Tag Archives: historic preservation

Wayfinding And Preservation In A Small Town

Over the weekend I visited Price for work. While I was there saw some interesting examples of urban development in a small town.

Perhaps most notably, Price has some wayfinding in its downtown:

A map of downtown Price, in downtown Price.

A map of downtown Price, in downtown Price.

This map isn’t fancy or professionally sourced, but it’s better than what many cities have — including currently Provo, for some reason.

This isn’t to say Price is a walkability or tourist paradise. In reality, I saw almost no one walking around while I was there. But it’s nice to see the city make the effort, and this map really was all I needed to orient myself. In the end something is always better than nothing.

Another thing that stood out from Price was this ornate building:

A building in downtown Price.

A building in downtown Price.

This building is fancier and more interesting than most, maybe even all, of Provo’s comparable historic structures. It needs some new paint in a few places (ironically) but the faces in particular are quite impressive.

From this I glean two lessons: first, that small towns sometimes have the most impressive old buildings and, second, that growing towns experiencing relative prosperity (e.g. Provo) are often the ones that lose their historic buildings.

As I’ve written many times before, European tourist towns are a good example of this phenomenon; the old medieval villages we all love to visit today stayed the same for centuries because they experienced hundreds of years of decline, even poverty. During that time there was low demand for land and new development, so the old buildings remained untouched. On the other hand, a place like Manhattan — which was filled with smaller but still substantial historic structures before Provo even existed — prospered and eventually replaced most of it’s little buildings from 18th and early 19th century.

Comparing Price and Provo offers a similar, if accelerated and smaller example. In terms of infrastructure and architecture, Price’s downtown is very similar to Provo’s but more complete and unified. Despite it’s considerably small size, it has nearly as many old buildings and fewer appear to have been torn down. There are no big, ugly newer buildings in the mix, as there are in Provo.

But Price is smaller and not experiencing the kind of growth Provo gets. Hence, the better preserved downtown.

There are ways make sure historic preservation and growth don’t become mutually exclusive, but in the end greater prosperity almost always means changes to the built environment.

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Filed under Downtown, economics, travel, utah

Bad Design Leads to Lost Historic Homes

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.

Big streets like this lower property values by encouraging noise and dangerous driving, making it economically difficult to preserve old homes.

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.

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Really Old Baptistry Discovered At Tabernacle Temple

Workers at the LDS Church’s under-construction Tabernacle Temple have unearthed the oldest baptistry in Utah County:

The baptistry, with its 5-by-9-foot font, was built around 1875 and is a significant discovery, said Benjamin Pykles, an LDS Church history department curator, in a press release. “This one city block spans nearly the entire history of the church in Utah with the construction of the original meetinghouse in the 1850s and 60s, the baptistry in the 1870s, the tabernacle in the 1890s, and now the temple under construction.”

According to my colleague Genelle Pugmire, the baptistry includes a water pipe and a wooden floor. Apparently there are also photographs of it, though I haven’t seen them:

In early photographs of the baptistry a chimney is shown, which archeologists believe vented a stove that heated the water to make the facility usable year-round. Large quantities of painted plaster fragments also were discovered, revealing the original sky-blue color of the baptistry’s interior walls.

Genelle’s article didn’t mention what was to become of the baptistry, but this “significant discovery” only adds to the argument that it would be a travesty to bulldoze the history surrounding the Tabernacle. (See previous posts on that topic here and here.)

Historic ruins at the site of the Tabernacle Temple in downtown. Some of these ruins have been ripped out of the ground, while others are covered up.

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Filed under Downtown, Mormon, Provo Tabernacle

Modern Methods For Historic Preservation

According to councilman Sterling Beck, the city council last night approved a grant program to help cover impact fees for people hoping to redevelop historic buildings.

Among other things, the program presumably should help local developer Greg Soter turn an old church into apartments and deal with prohibitively expensive impact fees. As my colleague Genelle Pugmire wrote in August, Soter’s project was put on hold after he was slapped with more than $130,000 in unexpected fees.

