Preservation paradigm – less stick, more carrot

The City of Boulder recently unveiled yet another in a series of historic building surveys.  This one, on Post World War II residential suburban developments, looked at typical builder suburbs built in Boulder between 1946 and 1967.  This survey, like many others in the past, was executed by volunteers and city staff, but largely by a consultant,  TEC, Inc., through a Colorado Historical grant.

historic advertisements, as documented in the survey

This massive tome is no small thing. Certainly it is not small in either the size of the survey area – hundreds of houses in ten different suburbs – nor in the compiled results –  hundreds of pages of inventory surveys, historical context reporting and addendum.  And most importantly maybe, it is no small thing in terms of its public reception.  Primarily because of a consultant’s recommendation for the creation of a new historic district, this survey has been met with suspicion at best, if not outright hostility.  As a member of the Landmark’s Board who’s job it is to “approve” the survey, I went to a small public meeting and heard a large, clear “No!“.  The local residents wanted to make it abundantly clear that they did not in any way want their neighborhoods, full of small builder homes, to join the large Victorian houses of Mapleton Hill and the other historic districts in Boulder.

The historic preservation staff and myself tried to make it very clear that no one had any intention of creating historic districts in Martin Acres or Table Mesa or any of the other suburbs surveyed.  On the heels of last year’s Compatible Development regulations, the homeowner’s characterized this survey and its recommendations as yet another unwarranted and unwanted imposition of the City of Boulder’s heavy hand on their homes.  What has been discussed is the creation of “character areas” in lieu of historic districts and the lack of a definition of this new category flamed suspicion, and maybe rightly so.

Table Mesa shutters

The staff and Landmarks Board do not know what a “character area” is.  Or how it would work.  Or where it would be applied.  The public meeting was a way to solicit some interest in helping to define this nebulous definition, to gauge some passion for a program that might represent a new paradigm in how preservation can work in Boulder.

A character area may be a way of saying, “how can we help you to maintain what you like about your neighborhood”, rather than a phalanx of restrictive regulations.  In these cases, the alternative to helping folks maintain their neighborhood is not going to be its protection, but its demolition.  If making additions, renovations and changes to your house is made (or has already been made)  increasingly difficult, then homeowners will turn to dem0lition as their only viable path.  In historic districts, projects are reviewed on an individual, house-by-house process, applying general principles to specific cases.  Because of this individual review, if an existing zoning regulation like solar shadow restrictions or bulk planes, creates a condition that is detrimental to the development of the property, within a set of defined guidelines, then the powers that be have the option to waive that regulation.  A character area may be a mechanism for expanding what you can do, not defining what you can’t.

And that possibility, the ability of city staff and the board to create more options for your property, not less, is radical indeed and needs some time to sink in.  Helping to frame the future’s history is certainly more interesting than regulating history’s future.