Sunday, June 12, 2011

Why is historic preservation under attack? Little power for urban planners and "outsize power of private developers" in urban development ecosystem

Sarah Williams Goldhagen's essay on the historic preservation movement in yesterday's New York Times, Death by Nostalgia, explains why historic preservation is under attack: the world of urban planning is tilted toward developers.

She writes:
Now, nearly a half-century later, New York is home to the most high-profile attack on the movement yet: in a recent exhibition at the New Museum, the architect Rem Koolhaas accused preservationists of aimlessly cherry-picking the past; of destroying people’s complex sense of urban evolution; and, most damningly, of bedding down with private developers to create gentrified urban theme parks.

Some of Mr. Koolhaas’s criticisms are on target — but his analysis is wildly off-base. It’s not preservation that’s at fault, but rather the weakness, and often absence, of other, complementary tools to manage urban development, like urban planning offices and professional, institutionalized design review boards, which advise planners on decisions about preservation and development.

It’s that lack, and the outsize power of private developers, that has turned preservation into the unwieldy behemoth that it is today.
Her recommendation:
Instead of bashing preservation, we should restrict it to its proper domain. Design review boards, staffed by professionals trained in aesthetics and urban issues and able to influence planning and preservation decisions, should become an integral part of the urban development process. At the same time, city planning offices must be returned to their former, powerful role in urban policy.
Don't hold your breath waiting for the Bloomberg administration to endorse this.

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