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.

a tour of Boulder's Historic Districts – Floral Park

As a recently appointed member of the City of Boulder’s Landmark Preservation Advisory Board, I have taken on the task of walking each of the City’s officially designated Historic Districts.  I have lived and worked in Boulder for ten years, but even a curious architect is likely to miss the significance of surrounding buildings,  especially the smaller districts.  This is very true of the Floral Park Historic District located just east of Chautauqua, between Mariposa and Bluebell, 15th and 16th streets.

In 1940 eight UC Boulder professors pooled their resources and purchased a complete undeveloped block in the recently platted lots south of Chautauqua.  Their plan was to build their houses around a shared common space, providing a larger outdoor area for kids and family and protecting views to the mountains.  In the West, where individualism reigns supreme, this act of enlightened semi-communal planning was dubbed “Little Russia”.

The eight houses have fairly typical setbacks, but parallel to their joint rear property lines, a 45 foot area on each side of the property line was set aside for the use and enjoyment of the block as a whole.  This green strip of communal use land is bounded by a heavily wooded west end, “The Wild”, and a string of attached garages on the east end.  This type of sophisticated planning was rare, at least in the West,and  anticipated the more enlightened “new urbanist” developments by some 50 years.  Larger examples of house-bounded communal space can be found elsewhere, but none that I know of that were envisioned and generated by a small group of private homeowners on a modest scale.  It is very sad that even today, some 70 years later, creating this kind of small, non-developer driven, humanist planning is almost unheard of and would require passing through the significantly encumbered PUD site planning processes.

The houses, designed by James Hunter in the office of Glen Huntington are not that remarkable and the identity of the block as significantly different from its neighbors is subtle.  Only by moving around the block does one begin to recognize the white-painted masonry and colored shutters as of a type.  The remarkable land use plan, the common open space, is undetectable from the street.

By pooling their money, the eight families of then young faculty members, hired the same architect, the same builder and utilized the same building materials, generating significant cost savings to each.  The combination of faculty – history, interior design, economics, speech, engineering, asian studies, english and law – is particularly interesting and that they choose the lots by “drawing lots” was remarkable.

In 1977, under the protest of one of the homeowners, the City of Boulder granted Historic District designation to Floral Park.  Of note is that the City, while commending the architecture, clearly recognized and praised the communal land development, a kind of early Planned Unit Development, as worthy of protection.  This protection extends the “gentlepersons” agreement as to the maintenance, protection and use of the common land and directs its future through the landmark status.

(Thanks to the excellent information at the Carnegie Branch of the Boulder Public Library, especially the historical documents gathered and summarized by Susan Baldwin)

a tour of Boulder’s Historic Districts – Floral Park

As a recently appointed member of the City of Boulder’s Landmark Preservation Advisory Board, I have taken on the task of walking each of the City’s officially designated Historic Districts.  I have lived and worked in Boulder for ten years, but even a curious architect is likely to miss the significance of surrounding buildings,  especially the smaller districts.  This is very true of the Floral Park Historic District located just east of Chautauqua, between Mariposa and Bluebell, 15th and 16th streets.

In 1940 eight UC Boulder professors pooled their resources and purchased a complete undeveloped block in the recently platted lots south of Chautauqua.  Their plan was to build their houses around a shared common space, providing a larger outdoor area for kids and family and protecting views to the mountains.  In the West, where individualism reigns supreme, this act of enlightened semi-communal planning was dubbed “Little Russia”.

The eight houses have fairly typical setbacks, but parallel to their joint rear property lines, a 45 foot area on each side of the property line was set aside for the use and enjoyment of the block as a whole.  This green strip of communal use land is bounded by a heavily wooded west end, “The Wild”, and a string of attached garages on the east end.  This type of sophisticated planning was rare, at least in the West,and  anticipated the more enlightened “new urbanist” developments by some 50 years.  Larger examples of house-bounded communal space can be found elsewhere, but none that I know of that were envisioned and generated by a small group of private homeowners on a modest scale.  It is very sad that even today, some 70 years later, creating this kind of small, non-developer driven, humanist planning is almost unheard of and would require passing through the significantly encumbered PUD site planning processes.

The houses, designed by James Hunter in the office of Glen Huntington are not that remarkable and the identity of the block as significantly different from its neighbors is subtle.  Only by moving around the block does one begin to recognize the white-painted masonry and colored shutters as of a type.  The remarkable land use plan, the common open space, is undetectable from the street.

By pooling their money, the eight families of then young faculty members, hired the same architect, the same builder and utilized the same building materials, generating significant cost savings to each.  The combination of faculty – history, interior design, economics, speech, engineering, asian studies, english and law – is particularly interesting and that they choose the lots by “drawing lots” was remarkable.

In 1977, under the protest of one of the homeowners, the City of Boulder granted Historic District designation to Floral Park.  Of note is that the City, while commending the architecture, clearly recognized and praised the communal land development, a kind of early Planned Unit Development, as worthy of protection.  This protection extends the “gentlepersons” agreement as to the maintenance, protection and use of the common land and directs its future through the landmark status.

