Density vs. Preservation: the never ending battle
I began my career as a preservation planning intern in Lincoln, Nebraska. While there, I mostly worked on National Register nominations and local landmark designations. Lincoln was receptive to preservation and not in the business of demolition. There was no need to pack density into the downtown core at the expense of historic buildings because there was plenty of vacant land on the edge of town to build on.
Fast forward almost five years later and I now live in the Twin Cities metropolitan area and volunteer for Preserve Minneapolis, a local non-profit organization with the goal of "promoting and celebrating the city's historic architectural and cultural resources through advocacy, education, and public engagement." When I first started, we were focused primarily on education and public engagement. We connected to the community mainly through summer walking tours which have always been very popular. Recently, as the Chair of the Advocacy Committee, I have seen a rise in projects threatening historic resources and as a result have written many letters of opposition.
Here lies the age old dilemma, density or preservation. Many times it feels like this is the only option, one or the other, pitting the developer and city against the neighborhood and preservation groups. I propose another option, density and preservation. In this scenario everyone wins. It is not enough to put up a plaque showing what was there before the site was redeveloped or write a nice report documenting the building before it is torn down. No one actually reads them. We need to go further and find a way to preserve historic buildings while adding density to our land locked cities.
It is understandable that Minneapolis would want to find areas in the largely built out (and land locked) city to grow its tax base. I'm willing to bet that is a topic that will be coming out of their comprehensive plan update due at the end of 2018. They have already begun to find ways to approach this dilemma of "and" or "or". Two projects in particular demonstrate this: Nye's Polonaise Room and the Brenda Ueland House.
The first is an iconic restaurant/bar that operated for 66 years at 112 East Hennepin Avenue. Everyone was sad to see the business go and had fond memories to share. The owners originally proposed a 29-story apartment tower that would demolish the historic buildings. After push back from the neighborhood and adjacent historic church, they were able to come up with a design that met everyone's needs. After the redesign they came up with a 6-story apartment with a connection to the original Nye's building. You can read more in a Star Tribune article here.
The second example is currently under discussion, to be voted on by the Zoning and Planning Committee of the City Council tomorrow. The developer applied for a demolition permit to remove the 117 year old house to make way for more dense development. The request was denied by the Heritage Preservation Commission, but the developer appealed the decision to the Zoning and Planning Committee.
The Brenda Ueland house, located at 2620 W 44th Street, at first may seem like another old house in an old neighborhood. Upon further research, the house is potentially eligible for its associations with local author Brenda Ueland. Many are calling on the committee to hold off on their vote until a designation study is done to determine the significance of this structure.
Trying to design the house into a new apartment complex on a small lot like the Nye's site would not work here. Another option to keep the house and provide density lies in Minneapolis' flexible zoning code. The code allows for the construction of accessory dwelling units within certain areas in the city. By adding potentially two accessory dwelling units at the back of the site, they can preserve the historic home and add density to the neighborhood.
Another way to look at this issue beyond whether to save the house for its historic purposes, is to preserve our aging housing stock. What makes cities vibrant is old infrastructure that tells a unique story. Neighborhoods were developed in patterns and moving from one to the next you get a sense of the type of builders and architects that developed the area, and the residents that lived there.
What all this tells us is that the war between developers and preservationists does not need to continue. Great design can result from looking at the site as it currently exists, rather than envisioning the clean slate it could be. If the Nye's site had built the 29-story apartment complex, it would have stuck out among all the 6-10 story buildings surrounding it. The inclusion of the historic building brought the height back to a more reasonable scale for the area. More density can still be achieved with the preservation of existing structures and ultimately will create a design more sympathetic to its surroundings.