Friday, March 21, 2014

Historic Preservation in a 21st Century City

As someone who cherishes the feel and walkability of a historic downtown, it’s reasonable to expect that I also embrace historic preservation.  To a large extent, that expectation is correct.  But there are times when I find that historic preservation goes awry.

The Marina Vista and Alder Grove public housing projects are near the west end of Broadway in Sacramento.   Totaling 750 units, they retain a pleasant, almost pastoral exterior appearance.  But with over seventy years of use, the buildings are worn and the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency (SHRA) is facing the task of developing a plan for their future.

In addition to building age, the location of the housing is unfortunate on at least two levels.  For one, shopping options aren’t convenient, with most residents facing a walk of a half-mile or more.  A population that, more than many, could benefit from walkable urbanism is in a car-dependent location.

Second, and even more distressing to me, the elementary school that serves the housing has a boundary that is exactly the same as the housing.  All of the school children from the public housing are sitting in classrooms surrounded only by other children from public housing.

I’m sure there any many good people living in Marina Vista and Alder Grove who will rebuild their lives to move onward to market housing elsewhere, raising happy and successful children in the process.  And I’m equally sure that there are children in those classrooms who will progress to effective and productive lives despite a challenged start.  But children learn from examples.  If all they experience on a daily basis is other lives in public housing, they have a harder time learning of other lifestyle possibilities.  And their chances for higher life trajectories, if not extinguished, are at least reduced.

To me, the elementary school that serves Marina Vista and Alder Grove is the 21st century version of segregation.  And it needs to be remedied now.

Faced with the situation at Marina Vista and Alder Grove, the SHRA has decided that demolition and complete redevelopment of the site was the best solution.   Their vision includes more residential units, retaining the same number of public housing units plus adding market rate housing into the mix.  They also envision retail elements in the new plan, moving the site closer to walkable urbanism.

I haven’t seen conceptual site plans, but agree with the direction.  I also wish luck to the SHRA.  It’s always been difficult to assemble funding for a project like this and the difficulty is increasing.  SHRA will face a number of challenges.

 But one of the challenges was completely unexpected, at least to me.  A citizens group threatened to file suit, claiming that the housing is historic and should be preserved.  I find that offensive.

I’m neither equipped nor motivated to argue the fine points of historic preservation law.  But, as much as I love older buildings and the downtowns that they often anchor, I’m convinced that there are times when they must be removed.  There are times when historical preservation just doesn’t make sense.

And this is one of those times.

If we allow the children of Marina Vista and Alder Grove to sit in their demographically-segregated classrooms for even one day longer than necessary because adults are arguing about whether 1940s housing is “historic”, then we have failed the children and ourselves.

A Week of Being Grumpy

Looking over my posts of this past week, I find an unexpected pattern.  Early in the week, I questioned the civic worth of some suburban parks.  Mid-week, I challenged a road design award that seemingly gave more value to vegetated swales than walkability.  And above, I impugned a historic preservation stance that apparently ignored a greater good.

It was as if I was aiming for promotion from urbanist to Curmudgeon Laureate.

But there’s a unifying theme between the posts.  And that theme is more hopeful than grumpy.  I’ll explain in my next post.

Schedule Note

This rumination on historic preservation was triggered by an upcoming meeting of the Petaluma Planning Commission.  On Tuesday, March 25, the commission will consider demolition permits for a pair of sites that may qualify as historic.  (The initial agenda for the meeting listed a third possible demolition permit, one that was likely to be more controversial than the first two, but that project disappeared from later versions of the agenda.)

The hearings on Tuesday should offer insights into current historic preservation standards.  I’ll attend and encourage others with an interest in the subject to join me in City Hall at 7pm.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

1 comment:

  1. I live in alder grove , demolition would save us all from here, buildings are old and cold winters. Would they consider just using an historical area like one building facing the front if you have to or a plaque