Other cities series: historic fabric

I read with dismay that Tino Marcoccia, owner of the empty spot that used to be the Sport Center on James and Midler, has a slot in Monday’s Planning Commission meeting. He wants to demolish two houses in order to expand parking for a restaurant in the urban enclave called Little Italy.

Those of you who have been reading this blog can already see the problems with the proposal. They center on the bolded words in the first paragraph. What do you think they are?

Philadelphia, so very historic, nevertheless has the same difficulties we have with inappropriate development. But they have a new Director of Sustainability, Dr. Mark Allen Hughes.  He has some interesting things to say, not about saving historic landmarks, but rather about preserving the historic fabric of the city. I quote the following from the jargon etc blog (bolding mine):

…Part of the instrumental value that I’ve been emphasizing in the last year has actually not been about iconic properties, but instead been about the historic fabric as a whole. We don’t have walkable streets in Philadelphia because five or ten years ago some snappy urban planner realized, “Wow, amenity value walkable streets are really hip, isn’t that great, let’s have them!” No- we have walkable streets, because our streets were built at a time when everybody walked. And so it’s an inherited asset that actually for one hundred years was declining in value, and was a pain in the neck. Our walkable streets not very long ago were nothing but the bane of the existence of people who just wanted to drive as fast as they could. So our evaluation of these things is always changing.

The surest foundation for making a preservation argument is that in addition to exemplary artistic or historic merit- let’s face it, there are just a few places like Independence Hall, and Mother Bethel Church – there is ninety percent of the urban fabric, especially in an old city like this, that is left vulnerable. My row house, for example, 1867, is not of particular artistic or historic merit. But, especially in an era of rising energy prices and an era of radical transportation change where density and access suddenly have a lot more value than they did, my 1867 row house suddenly has a huge amount of instrumental value because it’s part of a fabric of places that are not necessarily made useful only through private automobiles but through all of those other pieces of the puzzle.

That’s a preservation argument, but it has real legs, because it says that all of these things accumulate, and then you can add the one percent, the five percent, the ten percent of stuff that is about the power of specific buildings or places to capture and hold our imagination. When you combine that with all that fabric, then you’re looking at inherent value, instrumental value, and you have something that is unassailable. Now the question becomes how does a new development really improve and add value to that existing fabric. That’s the way that I think you want to make a preservation argument.

Are we there yet in Philadelphia? No. Do we still probably have an instinct that new is always better and development is always good and there’s nothing better than cranes on the skyline? Sure. There’s still some of that, but I think that the trajectory is in the right direction, because I think that people start to realize now – especially as we begin to reclaim public space- that “Wow, this is really great- who needs to go to San Francisco, or Boston, or even Vancouver – this is really something!” They are slowly getting that, and that’s a preservation argument.

We can learn from other cities, but who needs to go live in them? We have it all right here (see some of it under “reasons to be cheerful“) for as long as we know how to keep it. Let’s not lose another one of these:

Eastwood Sport Center prior to facade change and later demolition

or these:

Wittigs aka "the old Steak & Sundae"

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