(Thanks to the excellent information at the Carnegie Branch of the Boulder Public Library, especially the historical documents gathered and summarized by Susan Baldwin)

Pops and Scrapes, Boulder’s Compatible Development regulations, Part IV

Yet another in a series of quick reviews of the City of Boulder’s new Compatible Development regulations due to go in effect January 4th –  in this version we take a look at the intersection of these new rules laying over the demolition/historic preservation rules.

The City requires a separate historical preservation review for buildings that are over 50 years old and undergoing significant demolition. To avoid this regulation and possible landmark designation (which greater restricts the ability to due many types of renovations and additions), the city requires that the project retain at least 50% of the existing roof and all of the walls and adjacent roof for walls that face public streets. So, what does this mean for a simple Martin Acres ranch, a typical American suburb of the 1950s?

Most houses in Martin Acres were built in the late 1950s and are now liable for review under this demolition rule. To avoid this rule and comply with the solar ordinance and the new Compatible Development regulations, I give you this:

This pig of an addition is probably the easiest, simplest structure you can build and avoid the demolition rules while still abiding by the solar ordinance and Compatible Development Regulations. The righthand side of the addition is slipped off the walls of the existing house to meet the bulk plane rules, the pitch of the roof is the maximum that be built within the Solar Ordinance. (A flat roof, by the way, would not allow sufficient head room on the second story.)

The original intent of the Compatible Development regulations was to establish a set of parameters to weed out large, ungainly additions. It is clear from the example above that you can not regulate something as slippery as “compatibility”.

After hearing countless hours of arguments for these new regulations the overwhelming impression was that many people in Boulder simply felt like a lot of the recent new houses and additions were just plain ugly. Compatible Development rules were to eliminate these monstrosities, but such ogres come is all shapes and sizes.  I would not wish for a hopelessly subjective, project-specific architectural review like one encounters in suburban Home Owners Associations. However, I also think that these regulations will not do what they were crafted to do – it seems that “ugly”  is easy.

And, beyond the strictures of the Compatible Development regulations, should we have in law a provision that all buildings older than 50 years be reviewed for their historical/architectural significance? Clearly this will eventually include every building in the city, unless someone makes a point of tearing down every building when it reaches 49 years old (An architectural Logan’s Run if you will.) I am a strong advocate for retaining older buildings, both from an architectural and sustainable perspective. However, when the most common ranchburger builder-suburb falls within those reviews, it is only time that will keep us for fighting to save the McMansions of the 1990s.

we couldn't save Penn Station, but we can the Boulder ranch

Pops and Scrapes, Boulder's Compatible Development regulations, Part IV

Yet another in a series of quick reviews of the City of Boulder’s new Compatible Development regulations due to go in effect January 4th –  in this version we take a look at the intersection of these new rules laying over the demolition/historic preservation rules.

The City requires a separate historical preservation review for buildings that are over 50 years old and undergoing significant demolition. To avoid this regulation and possible landmark designation (which greater restricts the ability to due many types of renovations and additions), the city requires that the project retain at least 50% of the existing roof and all of the walls and adjacent roof for walls that face public streets. So, what does this mean for a simple Martin Acres ranch, a typical American suburb of the 1950s?

Most houses in Martin Acres were built in the late 1950s and are now liable for review under this demolition rule. To avoid this rule and comply with the solar ordinance and the new Compatible Development regulations, I give you this:

This pig of an addition is probably the easiest, simplest structure you can build and avoid the demolition rules while still abiding by the solar ordinance and Compatible Development Regulations. The righthand side of the addition is slipped off the walls of the existing house to meet the bulk plane rules, the pitch of the roof is the maximum that be built within the Solar Ordinance. (A flat roof, by the way, would not allow sufficient head room on the second story.)

The original intent of the Compatible Development regulations was to establish a set of parameters to weed out large, ungainly additions. It is clear from the example above that you can not regulate something as slippery as “compatibility”.

After hearing countless hours of arguments for these new regulations the overwhelming impression was that many people in Boulder simply felt like a lot of the recent new houses and additions were just plain ugly. Compatible Development rules were to eliminate these monstrosities, but such ogres come is all shapes and sizes.  I would not wish for a hopelessly subjective, project-specific architectural review like one encounters in suburban Home Owners Associations. However, I also think that these regulations will not do what they were crafted to do – it seems that “ugly”  is easy.

And, beyond the strictures of the Compatible Development regulations, should we have in law a provision that all buildings older than 50 years be reviewed for their historical/architectural significance? Clearly this will eventually include every building in the city, unless someone makes a point of tearing down every building when it reaches 49 years old (An architectural Logan’s Run if you will.) I am a strong advocate for retaining older buildings, both from an architectural and sustainable perspective. However, when the most common ranchburger builder-suburb falls within those reviews, it is only time that will keep us for fighting to save the McMansions of the 1990s.

we couldn't save Penn Station, but we can the Boulder ranch