Carol Clark’s Approaches to Conserving Neighborhood Character Presented at the 2011 Fitch Forum
Presented on February 11th 2011 at Columbia University by Carol Clark, CHPC Practitioner Fellow
In New York City, a wide variety of older residential neighborhoods are suffering stunning losses of distinctive character. Whether through demolition and replacement of perfectly decent housing stock with McMansions, or from unsympathetic alterations that compromise completely the original appearance of a building with bad siding, unfortunate windows or front yards paved over with parking as we see in this example in Astoria, Queens. These changes detract from the quality of these invaluable neighborhoods. And while this problem is quite evident throughout New York City, it is, in fact, very widespread.
The Times decried the so-called “teardown” epidemic, asserting that it is a rapidly growing hazard. There is also an important economic factor to consider: people prefer to reside in places that possess a cohesiveness and feel comfortable to them. Add too many jarring juxtapositions and we risk creating utterly unappealing environments that could be viewed as not viable in the long run. This could yield negative economic impacts.
Today, New York is a thriving city with a growing population located in a wide array of housing. The most common residential building type in New York City is the single family house. The majority of New Yorkers live in low density suburban-style settings. Understanding the value of how they contribute to the city’s vibrancy and bringing preservation tools to these neighborhoods is critical.
Consider the difference between typical historic districts and conservation districts. Julia Miller writes, “Neighborhood conservation districts …have…conservation as their primary goal. Although they tend not to merit designation as a historic district, they warrant special land use attention due to their distinctive character and importance as viable, contributing areas to the community at large.”
There are neighborhood conservation district ordinances in about 100 cities around the country. They can be tailored to a variety of local conditions not traditionally considered suitable for historic district designation. They seek to conserve the historic development patterns of the neighborhood, including its green spaces and predominantly low density lot coverage.
In New York City, concern about community appearance is not a new topic. A 1957 study was conducted jointly by leading professional organizations. The report stated that “beautiful communities can be created and maintained only through a deliberate search for beauty on the part of community leadership, backed by a lively appreciation of the visual world by the public.” The chapter on “Evolving Legal Concepts” written by the venerable Albert S. Bard, discusses the public’s interest in the appearance of communities and concludes that “appearance is value.” The next chapter, “Excerpts and Abstracts from Existing Legislation and Court Decisions,” provides a road map to extending the “administration of aesthetic regulation” to the broadest possible context. The report asserts that “a new, more positive approach to planning for community appearance is needed.” The authors note that “the publication of the report is not intended to signify…that the subject has been exhausted.” Instead, after four years of meetings, these professionals concluded that “we are now making available materials and our thinking on the subject so that a larger number of persons may join the effort.”
While landmarks laws in the ensuing decades have been effective in protecting historic buildings in cities throughout the country, it is apparent today that planning initiatives that involve aesthetics, community appearance and neighborhood conservation have not advanced adequately, at least not in the five boroughs of New York City. Clearly, to address this subject anew a little over half a century later is timely.
When considering aesthetic regulation of the built environment in New York City, we think first of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Their impact is significant as approximately 27,000 properties are under its jurisdiction. There are about 900,000 tax lots in the five boroughs. The landmark parcels in total represent only about 3% of the properties citywide. There are many neighborhoods with distinctive character that are quite unlikely to be found worthy of designation.
There are many places in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens where changing populations are altering the nature of how people use and remake existing housing stock. The New York Times reports on the construction of “McMansions” in Forest Hills by new residents whose houses, with paved over front lawns and high fences, are viewed by some as colliding in an appalling way with the neighborhood character.
The newcomers who have erected these houses see them as welcome symbols of prosperity and success. Many of the older neighborhoods in Queens in particular were built with a cohesive community design which was enforced originally by covenants or easements. In recent years, these privately regulated mechanisms have often either lapsed or have been overlooked.
Douglaston is a case in point. Planned by Richert-Finlay Realty Company, it is characterized by fine houses which dominate its sometimes narrow, winding streets. Today we find new neighbors which look like this. Note that their construction is ongoing.
In Kew Gardens, the original character, sedate and charming is being transformed by houses nearby.
In Bayside, there’s another neighborhood with an attractive suburban character with an abundance of detached houses. What is happening with their replacements is this.
There is a pressing need to think in a comprehensive way about neighborhood preservation in these areas. Maya Morris describes conservation districts as a regulatory overlay “used to… protect an area from inappropriate development.” A survey of ordinances from around the country show that, in practice, the conservation district is a malleable legal tool that is shaped differently in each city and neighborhood. Some NCDs apply rigorous design reviews while others simply offer guidance for new construction and act as a vehicle for neighborhood level urban planning.
Commentators tend to split conservation districts into two types: the architectural or historic preservation model and the neighborhood planning model. Preservation model NCDs are more focused on preventing teardowns than on preserving architectural details. In contrast with the preservation model, planning-style NCDs do not include design review, but rely solely on standard zoning regulations like lot size, setbacks, building orientation, massing and scale to maintain a neighborhood’s built form.
