Building Accessibility

Accessibility to historic buildings is often a necessary code upgrade, not to mention important to insure that everyone can enjoy the building. Inside we see chair lifts on railings, elevators, ramps. On the exterior we see elevator shafts and accessible ramps of all materials and interesting placements. Sometimes a ramp will block the facade or detail of a building. That is not to say that a building should not have a ramp, but perhaps more creative planning would help.

Consider the Leicester Meeting House (1836):

Leceister, VT

Leicester, VT. Can you see the ramp? It blends into the landscape. Note the red landscape and the window that was partially converted to a door.

Closer view.

Closer view. See the bridge from the ramp to the building. The railing and the bulkhead doors match.

Leceister, VT

Leicester, VT: 1836 Meeting House

What do you think? I think it’s one of my favorite ADA solutions that I’ve seen. The approach to the building on both sides is pleasant and open to the town green, neither the front or side hidden (an ADA entrance should not seem like a secondary entrance).

Mobile App for Historic Resource Survey in Alexandria, VA

Preservationists are moving forward in 2013! Are you looking for a way to help or are you interested in how the preservation field can incorporate mobile devices & apps for our work. Wouldn’t it be nice to conduct survey with your smart phone or tablet and transfer that information to a database without many in between steps?

You’ve probably heard about the app FieldNotes LT, which can geo-reference your resource and combine it with photographs and notes as a .kmz file. However, the file is dependent on whatever outside platform you’re using to open it (Google Earth in my experience) and you can’t really store it in a database. It’s useful, but not flawless.

So what’s better? What is a new digital & preservation initiative? Read on for news from Alexandria, VA (information adapted from correspondence with Mary Catherine Collins, a preservation planner with the city):

The City of Alexandria’s Historic Preservation division is seeking volunteers to assist with an architectural survey of the Old and Historic Alexandria District. This survey will be the first of its kind in the country using an exciting new GIS-based mobile application designed to expedite the surveying process and facilitate data sharing between the City of Alexandria and other cultural resource organizations.

Like FieldNotes LT, it will geolocate all of our survey data and photos, but more importantly by using a geodatabase format, we will be able to easily transfer our data to VDHR and NPS’s databases. The outcome of this survey is a set of digital transfer standards as well as digital update to our National Register and Landmark listings. Additionally the app will be made available for free on ESRI’s website once the project is complete.

Alexandria is a great place to begin this since, like many of the first designated historic districts, the NR nomination is entirely inadequate at only three pages!

Surveying will begin in early March, with training taking place in late February. We anticipate 2 days of training and approximately 5-10 days of field surveying. Please contact Mary Catherine Collins at preservation@alexandriava.gov if you are interested or for more information.

This is a great opportunity for anyone in the DC area to not only be part of an exciting project, but also to network with other design professionals and preservationists in the area!

Preservationists in the area, including Mary Washington & GW preservation students, I hope you’re listening. Get out, have some HP fun and learn about the digital age in preservation. If you do participate, report back to PiP.  Thank you Mary Catherine for providing this information. Good luck!

Parking Here, Parking There

In many towns and cities a constant issue is parking: where are the parking spaces or lots? Are there enough spaces for all of the customers? When are there too many parking spaces? What is the balance? Where should parking spaces and lots be located? There is a fine line of how much space is necessary in order to accommodate shoppers, residents, visitors v. having too much space that empty parking lots make the town look desolate.

Who would have thought that parking issues connect so frequently to historic preservation? But, bring in our historic downtowns and city centers, and parking issues are everywhere. After all, think of Joni Mitchell who sang, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Much of our built environment has been paved for roads and parking lots. Businesses and institutions often want additional or closer parking.

What is a preservationist to do about parking lots? Obviously, in our auto-centric society, we cannot ignore the needs of vehicles, nor can we can convince everyone (maybe not even ourselves) that carpooling and public transit is always the right answer. Not everyone can live within walking distance of all services and goods. People will still need to drive and park close to businesses. And people like convenience. So what can we do? Read on. (Disclaimer: I am not a planner, so these thoughts on parking are purely my own preservation educated musings.)