In an article posted this morning, Genelle also explained the requirements for receiving grant money:

The council added a stipulation that could still make Soter’s project prohibitive. For Soter, or any developer, to receive the grant money, his building must meet specific requirements. The building must be in the Downtown 1 or Downtown 2 zones, be remodeled for multi-family dwelling while keeping the historical look to the building and must be registered and certified with the Provo Historic Landmarks Commission. The Fourth Ward Chapel meets all but the landmarks certification.

A new grant program will help people cover fees when trying to redevelop buildings like this one, which is slated to become apartments.

This new program is a major victory for Provo. As I wrote in August, developers sometimes face economic incentives to demolish historic buildings. And though I don’t expect every old building to survive, some absolutely should be preserved. Soter’s project is a perfect example of how to make that happen.

Now after years of hit and miss historic preservation, the city is finally providing the economic incentives to make redevelopment of larger buildings more realistic. The program also signifies a recognition that buildings, historic or otherwise, influence more than just their owners and occupants; they’re community fixtures and the community is now investing in its cultural assets.

On a somewhat related note, KSL reported yesterday that a historic high school in South Salt Lake would be turned into a movie studio. That’s a big economic victory for South Salt Lake, but much like the church-apartment project above it demonstrates that preserving historic buildings often requires creativity and repurposing.

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Development is Inevitable, Horrible Buildings are Not

The Salt Lake Tribune recently reported on Salt Lake City’s struggles to balance historic preservation with development. Apparently, the issue came up when homes in the Yalecrest neighborhood were being torn down and neighbors tried to halt the process by obtaining a historic designation.

When the Yalecrest community council sought in 2009 to create a new historic district, it was as though the Hatfields and McCoys had invaded the quaint neighborhoods of tudors and bungalows. What began as a heartfelt effort to save the ambiance of Yalecrest in the wake of a spate of tear-downs and ensuing monster houses escalated into a nasty feud pitting neighbor against neighbor.

Whatever happens, the situation illustrates the challenge many cities, including Provo, face as they try to balance the old and the new.

It also illustrates one major problem with the debate over historic structures: we’re mostly concerned with preserving existing buildings, when instead we should be equally interested in erecting potential new ones. Or said another way, we should be as outraged when someone throws up a cheap, shoddily designed building as we are when a beautiful old building comes down. Development is ultimately inevitable but horrible buildings are not.

A historic home in Provo that was feature in this year’s historic homes tours.

Consider: if a neighborhood functions properly — attracting new residents, increasing property values, etc. — the pressure to replace old buildings increases. Take, for example, Provo’s pioneer neighborhoods; as they gentrify and acquire more monetary value, more people will want to build more structures in them. The demand for land increases while the supply is used up.

That means losing buildings, like this old-but-not-officially-historic one on University Ave in Provo. And as I indicated here, stalled redevelopment prices people out of neighborhoods and drives investment elsewhere.

I love old buildings, but considering the challenging economics of historic preservation — as well as the need to improve many neighborhoods by adding density — I don’t expect every old building in Provo to be around forever. In other words, we should expect to lose some older buildings because if we don’t it means the demand for local real estate is low.

However, there are a couple of up sides to this process. First, cities can be judicious in choosing which structures to preserve. I can think of several properties in Provo that are either so run down or so poorly located that despite their age and apparent charm they’d represent the wrong battles to choose in the struggle over historic preservation.

The second ray of light is that the process of building historic structures doesn’t have to be over. It shouldn’t be over. Though many buildings erected today are lightweight and won’t last, there’s no reason historic neighborhoods can’t replace crumbling, less-than-historic structures with ones that will survive for hundreds of years.

Paintings of historic homes in Provo by Abigale Palmer and Bethany Pinnock Bown. The homes in these paintings are great and should be preserved (one in particular is especially awesome.) But we should be at least as concerned about building new historic structures — ones that will last for generations — as we are about preserving old buildings.

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Best August Posts

August was a short month for this blog because I spent more than a third of it traveling. Nevertheless, there were still a handful of posts I wanted to highlight. So as is the custom, here are the best posts from August:

We Can Have Better Neighborhoods if We Just Choose to Build Them: People sometimes talk about cities as if they’re immutable. But that’s a fiction. People built our cities and I believe there is no obstacle — from zoning to public opinion to financing — that people also can’t overcome. If our cities are imperfect it’s because we yet lack the will to fix them.