Let’s look at a few examples. In 1983, Cambridge, Massachusetts adopted legislation establishing neighborhood conservation districts. (figure 23) With it, groups of vernacular buildings and their settings with particular design qualities are protected and maintained. One of the goals stated explicitly in this ordinance is to enhance the pedestrian’s visual enjoyment of the neighborhood’s buildings, landscapes and structures. The ordinance supplements the traditional landmarks law.
To establish a conservation district in Dallas, first a Feasibility Study is conducted, and the city’s Director of Planning determines eligibility. To be eligible, the district must contain at least one block face, be stable or stabilizing, contain significant architectural or cultural attributes and have a distinctive atmosphere or character. As a Dallas planning official notes: “Dallas uses conservation districts to help neighborhoods determine what is important, and writes guidelines based on what the neighborhood considers to be character defining characteristics.”
An interesting example is the M Street conservation district which requires that all new homes be built in the Tudor Revival style of architecture characteristic of the original buildings. The NCD requires the use of standard sized bricks, as opposed to the king sized type often used in the building of newer homes. It forbids metal roofs or window air conditioning units, and requires that porches be constructed with transparent glass. Even though requiring replacement homes to be neo-Tudor revival seems anti-preservationist in the strictest sense, this approach is entirely consistent with what residents agreed they wanted and satisfies the local government officials.
In Nashville, Neighborhood Conservation Zoning Districts (NCZDs) are implemented using zoning overlays. Each district has its own design guidelines which have been developed by the local government in close consultation with neighborhood residents. The districts promote new development that is compatible with the neighborhood’s existing character. As an example, look at how this new single family fits comfortably into its surroundings.
Another example is from the Hillsboro-West End district. This new home is designed to comply with the design guidelines. The result is a building that relates successfully to the existing residential character.
In Roanoke, Virginia, Neighborhood Design Districts provide design guidelines for a variety of residential structures. Here, a new single family house demonstrates the effectiveness of the guidelines.
In Indianapolis, the Neighborhood Conservation District ordinance promotes compatible designs for additions and new construction. This new house in the Cottage Home district is clearly contemporary, but also in keeping with the existing scale and character of the area.
In addition to a Neighborhood Conservation District Ordinance, Austin, Texas relies on Residential Design and Compatibility Standards, also known as Austin’s McMansion Ordinance. It outlines acceptable setback planes, building lines and heights. The standards also mandate the articulation of side walls to encourage a smaller scale and segmented appearance of new construction making it more in keeping with Austin’s existing residential neighborhoods with its surroundings.
In Boston, Architectural Conservation Districts are used to recognize areas of local significance. They were included in the original enabling legislation of the Boston Landmarks Commission which also established traditional historic districts for areas of regional, state or national significance. They have dedicated commissions and design guidelines that most observers believe are more flexible than those that apply to the traditional historic districts. Here, the rhythm of the rowhouse facades is echoed in the design of this new building erected by Boston University. The Architectural Conservation Districts work well and supplement the traditional historic districts in protecting the city’s neighborhood character.
These examples are the tip of the iceberg. There are numerous approaches to influencing planning and safeguarding community appearance in use around the country that are relevant to New York City. The future integrity of our neighborhoods requires us to learn from and adapt these approaches. The ongoing erosion of neighborhood character is a planning problem, not a landmarks preservation issue. Many practitioners agree that in New York City, we have been treating zoning as planning. Zoning is NOT planning.
One case in point: to respond to the proliferation of McMansions in Queens, City Planning created and mapped a new zoning district, R-2-A, which now applies to some lots in Bayside. This limits the heights of the houses and governs a building’s placement on the lot, yielding houses like the two on the left seen here. The line up provision of the R2A zoning resulted in a better outcome than what might have happened without it.
But shouldn’t we be thinking bigger than this? We need to look much more comprehensively and grasp the multitude of planning and preservation challenges citywide. Then we need to set about to determine with creativity and fresh approaches how we might best respond to them. Our goal should be compiling a plan for both conservation and development in each of the five boroughs. We have learned what other cities do, and we have seen the range of tools that protect character in worthy residential and mixed use neighborhoods.
This plan has to balance the competing realities of a growing and changing population with conserving built fabric while also enabling, even reinforcing, the very dynamism that is New York City’s core. Other cities, from Miami to Boston, from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon, are applying a variety of approaches to assess community character, inventory resources, articulate goals and set priorities. Shouldn’t New York City aspire to be a leader, bringing the best practices from elsewhere into focus and adapting them to our needs?
The bottom line is that New York needs to grow and thrive with enlightened leadership, a design community that embraces change and respects the past, along with an informed, engaged civic constituency that shows it cares about planning and community appearance. The stakes are high–right now the overall quality of the city’s built environment is endangered. Together, we need to rethink how we will proceed and to reinvent our approach. What better time to tackle this challenge than now, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the New York City’s landmarks law in 2015?