Step One: Assess the amount of parking and the needs of parking, not only the impressions of needs. Identify the locations of parking spaces. Perhaps parking spaces are simply hard to find because the municipality lacks proper signage. When are businesses open? When is the town at its busiest? How do parking needs shift throughout the day? How often is parking a problem? Talk to your community.

Step Two: If parking is needed, identify where it would be most beneficial. Obviously demolishing a building block is not going to help downtown. A parking lot too far away will remain empty. A parking lot too large will look desolate. Perhaps a parking garage is a better solution. Or timed/metered spaces. Maybe parking spaces need to be formalized (properly striped and identified) so people know where they can park. Design is an important element.

Step Three: Keep in mind that although important, parking lots/spaces/garages should not be the deciding factor for preservation decisions. Parking is an important piece for a comprehensive plan, but is never an issue that should overpower all others. Consider whether parking in one location or parking spread throughout town is better for your community. And consider how it fits into the built environment.

Think parking garages are always a bad idea? Think again: check out these worth looking at.

What issues do you see about parking? What do you prefer – lots, garages, on street parking? Other?

Preservation ABCs: A is for Alley

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! 

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A is for ALLEY

Elfreth’s Alley, Philadelphia, PA. Photo source: Library of Congress. “GENERAL VIEW OF NORTH (LEFT) AND SOUTH SIDES OF THE ALLEY, LOOKING EAST” Click to go to original digital source.

What is an alley? An alley is a small, narrow street between or behind buildings, mostly in urban settings. Some alleys are for pedestrians only, some are for automobiles to access garages. What does an alley have to do with historic preservation? Alleyways are part of our planning and development history, giving us clues to how people traversed cities and used space. Also, think of it this way: as a culture, we are more likely to spruce front yards, building facades and the most publicly visible spaces that we inhabit. Alleys have the potential to show what the building looked like prior to improvements or stylized additions. 

Alleys are also working corridors. Often these narrow spaces between and behind buildings exist for services (trash collection, deliveries, vehicle parking) and are less traveled than the sidewalks on the streetscape. Because they are less traveled, alleys hold mystery.

Want to visit an alley? Elfreth’s Alley in Philadelphia, PA is a National Historic Landmark.

An Urban Beach

What are you planning to do with your last unofficial weekend of summer? Are you spending it on the beach, on some body of water? Not everyone  lives near a beach or someplace with access to usable waterfront. Some they live in a town or area that is landlocked or perhaps in a city that has yet to reclaim its industrial era waterfront land, often land previously used for shipping industries, grain elevators, railroad yards and related structures and infrastructure.

So, imagine you live in a town or city without beach access, with a waterfront that was full of potential. What if you could construct a “beach” for residents? What if that beach had clean sand, beach umbrellas and chairs, but no place for swimming? How does that sound? The concept exists in practice and is known as an “urban beach” or a “city beach.”

The Clock Tower Beach in Montreal, Quebec is such a thing. The waterfront in the Old Port has undergone extensive revitalization and a recent development is this beach. People pay an entrance fee and have access to sand, umbrellas, chairs, misting stations, restrooms, a snack bar and great views of the St. Lawrence River and the Montreal skyline views.

Clock Tower Beach: A manmade urban beach on the river in Montreal, Quebec.

At first the concept struck me as absurd: a beach that is just sand and no swimming? What fun is that? However, it is a unique alternative to additional grassy areas of a park. It’s summer – who wouldn’t want to put their toes in the sand and get some sun next to the water, lying in the sand, as opposed to sunbathing on grass.

The beach is open June – September. I wonder what it’s use will be in the winter. Will the sand be covered? Removed? If this area is only open for a few months out of the year, is that good land use planning?

