Durable Growth

Historic preservation versus demolition: Insights from case histories

Scerri House

Scerri House

Three months ago, I offered my thoughts about historic preservation in urban settings.  I’m generally supportive of preservation as long as the structures or places being preserved are consistent with a coherent vision of urban vitality.  Spending a few days in Buffalo at CNU 22, surrounded by outstanding buildings from an earlier age which are only now returning to gloriously full use, only reinforced that opinion.

The earlier post referenced a meeting, then upcoming, of the Petaluma Planning Commission at which several demolition permits would be discussed.  I’ve continued to monitor those applications.  Each offers insights about the role of historic preservation versus demolition in urban settings.

French Laundry: Petaluma’s French Laundry (which is very different from the famed Yountville restaurant) was a westside laundry that became an icon of an earlier day, with the building eventually gaining historic recognition.  (Forty years ago, a classmate at Cal was married to the granddaughter of the former operator of the French Laundry, so I knew about the French Laundry many years before finding myself in Petaluma.)

Even when the building fell into disuse, rendered obsolete by changes in the laundry industry including home washing machines, it remained an instantly recognizable element of the westside, the subject of many photos and watercolors.

But being instantly recognizable didn’t pay the bills.  The building owners, unable to afford, or perhaps to justify, the expenses needed to maintain the building, allowed it to lapse into dereliction.  Storm damage also contributed to the deterioration.

Eventually the owners approached the City, arguing that the building couldn’t be saved and should be removed from the historic list and demolished.  The Planning Commission reluctantly agreed.

But the Planning Commission Chair, after the vote, opined that the loss of the French Laundry was a loss for the entire Petaluma community and that if further losses were to be avoided, the City would need to take a bigger stake in historic preservation.

He was correct in his assessment, although I rate the prospects of City action to be low.

Having sat in meetings with historic preservationists, I know that much weight is given to the availability of tax credits to maintain historic structures.  But someone I met at CNU, who had carefully studied preservation in the Buffalo area and was looking about for a project, explained the conundrum well.  Tax credits may help with the restoration of the building, but rent from effective post-restoration use is needed to pay the mortgage, maintenance, and property taxes.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to conceive of a tenant who could have made use of the French Laundry building.  It’s on a busy street, has little parking, and is surrounded by low-density residential.

So City funding would have likely been required to keep the building maintained.  But for what use?  A museum is a frequent suggestion, but most cities already struggle to support the museums they have.  And using City dollars to maintain the building as a picturesque but empty space while lacking the funds for other pressing city needs seems unlikely.

Consigning the French Laundry to history was the apparent correct, although lamentable, decision.

Beck House: The Beck House was located in a parcel of land that Petaluma has forgotten.  Seven acres in size, a walkable distance from downtown, and the site of much early Petaluma activity, including the first trading post, hotel, and amusement park, the site is now surrounded by development, a railroad track, and the Petaluma River, making future access expensive and uncertain.

There were numerous homes on the property including the Bloom-Tunstall House which had previously been granted historical status, several more recent homes for which demolition had been previously approved, and the Beck House, newer than Bloom-Tunstall, but older than the other homes and on the cusp between the two.

Given the uncertain historical status of the Beck House, the City had directed the owner to secure it against unlawful trespassing, but he had failed to follow the direction and was now requesting approval to demolish the house, in part because of the damage of continued intrusions.

Two spirited hearings were conducted, with preservation proponents arguing that the home was older than the initial historical analysis indicated and that the house should be preserved to provide services for the homeless on the site.

They won the first argument, but the second argument was unwinnable given the private ownership of the house and the absence of funding for the re-use they sought.

And so the Planning Commission gave approval to the demolition.  But they combined that decision with a suggestion of sanctions against the owner for failing to secure the house against intruders and a sense of frustration that they had been forced to make the demolition decision now instead of when a development proposal for the land was received, with the hope that the house can have been integrated into a future land-use.

Scerri House: The Scerri House is yet a third set of circumstances.  It’s an existing home in a fully-established residential neighborhood within a walkable distance of downtown.  However, previous owners had made awkward additions, such the house didn’t meet the needs of the new owner, who proposed complete demolition and replacement with new construction, which would be approved in a separate process.

Several Commissioners expressed discomfort with demolition of a livable home, but the Commission approved the demolition regardless, noting that the lot would soon be reused.

But when the owner then returned to the Community Development Department with construction plans for the new home, it was found to exceed the height standard for the zone.  The Planning Department couldn’t find justification for a variance, nor was the owner able to reverse that denial at the Planning Commission or City Council.

And so the replacement home sits in limbo, while the owner ponders his options.  Luckily, demolition of the existing home hadn’t yet begun, so the unsightliness and risk of a gap in the neighborhood fabric was avoided.  But it was avoided by chance, not design.

Lessons: There are several lessons from these three case histories.  First, wishing for historic preservation isn’t enough.  In these financially-constrained times, there must also be a good future use for a preserved building.  Failing that, demolition is probably the only option.

Second, while we shouldn’t force owner to undertake expensive preservation efforts if there isn’t a good future use yet determined, it seems reasonable to require the owner to secure the building so efforts can continue to find that use.

Third, although the worst case was avoided on the Scerri House, there is a potential for neighborhood disaster if demolition proceeds in advance of replacement.  At a minimum, demolition approvals in fully-developed settings should be conditioned such that demolition can’t proceed until all approvals and financing are in place for the replacement.

In my next post, I’ve previously written that urban development often requires committed city/developer coordination.  From my history, I’ll offer a couple of examples where that didn’t happen.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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