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How Will Our Children Know?

By Beth Montes

In place of the cheery Welcome to the New Year article you are probably expecting from me in this first quarter of 2006, please be prepared for a darker piece brought on by the words and tone of a blatantly biased and inflammatory article recently published in the Voice of San Diego, an online newspaper. The article focuses on a construction delay experienced by the developer of a 40-story "blue glass, concrete and steel" building because the lot is occupied by a "decrepit, filth-encrusted two-story wooden hotel." According to the article's author, the "squalid structure" had, unfortunately, been designated a historic site by the City of San Diego's Historical Resources Board (never mind that the building is "actually well-maintained, fully occupied and in good condition," according to David Marshall, a member of the HRB). I would encourage you all to go to the website and read the article, entitled "A Historic Pain in the Rear," as well as a rebuttal article, "A Necessary Burden," and other responses by David Marshall, Cindy Wimer, and John Rippo.

Mr. Will Carless, the article's author, put a public voice to a disquieting pattern I see time and again - developers, speculators, architects, government officials, and property owners who claim that a structure has no historical value or has lost its integrity as a justification for demolishing or removing the building. Phrases like "it has been modified beyond redemption," "there are so many others," "this is not a significant example," "there's just no way this is historic," and "it stands in the way of progress" are so common as to have become cliché. Never mind that most structures referred to in this fashion are wonderful homes, apartment and office buildings, and warehouses. Never mind that most are completely functional as they stand. Some may need repairs, but nothing so extensive that they are beyond redemption.

How will we San Diegans ever have the chance to enjoy 200 year-old historic structures if we continue to tear down our older buildings? How will other successful areas such as Old Town and the Gaslamp Quarter have a chance to develop if there are no older buildings left to lend their charm? How long will these new "blue glass, concrete and steel" condominium tower units hold their value when there are thousands and thousands of others just like them in a small area of extreme density? Overbuilding is already taking its toll on the downtown real estate market.

And the biggest question of all is how will our children and future generations even know to ask about people, events, social movements, architects, or builders from our past when the structures and landscapes associated with them are no longer around to stimulate their interest?

On a recent visit to the East Coast, I walked the streets of Washington D.C., Alexandria, Williamsburg, and other great cities and neighborhoods. The integrity of the structures in those areas is astonishing. Georgetown is amazingly intact and has one of the most vibrant shopping and dining areas I have experienced where residents and tourists alike flock to enjoy the ambiance and spend their money.

Instead of spending millions of dollars designing a new building to be put in place of a historic structure, local developers could approach a project from the beginning as one where the original building will be maintained in situ and used as the guiding design element. This approach, if used from the beginning, will stop the developer and others from needing to cry out that a puny, 2-story wooden structure stands in the way of the construction of a jutting monolith though the smaller building conspicuously stood on the parcel when it was purchased. I would encourage developers not to search for justification for demolition; search for a way to adaptively reuse what is there.

2006 - Volume 37, Issue 1

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