Trading Historic Buildings For Blight and Parking Lots: This post explains how a local developer wanted to turn an old church into apartments, but then despite everyone’s enthusiasm, the project was stalled or killed by absurd city fees.

What to do With Wasted Street and Parking Space: Like many cities, Provo includes a fair amount of underused pavement. Parking lots sit empty, streets are too wide, and there’s less room for people. This post suggests that all the wasted space could simply be cordoned off and turned into pedestrian zones.

Blame Streets for Auto-Bike Accidents: Poor road design not only doesn’t help prevent accidents, it actively encourages them.

What City Creek Could Have Been: City Creek in Salt Lake City is great. But this post tries to imagine what could have been if investors had used the $2 billion they spent on the mall to fund startups and business development. Hint: the results would have been much better. This post is part of an ongoing effort to think about the implications of local and non-local commerce.

Squares and the Heart of a City: Provo has no public squares. Let’s fix that.

Provo, Utah: A great city that will get even greater if we’re smart, informed and work really hard.

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Filed under building, buy local, construction, Downtown, economics, neighborhood, parking, Provo

Trading Historic Buildings For Blight and Parking Lots

Late last year, developer Greg Soter stepped forward with a plan to turn an abandoned church into downtown apartments. Soter bought the building, researched his options and began moving forward.

“Eight months later I had bought the building, hired the engineers and completed extensive engineering and architectural work,” he said. “I took the plans to Provo City for a plan check.”

By now, the building was gutted inside and ready to be rebuilt. The apartments would range from 500 to 1,100 square feet featuring loft bedrooms, high ceilings and laundry facilities. It all sounded wonderful and people from throughout the U.S. were sharing their approval for keeping the building’s historic flavor intact. The city leadership was excited, saying this was exactly the kind of project they were looking for in the downtown area.

And then the whole thing was killed by moronic city laws.

This old church was going to be turned into apartments until fees made that plan prohibitively expensive.

My colleague Genelle Pugmire reported today that Soter’s project has stalled because the city is asking for fees adding up to a small fortune.

In July Soter walked into the community development offices to pick up his building permits and to pay the fees. He was handed a bill totaling $130,535.51.

“I just about died. I tried to keep my best poker face,” he said. “I took the paper and walked out the door.”

For a city trying to add housing to downtown, this situation is absolutely nonsensical. The fees also aggressively discourage historic preservation and adaptive reuse of existing buildings.

In other words, official city policy — as opposed to the usual villains of greedy developers or an apathetic populace — overwhelmingly encourages elimination of historic buildings. That needs to change right now.

In fairness, Provo leaders are working to resolve the situation. But the solutions mentioned — fee waivers or reductions for Soter — won’t fix the underlying problem and the ordeal could be repeated as soon as someone else wants to save a building. Then again, other developers may never step forward, given Soter’s experience.

Provo isn’t the only city that is dealing with this issue. Streetsblog recently reported on the struggle in Detroit to prevent historic buildings from being turned into parking lots.

Detroit is making some progress, but the situation offers a useful warning for Provo: make it possible for developers to save great buildings or prepare for developers to give up and replace those buildings with cheap apartment complexes at best, and parking lots at worst.

Genelle’s article comes to a similar conclusion:

Unless the city and the council can move quickly on a decision, the old 4th ward chapel may remain a vacant shell. Or, if Soter can’t build his apartments, the chapel could be demolished by some developer looking to put up another apartment complex.

In the meantime, Provo city officials are faced with two options. First, change the fee requirements so this project can happen. The changes would need to happen soon because every day the project is stalled Soter essentially loses money and has greater incentives to quit. The changes also should be designed to prevent this kind of fiasco in the future.

The second option is to do nothing — or take so long that it doesn’t matter any more. In the long term, that will mean replacing the historic church with something else, like a parking lot, but in the short term it also means nothing can happen with the structure. It will continue to sit abandoned, slowly falling apart until it becomes a pocket of unsalvageable blight.

The solution seems obvious, but so far Soter’s project remains stalled.

The north side of the church that Greg Soter wanted to turn into apartments.

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