Friday while driving into work, for some reason, all the cranes in downtown Charlottesville seemed particularly noticeable to me and I found myself caught in the age old preservation/planner power struggle. I started trying to imagine what the skyline of “Cville” will look like when the new towers (dear god at nine stories you can almost touch the heavens!) are built. I couldn’t help but get excited to think about being able to see a place I love from far away. I remember being a child and getting giddy when I saw the New York skyline in the distance and knowing that I would soon be there and the awesome feeling of watching the buildings ‘grow’ as we drove closer. Yet at the same time, I can’t help but wonder how different the downtown will be. Our BAR (Board of Architectural Review) is very level headed and makes some really good decisions, so I know any new building will be scrutinized and adapted to be the best possible design possible, but still how will the sense of place, time, and scale change when all the new buildings are finally erected?
Pondering this all day, I think -for me - preservation is more the big picture. Some would argue that it’s the buildings that make the downtown mall (well really the bricks make the mall, but you know what I mean), but that is not what makes downtown (or any downtown for that matter) special. It’s the way the buildings are arranged and the way they create the feeling of knowing you are ‘somewhere’ worth being. There is a there there. Will this really be changed by making the buildings taller? I don’t think so. I’m as saddened to see an old building torn down or facaded as the next preservationist, but sometimes I don’t think it is such a tragedy assuming they are replaced with another building that respects the balance of public/private space, complementing design, and the relationship to the street that the previous building had. But even as I write this, can such things ever truly be replaced? New York and Chicago for example, have some truly stunning skyscrapers today, but what about the ones from before. It makes me sick to think of all the Sullivans, McKims, Meads, and Whites, etc. that were torn down to make room for today’s skyscrapers. And what of those said lost treasures, what architectural gems did they destroy in their construction? Similarly, what new technology and design will one day lead us to tear down the Empire State Building or Sears Tower?
I think I should also note, that while the preservationist inside of me is sad to see the loss of any building or material artifact of our past, the environmentalist wants to do a back flip. Keep development where it belongs, which is on top of where it already exists. As the old saying goes, ‘farmland lost is farmland lost forever.’ These new residential, office, and commercial units need to go somewhere, so doesn’t it make sense to put them where development has already happened instead of green fields on the edge of town? And taking a step back to put things in context, what is more important, some old buildings or our children’s future resources? Makes it hard to argue for the buildings. The bottom line is that development needs to happen within the already established footprint of cities in order to ensure the long term sustainability of us all. As preservationists, it is our job to now figure out how to keep development within these existing bounds while protecting our limited historical resources. Not an easy thing to do, but I have faith that our passions and dedications will make it happen.