By David Marshall
Most historic structures were built long before we were born and, if they are treated properly, will last long after we are gone. Whether it's simply vanity or naivete, many redevelopment officials and land developers consider their time on this Earth as the only time that matters. The present is all they know, but the present is, of course, only a blip in time between the past and the future.
One thing becomes clear when one digs into the past: nothing lasts forever. Researching the history of a building is a fascinating process. A long succession of names and dates helps to tell the story of each building and how it changed over time. The first owner of a building will probably never meet the third owner, let alone the tenth or twelfth. Everyone has left behind his or her imprint. Some imprints can be seen, while others are invisible.
The future of a building cannot be predicted. What once was a warehouse may one day become apartments. A mansion may burn down and be lost forever. A church might be demolished for a gas station. A cottage may stay under the care of the same family for generations.
Preservationists, like those of us in SOHO, are constantly reminding the caretakers of historic buildings that they need to be careful how they treat their cultural resource. Damage done to historic buildings is difficult to reverse. Once original windows are replaced with vinyl, they will never look the same. Once a theater is stripped of its stage and seating, it will probably never again house an audience. Once a building is demolished, it is gone forever. Even if a demolished building is meticulously reconstructed, it will be a "new" building.
Many developers don't understand that the harm that they do to a historic structure is often irreversible. The frustrating part for preservationists is that owners and residents who quickly go out of business or move do a lot of the damage. Businesses and homeowners seldom stay in the same building for more than 5 years. When you consider the typical 50 to 120-year life span of a historic building in San Diego, that represents many 5-year increments and many opportunities for abuse.
There are few things more aggravating in the world of preservation than thoughtless owners and developers who damage or destroy historic resources as part of some grandiose plan that never materializes. There are far too many examples of empty lots created by empty promises. Chain link fences, dirt and weeds are sometimes the only evidence of a demolished building. Why should an entire community suffer from the misguided adventures of incompetent developers?
Everyone needs to understand their place in the timeline of their community. When one is dealing with buildings and cities, accomplishments, as well as debacles, live long after we fade away. Before they act, redevelopment agencies and developers need to ask themselves what kind of legacy they will be leaving behind.
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