presentation nearly skimmed the surface of our work. My studio comprises a group of ten students working on a preservation plan for Atlantic City. The draft of our goal is:

To create a plan for preservation policy and planning for the City of Atlantic City that recognizes the cultural values of the city’s historic environment and architecture and guides revitalization initiatives with respect to the cultural values evident in the historic built environment. By leveraging the city’s existing cultural assets, this approach will realize the potential of historic preservation to mitigate social and economic inequities and strengthen Atlantic City’s unique cultural identities and diverse ideologies to strategically repair and restore urban fabric. This will establish a framework for managing change and advocate for the role of preservation in managing urban change and adapting to 21st century demands.

We presented our analysis of the history, character, demographic data, existing policies and stakeholders, and comparable cities. The rest of the semester we will be creating individual interventions of various scales (regional vs. neighborhood vs. building) and activities (conservation overlay vs. revitalization plan vs. adaptive reuse). I will add another post at the end of the semester with our results!

AC of the Past

AC of the Past

AC of the Present

AC of the Present


Some of my studio members with GIS maps of the city's demographics.

Some of my studio members with GIS maps of the city’s demographics.

Oldie but Goodie

I happened upon this article from 2011 that quotes both the Chair of my program, Randy Mason, and a former professor, Donovan Rypkema. It explains that historic preservation as a discipline is often misunderstood and not always recognized as an ally of smart growth, though it should be. Read the full article by Johanna Hoffman below:

Of all the design disciplines, historic preservation is perhaps the most misunderstood. While it’s widely accepted that architects design our buildings, and planners organize our cities, the role of preservationists merits less appreciation. Popular culture abounds with clichés of the preservation zealot – there’s the gray-haired old lady laying herself down in front of an oncoming bulldozer, the guy dedicated to rescuing decrepit buildings and saving historical artifacts, and the Not-In-My-Back-Yard types preventing economic development at every turn.

But perhaps we’ve been too hard on historic preservation. While those stereotypes do exist, many working in the profession today imbue the preservation process with flexibility and economic vitality. “I hate that ‘preservationist’ label,” says Randall Mason, Chair ofPennDesign’s Historic Preservation program, “because it suggests that you’re an ideologue, that a preservationist is always going to say ‘don’t tear it down.’” The real issue preservation professionals deal with, he explains, is the difficulty of how to manage change.

As we move farther into the 21st century, that issue is only growing more important. Rising human populations, diminishing natural resources, and an uncertain energy future call for new development strategies, widely referred to today as ‘smart growth.’ According to a recent piece by Donovan Rykema, a nationally known consultant on historic preservation economics, it turns out that smart growth’s biggest ally is – you guessed it – historic preservation.

Rykema’s reasons are many. Most importantly, he emphasizes, is the fact that historic preservation is an avenue for examining and valuing our existing assets. Why invest money to tear down and reconstruct what’s already there? Historic buildings by and large have water lines, gutters, and streets already in place. Older ones, designed before cars were the dominant mode of transportation, instill surroundings with strong pedestrian orientations. If our future is aimed at reducing our reliance on automobiles, using buildings planned for human access is the smart place to start.

It turns out that use of historic buildings also generates considerable funds. Good growth requires adequate funding and re-invigorated historic buildings generate tax assets. They also create more jobs. According to Rykema, while new buildings rely on 50% labor and 50% materials, rehabilitation processes rely on roughly 60 – 70 % labor. Rehabbing old buildings also minimizes construction debris, decreasing both building and environmental costs.

No less important is the fact that people generally prefer historic areas. Wouldn’t you rather visit Venice than Phoenix? And as people are moving back to cities in increasing numbers, the demand for historic neighborhoods has only risen. To preservation professionals, the trend is no surprise. “Architecture is a cultural expression,” says Helaine Kaplan Prentice, author and former preservation planner for the City of Oakland. “But more than that, because architecture is designed for use it’s responsible for shaping experience within a culture. Preserving buildings is not simply about the appearance of a city. It’s about protecting the places that give daily life more meaning.” Which makes humans uses of buildings direct connections from the past to the future.

They’re connections that people across the board want. When Mason talks about preservation to non-professionals, he likes to convey his message by personalizing the issue. “I ask whether you yourself have something you value because someone in your family, an ancestor or close relative, gave it to you. And pretty much everyone does.” In that sense, Mason says, society is no different. Just like a piece of furniture or a ring that is saved by one generation for the next, so too are some buildings, artifacts, and customs selected to maintain our collective ties to our cultural past.

All of which makes preservation a type of social function. “In the modern period,” Mason says, “it’s essential.” He references the destruction of hundreds of Philadelphia’s historic buildings during the 1960s construction of the I-95 highway, and the area’s ensuing economic slump. “You can see the implications of ignoring these issues.”

The difficulty arises in deciding which things to maintain. As projects like the High Line prove, all old structures, given the right amount of effort, funding and thought, have inherent potential for greater symbolic meaning and economic value. Due to resource scarcity, however, everything can’t be saved. “It’s in those policy decisions about preservation,” Mason laments, “that this image of the ‘strong hand’ gets created, that perpetuates the question of ‘who are we to say which history is more important than another? But because these structures have public value, the decisions have to be made.”

It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. Preservationists, we thank you.

Management of Change

At Penn, we speak often about how we can preserve through the careful management of change instead of fixing sites in place. In response to opposition to a proposal that would rezone the East Side of Manhattan to allow  more skyscraper development, Kenneth Jackson wrote in the NYTimes, “Is New York still the wonder city, the place that celebrates the future, the city that once defined modernism? Or should it follow the paths of Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston and Savannah in emphasizing its human scale, its gracious streets and its fine, historic houses? The answer for a metropolis competing on a global scale must be no, because a vital city is a growing city, and a growing city is a changing city.” Is there no compromise? Preservation does not equal a resistance to progress — it can be a tool for economic development without impairing the character of place, while acknowledging the need of a city to thrive in the future. New York needs to carefully consider what to preserve and what to replace, without dismissing preservation or the needs of a growing population.