Provo’s Joaquin neighborhood — as well as elsewhere — has seen years of controversy regarding historic preservation. Grand old homes get torn down and replaced with cheap apartment complexes and all the neighbors wring their hands. And then eventually, they move away.
But the reasons old homes fail to generate support for preservation — ideally in the form of new owner-occupants — are not magical or esoteric. In fact, the process by which old homes are lost is easy to understand when we look at the surrounding design.
Take 500 North, for example, where a future preservation battle may be brewing even now. Would you want to live on 500 North? Would you want to raise kids on that street? Would you be willing to live there for decades?
I would not. It’s a loud, busy street. If I lived there and had kids, I’d constantly worry about them running out into traffic. I’d have to put in sound-proof windows to cope with the noise.
And that’s the problem: bad streets lower property values and drive away people who can afford to choose where they live.
Some people complain about the student demographics of the neighborhood and that’s certainly a factor. But the high number of rentals and students is a result of the hostile street design — who else will live there, after all? — not the cause of it. Something similar but worse happens on 300 South and that isn’t the dividing line between student and non-student neighborhoods.
In other words, both of these streets are kind of crappy places to live so anyone with the ability to avoid them usually does. The result is low quality apartments, dilapidated houses and lots of rentals. North Joaquin is especially troubled because it has several arterials — 500 North, 700 North and possibly 800 North. South Joaquin has none and it’s no coincidence that it has more families and owner occupants.
Big, noisy streets often depress property values, but this becomes particularly troublesome when there are historic homes involved. In Joaquin there are houses that look great and have historic value, but due to locations on busy streets will have to sell cheaply and may have trouble attracting any owner-occupants at all. Or, real estate developers will simply be able to outbid potential owner-occupants. It’s sad because when the homes were built the streets weren’t filled with cars driving 30 or 40 mph.
Of course, Provo has lost many homes that are not on arterial streets. The problem, however, is that Provo’s streets are so large that they all sort of act as arterial roads. At my house, on 400 East, I can’t carry on a conversation in my yard when the bus passes. Many cars speed along at more than 40 mph. It’s not ideal for living and it reduces the value of my investment. If I was less concerned about the city I’d just tear down my house and put in an apartment complex for people who can’t afford to live on a quieter street. I’d make a lot of money.
The point is that bad street design makes it hard to sell homes in central Provo, historic or otherwise, to anyone but developers. This has happened in the past and unless we make changes to the streets themselves it will happen again in the future. Historic preservation efforts may help, but as long as design elements create an economic incentive to tear down homes we shouldn’t expect any real progress.