West Ward Preservation Needs Proper Planning

Columnist Jon Geeting says West Ward needs to take a narrow focus for historic preservation.

The city of Easton and the West Ward Neighborhood Partnership recently applied for a grant to study a potential historic preservation district for the West Ward.

As Ed Sieger reported, the West Ward has 18 different architectural styles, but many are covered up by aluminum siding. The neighborhood could be much more appealing to if more of these original facades were restored.

The case for incentivizing more historic facade improvements is persuasive, and many cities have had great success with historical preservation as a development tool.

Done well, preservation can , raise property values, attract more high-income residents, and boost new construction.

But a poorly designed conservation district can have the opposite effect: limiting opportunities for growth and development, pricing out middle class residents, and shackling a city to its past, preventing it from responding to changing tastes in the market.

I don't think I have to tell our conservative friends about the tendency of regulatory bureaucracies to expand their reach over time, and historic preservation districts are no different.

What starts as a list of a few special buildings could eventually end up as a very long and undistinguished list of not-so-special buildings that just happen to be old.

In the worst case, a historic preservation district can become a powerful tool for NIMBYs to block new construction and population growth. As an extreme example, NIMBYs in other cities have managed to get ugly eyesores on the preservation registry in order to prevent land parcels from being developed into housing.

It may sound a little crazy to be concerned about this now, given the current state of the West Ward neighborhood, but that's just it - unless clear limits are established at the outset, preservation will run on autopilot, piling up unseen costs.

The South Bethlehem Historic Conservation District is a good example of what not to do.

Bethlehem's biggest mistake was to include almost the entire Central Business District zone of the Southside in the historic district.

A city's central business district is where they should be adding the most residential and office square footage, but Bethlehem's historic district is a hammerlock on new construction there.

Almost anything you could want to do to a property has to be approved by an unelected preservation board, the South Bethlehem Historic Conservation Commission.

Facade changes and new construction alike must be approved, and modern architecture is not allowed, even though the area is being billed to young people as a "funky arts district."

Worst of all, the historic district makes it unduly difficult to demolish or replace any buildings in the CBD, even though many are not especially attractive, historically important, or a good use of valuable downtown land. 

There are some good reasons to believe that 2012 will see a big increase in multi-family construction starts, and Southside Bethlehem is going to miss the boat because their historic district overregulates new construction and imposes too many costs on developers.

Easton can avoid these problems by adopting a much narrower ordinance.

Instead of trying to preserve whole neighborhoods, it would be better to create a historic preservation budget.

With a historic preservation budget, neighbors would agree on a reasonable number of properties that could be on the preservation registry at any given time. Once the limit was reached, adding a new property to the list would require the removal of another property's protected status.

The city could create a formal procedure for raising the limit, like a majority vote by city council, so the limit couldn't be raised haphazardly in response to unpopular demolitions.

This would make the trade-offs between preservation and growth visible, unlike the invisible costs that Bethlehem incurs from its overly-broad ordinance.

One good idea in this vein, from Easton's planning director Becky Bradley, is to limit the district to a few key blocks, or properties by the same designer or builder.

The eventual proposal will, of course, be a compromise between those who favor more preservation and those who favor stronger property rights, but it is important for lawmakers to remember that preservation is a cost, even if they consider it a cost worth paying.

