Wednesday, October 3, 2007


This is by Richard Moe of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, published in the Star Tribune of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Richard Moe: Save some space for history

The Twin Cities area has had many preservation successes. But a simple look around demonstrates that the task is never complete.

Published: October 03, 2007

Almost 2,000 preservationists from all parts of the country have come to the Twin Cities this week for the National Preservation Conference. As a native Minnesotan who lived in this area for many years, I'm pleased and proud that conference attendees -- plenty of whom, no doubt, are first-time visitors -- will have a chance to see many of the historic structures, landscapes and neighborhoods that make this such a special place, from the mansions of Summit Avenue in St. Paul to the spectacular Stone Arch Bridge and Mill City Museum in Minneapolis.

But while visitors may not notice it, something else is happening here, and it's not good. Residents who care about this place have every right to pat themselves on the back for their preservation achievements in recent years -- but they must see that big, important chunks of their heritage are still in danger of being spoiled or lost altogether.

Take the riverfront, for example. The rediscovery and ongoing revitalization of this attractive and history-rich area is one of the best things that's happened in this city in my lifetime. But now there's a very real possibility that the rebirth of this long-ignored enclave could destroy the very qualities that make it appealing. Almost every week brings an announcement of a splashy new construction project, and too many of them are too big, threaten to block views of the river, consume precious open space, and otherwise overwhelm the scale and character of the area. The riverfront's popularity shouldn't be allowed to strangle it just as it's coming to life. It may be a truism, but it's worth remembering: You can't revitalize a neighborhood by destroying it.

That same statement has a special resonance in neighborhoods that are experiencing tear-downs. This practice of demolishing an existing house and replacing it with a bigger one is the most serious threat faced by older neighborhoods since the heyday of Urban Renewal, and it has hit the Twin Cities hard. Recent Star Tribune articles describe a "citizen revolt" in embattled neighborhoods in southwest Minneapolis, Edina and Minnetonka -- and no wonder: Mini-mansions get awkwardly shoehorned into established communities where they just don't fit. As bulky new structures get built right up to the property lines, trees disappear and yards shrink, and neighbors find their sunlight and views blocked. Economic and social diversity are reduced as rising property taxes drive out moderate-income or fixed-income residents and affordable "starter homes" disappear. Historic character gets smashed to rubble and hauled off to the landfill.

No one says that older homes or communities should be frozen in time like museum exhibits. A neighborhood is a living thing, and change is both inevitable and desirable. The goal should be not to stop it, but to manage it. New ordinances and zoning laws could help stem the spread of so-called "monster houses" in Minneapolis, but many older communities have no protective mechanisms in place and therefore are still at risk. Similarly, a comprehensive development plan for the riverfront, perhaps coupled with a construction moratorium, could help preserve the character of the riverfront by identifying sites where development will not compromise historic or scenic resources and establishing strict guidelines to help ensure compatibility in the design and siting of new structures.

These issues, plus others such as the need for new preservation strategies for the dilapidated buildings at Fort Snelling's Upper Post, the controversy over the proposed stadium on Nicollet Island and the importance of securing state tax credits to encourage reinvestment in older areas, remind us that being thoughtful, vigilant stewards of the places that matter is hard, unending work. For every victory we win -- and there have been many great ones in recent years, both here in Minnesota and elsewhere across the country -- there's always another challenge to be met, another opportunity to be embraced.

The job of preservation is never done -- but it's a job worth doing, because we're not just hanging on to yesterday; we're building tomorrow. That's the message that National Preservation Conference attendees will hear again and again over the next few days -- and it's a message that Twin Cities residents should take to heart as well.

Richard Moe is president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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