Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Crossroads of Progress and Preservation

Last Night the City Council was at the corner of Progress and Preservation as it was to consider an appeal from the Owners 2413 Buena Vista who is seeking to demo this building as part of a larger commercial project for the area. The item was pulled from the agenda at the request of the appellant.

But here is the background on the project. The Historic Advisory Board denied two items regarding this property – the removal of the home from the Alameda Historic Building List and the denial of a Certificate of Approval to Allow Demolition of the Structure – that is smack between a former car dealership and a parking lot.

I thought the most interesting part of the report was the staff evaluation.

Staff evaluated the structure and found that there has been a lack of maintenance over the years, and exterior elements and details have deteriorated because of this. In addition, some of the exterior details have been replaced or modified in a way that does not match the original. In a search through records available in the Planning and Building Department, no documentation was found that the site was identified with a historic event or person. Although an attempt can be made at rehabilitating this structure, the evaluation provided by the applicant’s engineer indicates that less than half of the original structure would remain; thus such an undertaking would result in the “defacto demolition” of the building. The result would be a replica of the original, but not the original structure itself, and would no longer be a historical resource. Therefore, staff recommended that the Historic Advisory Board remove 2413 Buena Vista Avenue from the Alameda Historic Building list.

This is where I ruffle some people’s feathers. Just because a building is old does not mean it is historic. I know that a lot of people work very hard to preserve the quality of our Island community, but here Alameda we seem to do this dance were the HAB denies a project and the Council approves (even though this one project was continued). The reason for this continuous bureaucratic cha-cha-cha is we have a very broad interpretation of historic.

The City Charter designates that “Any building that was constructed prior to 1942 shall not be demolished or removed without the approval of a certificate of approval issued by the Historical Advisory Board.” The Historical Building Code applies to all properties on the List and is based on the judgment of the evaluators.

Are you kidding me, 1942! So anything before World War II we need to add additional steps in the development process because someone thinks that a building is historic. First of all 1942 was not that long ago and second a building may never have had or no longer has any significance because of a “lack of maintenance.”

A property may be removed from the List by Board action if, in the considered opinion of the majority of the Board, a structure has been altered to such an extend as to have removed all historic value or context. This is backwards. The HAB should be adding buildings to the list based on its merit not just because a structure was built in a given time period.

The building in question was constructed in 1890 and you can see by the photos that this home is falling apart and has visible dry rot. We should be excited as a community that someone is looking to improve the area.

I hope that I am not coming across against preservation, because I am not. I worked very hard to restore my 1915 California Bungalow home, that had been bastardized in the 1950s to look like a ranch home, to a regain its charm and make it match the neighborhood and honor the tradition within it was built. What I am against is when we have rules that add unnecessary steps to a process and we seem to do this over and over again.

Sometimes when we come to the crossroads of Progress and Preservation we tend to forget the state of the building and will there be any one willing to spend the money to restore the project. These types of rules, in my opinion, do not preseve because we can not force owners to maintain the quality of the property. This home is in a commercial area, and to remove it would not be a loss to the integrity of Alameda, change the feel of the street nor is a true loss to the community. 


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  2. John,

    This blog is really great but on this one I have to make a couple comments in dissent.

    This building was not built in 1941, but in 1890 and that contributes to it having historic value as part of the street setting and the rest of the 1890s era neighborhood of which it is a part. When one gets a cavity one usually gets a filling or crown before you opt to simply hank out the tooth. I don't know if there is an analogy here for a spiffy new bridge or dental implant vying for the same space as a yellowing tooth.

    The falling apart dry rot comments are really over blown anyhow. It's mostly quite cosmetic in terms of the building being worth rehabilitating. It needs paint as much as anything else. If this house were in a more desirable location there would be no question about the value of restoration. If a couple window sash are rotten, no big deal and from the photos I'm not even certain that is the case. Wood stairs are replaced about every twenty years. The porch railing components can easily be reused even with some amount of distress. The integrity of the old growth redwood in these houses is unparalleled by new materials. So much for the structural integrity.

    As for this being "the intersection of progress and preservation", I have to question just what progress is in this case. We know we need to replace auto row, but there is no detail on how this projects aims to assist than process.

    The arguments by the applicant and PSBA in support of the need for the removal of the building to facilitate the project as part of "progress" were hollow, without content. No specific information was given regarding the proposed use which supposedly demand this building needing to be removed, only the parking requirement.

    There was also no discussion about relaxing the parking requirements which are driving this whole thing. How bad would it be to have six or eight fewer parking spaces and to keep the building? How would one judge this without knowing more about the proposed use and it's impacts? This is as much about giving highest priority to automobile infrastructure as it is about the value of old buildings. But it is out of the HAB purview to make judgment calls on that anyhow, which is why the Council should get to make this decision.

    In my opinion the reason the applicant requested continuance is because with the minimum quorum they feared they could be denied with just one of the three voting against them.

  3. I have to agree with Mark Irons on this one. This building could be made to shine again by somebody who knows what they are doing. There are plenty of references available for any missing trim and a little research could probably turn up some pictures of the house in better days. One of the reasons that we have so many old Victorians left is that it is purposefully difficult to get approval to tear them down.
    Also the applicant's engineer is going to say exactly what he is paid to say. Old building versus parking lot? Old building wins every time in my book.
    That said, I would agree that 1941 is stretching it a little for historical status. I think a more nuanced statute would be useful. For example you could say, that any structure built prior to 1915 would have a fairly significant level of protection. Anything 1916 or after would have to be architecturally and historically important in order to be listed.
    The process is cumbersome, maddening, and more than than little Byzantine. However, it does work and the Island is a lot nicer place to live because of it.
    Keep up the blogging. It always a good read.

  4. The point I was trying to make is the list is backwards. We need to preserve, but we should add to the List according to significance, not just a date in the City Charter. The building from the exterior is in really poor condition and would like to know what the interior looks like.

  5. In rereading the post I felt there were some parts I missed, including the "backwards" part. I have to chew on that. It would take much more input of a subjective nature to classify that way, and a lot of volunteer effort. No way staff time can be delegated to that in this budget. The date cut off may be Draconian or overly simplistic, but so it goes for now.

    At the first meeting there were appeals of support for the structure made by what one might term "the usual suspects", die hard preservationists who might be expected to come out on any similar issue. But at the last meeting there were a bunch of people from the surrounding neighborhood, many of whom had bought similar houses in that exact mixed commercial/residential neighborhood who clearly value such properties, a lot.

    This house is particularly isolated because the house between it and the next in a long row on that side of the street was allowed to be demolished in the late 80s. I tend to wince at the camels nose under the tent scenarios which abound when altering Measure A at the Point is mentioned, but one can see how the whole row of 1890s era homes could be pecked away over time "for the greater good of commerce", including automobile infrastructure.

    Thanks for posting on this.