Thursday, June 12, 2008

Historic Preservation

[Lusty Lady at 1st and University]

A few days ago, Knute Berger, a proud and longtime Cascadian who writes for Crosscut, wrote an article criticizing the green movement in Seattle. The article, entitled Unsustainable Seattle, argues that construction in the name of density or sustainability is simply cloaked consumerism, while historic preservation is the true key to limiting our energy consumption. Unfortunately Berger uses limited contemporary facts and his biases stick out like a Sasquatch in Seattle. But deeper down I think he does raise some valid points, however poorly communicated.

His main argument revolves around his criticism that the energy costs in constructing new buildings is far greater than saving already existing ones. Siting a talk given by Donovan D. Rypkema, a D.C.-based economic development consultant, he points out that old buildings were usually built with "brick, plaster, concrete, and timber" which are much less energy consumptive that contemporary building materials, generally, "plastic, steel, vinyl, and aluminum". Further, he points out that when tearing down a building, we not only waste all the material, but also the "embodied energy", or the original energy used to construct the building. Near the end he deounces "greens" for not fully supporting preservation by quoting Rypkema:
"When you rehabilitate a historic building, you are reducing waste generation. When you reuse a historic building, you are increasing recycling. In fact, historic preservation is the ultimate in recycling. At most perhaps 10% of what the environmental movement does advances the cause of historic preservation. But 100% of what the preservation movement does advances the cause of the environment."
Now, while Berger is right in saying that preserving existing structures is an energy-effective building method, his argument isn't completely coherent. First of all, criticizing the materials used in new construction is not an argument against new construction, it is an argument against how new construction is done. The best ways to build are constantly argued and discussed within the "green" circles and certainly many would argue that a return to better, stronger, less energy -intensive materials is a must. Second, materials can easily be reused and yet still be reconstructed into an entirely new building. Rollins Street Flats, in South Lake Union boasts 81% recycled materials. Similarly, the Sabey pain-stakingly donated tons of bricks to the community when it demolished the original Rainer Brewery Storage Facility.

[Rendering of the Ice House at Airport Way and Nebraska]

Berger also fails to account for renovation and restoration work needed for historic preservation. These buildings are old. Wood frames can rot and need replacing, stairwells and improved water systems might need to be added. Oftentimes, entire interiors are gutted and replaced with an new floorplans. These types of things certainly take some energy consumption. It is probably less than constructing new buildings but in no way carbon neutral.

But no matter how energy intesive new building may be, the fact is that Seattle is a sprawl city and without major redesigning the city itself will be unsustainable. There is only so much you can do with a single family home, the structure that makes up nearly 70% of the city's area. Berger blasts Sound Transit for destroying, "a slew of wonderful old Capitol Hill apartments". But what does he expect? Should we abandon any thoughts of a real mass transit system in the name of preserving a few apartment complexes? Truth be told, Seattle is a young city and even our oldest buildings are infants in the eyes of the world.

These arguments are so poor because Berger's real reasons for criticism are entirely different. The fact is that Berger can't come to grips with the fact that the 50's style suburban neighbors of the past are not going to be staying around much longer. He laments that current construction will "transform the city beyond all recognition". This statement is absurd. Cities are constantly changing and growing, just like the people that make up their populations. It is irrational to wish for a stagnant, unchanging Seattle cityscape. But, as unreasonable as this idea may be, it is statements like this that are truly detrimental:
"Pioneer Square and the International District will be squeezed by encroaching high-rises. And residential neighborhoods are feeling pressures from a building boom enabled by city policies allowing taller, denser, and faster-track development."
It is exactly this time of mentality that will prevent Seattle from becoming a progressive, sustainable city in the future. Pioneer Square and the International District are the two most historically preserved areas in the entire city, and this will not change. But without new development in the area these neighborhoods are doomed to remain underutilized and underpopulated. As I mentioned before, single family neighborhoods are abundant in Seattle and these relics of a car-centric past are the dominant obstacle in our efforts towards sustainability. As Berger says, "greens and preservationists need to be allied" and for this to happen he is going to have to acknowledge the problem with a single-family city.

[Sodo Park at 1st and Hanford]

But aside from Berger's personal reasons for preservation there is a valid argument to be made here. Adaptive use and preservation do need to be a major part of future construction. Adapting a new development to the existing buildings can foster a much greater amount of creativity compared to the cookie-cutter designs that are constantly being thrown together. For example, as North Aurora becomes less of a highway and more of a city it should embrace it's road-side past. Many of the hotels and motels can be converted into affordable housing or SRO's, things that are in dire need in this city. Similarly the Duwamish Valley's industrial past has provided a slew of large, warehouse like buildings. These can be utilized in many different ways giving the neighborhood a distinct flavor and character while maintaining a structural record of its manufacturing history. Sodo Park, used by Herban Feast is a fantastic example of this type of adaptation.

What we need to do, and what has already been done in other Cascadian cities such as Vancouver and Portland, is leverage historic preservation through height and density incentives. Currently Seattle has an incentive program that allows developers extra height in return for public amenities. This means that the developer writes a check to the city of which 60% goes towards future affordable housing (not necessarily near the development) and 40% goes towards "the community", a vague concept that generally never materializes in much more than a better landscaped sidewalk and a few more benches. What we need is a "menu options" program which includes very specific ideas such as: community center, park space, historic preservation, environmentally friendly building, etc. Frequently a number of these options can be combined in creative ways allowing a much more colorful city. Such a system was used to develop Portland's Pearl District and the result is internationally praised.

I am excited to watch Seattle mature in my lifetime. A denser, taller city, with better transportation is certainly the goal of our generation. But in our efforts to accomplish these aims it is important to be prudent and creative to ensure a city that is not only more sustainable, but beautiful and unique as well.