Dennis R. Lieb January 12, 2012 at 04:29 AM
I left the following comments regarding what I think about the grant's possibilities at Jon's blog site as well: (On the prospects of what we will do...) Part One It's honestly too early tell. I know that whatever it is it will be driven by citizen needs and desires. One idea that has been pushed in the past was a huge historic district for the whole West Ward. I'd be very skeptical if that was ever possible, based on PHMC review standards, but I am confident that that isn't the goal now anyway. Each sub-neighborhood within the West Ward has unique characteristics that should be evaluated for their value and for the neighborhood's desire to preserve them (that is, defining for ourselves what constitutes preservation in a non-dogmatic, locally acceptable sense). We hope to undertake a process of stabilizing the deterioration of failing parts, secure the future of the stable ones and eliminate completely the stupid aberrations that are wrecking Easton's streets one building at a time. End Part One
Dennis R. Lieb January 12, 2012 at 04:29 AM
Part Two An example of the above condition would be the assemblage of 20, three-story, brick row homes on N 9th Street, between Northampton Street and Wood Avenue. These once-grand, middle-class homes are suffering badly from owner neglect while a whole catalogue of irreplaceable architectural details are literally disappearing. This I'd describe as a crime of omission, but now the damage has accelerated due to deliberate owner aggression against their own best interests. The property owner at the NW corner of Church and Ninth has decided to enclose the front porch in T-111 plywood paneling. The neighborhood hangs together visually due to a consistent social amenity in the physical form of the open front porch. That consistency is now lost - along with the accompanying problems associated with losing the semi-public transitional zone between the sidewalk and the living room (where informal interchange between neighbors takes place) and the elimination of the ability to monitor suspicious activity from the front window (eyes on the street). I believe that whatever we come up with will be less onerous and more innovative than what most people consider when they think of typical historic districts...and that would be to our advantage since the state is actually looking to get away from that with the awarding of these grants. Dennis R. Lieb West Ward Neighborhood Partnership
another point of view January 12, 2012 at 03:24 PM
One of the few times I agree with Mr. Geeting. South Bethlehem made a mistake. But, a bigger mistake was made in Easton when blocks were thrown into a local historical district. Too much of this should be about building lines, setbacks and building size and building material. The structures are worthless from a historic perspective and attract little or no investment. They have termites, rot, leaky roofs, ancient plumbing and wiring systems. Buildings grow and eventually become discarded. Such was the case when kitchens were integrated, bathrooms came indoors, wiring was installed, central heating systems were introduced., Old homes expanded to accommodate their newer attributes. Today, we want to stop the clock. Just can't do it. Technology does change and mandate a new order. Solar panels, satellite dishes, outdoor kitchens have become the rule, while living rooms and dining rooms have been discarded for family rooms with attached kitchens. You just cannot do all of that with your 1760 or 1885 floor plan. The community needs to evolve and not become a collection of empty museum pieces.
another point of view January 12, 2012 at 03:25 PM
That enclosed porch has more to do with energy conservation and personal comfort. That NW winter wind and afternoon summer sun are killers for a home with a western front. Add to that a tripled and doubled energy price you can understand why. To be relevant buildings need to be modified many times. We spend too much time worrying about the "skin" of a building. We need to worry about the site, the structure. Occupants change the space at will. Your ninth street block is a loser. No space for cars, a flaw in the site and a flaw that cannot be cured without some demolition. Save a few monuments. But permit change and modification to preserve a community. Remember Fallingwater is a great monument to Frank Lloyd Wright. But, the roofs leak. Everytime it rains the floors are filled with infinite buckets to catch what the poorly designed roof cannot. But the roof stays. Wright designed it. It's much like that '56 Chevy that sat in my yard for ten years. Great looking car. Great body job. No transmission. The inventor of exterior plywood made his fortune in the West Ward. Ban it. Make conversions do architectural changes-not simply cover store windows with exterior plywood. Stop using unpainted pressure treated lumber for porch replacements. Some simple changes to the law will clean up the west ward.
Jon Geeting January 12, 2012 at 03:49 PM
Those all sound like really worthy goals, I'm just concerned about the process. Somebody is going to have to pay the cost for the historic rehabs, but there are different ways to do it, with different implications. One way would be to just tax the property owners and create a fund to pay for the improvements you want to make. Another way to do it is to write up some regulations requiring that every property in the neighborhood has to retain its historic features. The same thing is happening in both cases - property owners have to pay some money to rehab their buildings. But I think the first option is clearly better. The costs are visible instead of invisible. The government isn't put in the position of legislating what are really subjective issues of taste (which you see happening constantly in Bethlehem.) And most importantly, it doesn't make it harder to demolish buildings that have outlived their utility. The problem with doing what is really a concerted property rehab program under the guise of *preservation* is that it could get hijacked by people who care less about rehabs than about preventing the neighborhood from changing and evolving. It seems totally possible to do all the things you mentioned without creating any new tools for special interests to block demolitions and new construction.


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