Clock Tower Beach: Looking the other direction down the St. Lawrence River (nice truss bridge, too).

There is a traditional boardwalk promenade and tree filled grassy park in the Old Port, but this new beach is one of the most unique features. How inspiring to hear of new revitalization efforts thinking outside of the box. And, Toronto already has a beach – designed by the same company. Urban beaches exist in a few places, with only one in the United States listed.  Any others?

What do you think of an urban beach?  Want to visit? Here’s more information.

The Perfect Case for Undergrounding Wires

wires.jpg

Imagine this building without the telephone pole and multiple utility wires. Waterbury, VT, 2012.

We’ve talked about utility lines previously, in terms of practicality. But what about philosophically and aesthetically? To me, the picture above represents the perfect example as to why undergrounding of utility lines is a good idea. Documentation is fairly difficult when there are telephone poles and wires in the way, don’t you think? And that is quite often the case on main street.

What do you think? Granted, utility wires and telephones poles tell a part of our history and technological growth, but they have not always existed. And who is to say that our future will include utility wires or should include above ground utility wires? Will there ever be a case for keeping wires because of historic significance? Do you think they are appropriate to keep or should we embrace new technology and remove the utility wires?

In Your Town: Trash Cans & Recycling Bins

Lately we’ve talked a lot about looking at and seeing your town/community/city in more detail than usual, and identifying what you like and possibilities for improvement. See these posts and discussions for starters: What’s Your Community Wish?Small, Public Spaces: Parklets; Street Observations: 10 Questions; On Your Streets: Curbs.

So, what do trash cans and recycling bins have to do with any of this? Well, have you ever found yourself walking around and wanting to throw out or recycle something? You don’t really notice the existence of or lack of such receptacles until you need one, right? Maybe it’s like looking for a bench. You don’t think about it until you really want to sit somewhere.

Do trash and recycling receptacles matter in our built environment, specifically our historic downtowns? Frankly, yes. For one thing, it keeps the environment clean. And secondly, it makes for a more pleasant experience, because our streets and parks feel whole. Meaning, if you have everything you need, you’ll likely to appreciate the place and your time there.

Concord, NH. Note the trash bin at the edge of the sidewalk and crosswalk.

Yet, many of our towns and villages struggle with the issue of trash and recycling receptacles because it can be expensive and labor intensive. And then where do you put them? As mentioned previously, many of our towns are not blessed with wide sidewalks and there is not room for such street furnishings, especially if you are looking for trash and recycling. But, there is no way around this. Trash and recycling bins are important to a healthy community.

Receptacles come in many shapes, sizes and styles, from cast iron boxes like the one below to decorative barrels to open barrels on a post to concrete and hard top plastic. We’ve all seen these, I’m sure. But have you ever thought about them?

One example: zero sort receptacles in Rutland, VT.

So the next time you are out and about, take note of your streets. Are there trash and/or recycling receptacles? Of what style and material? (Meaning, are they barrels, metal, open cans, etc.?) Are there enough? Are your streets clean? Are they necessary where you live?

Trash & recycling in Keene, NH (where there are large sidewalks and pedestrian spaces).

Understanding such a seemingly minute aspect of our built environment allows us, preservationists and beyond, to shape our communities for the better. A well-cared for community is one that people will love, and one that is worthy of people’s pride. And that makes for a better sense of place. Make sense? Can you think of other “minute” details that can make a big impact where you live and visit?

Dollar General v. Smart Growth in Chester, VT

Today is a guest post by Scott and Wendy who write the blog, Northern New England Villages, with the mission of “Encouraging the preservation and restoration of towns and villages in Northern New England (Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont) through picture galleries, blogging, forums, social media and more…”

This post will address the pros and cons of a Dollar General store in Chester, VT, following that discussion with an introduction to form-based zoning. Regardless of your opinion, it is important to understand both sides of the issue and to consider solutions. Scott and Wendy are happy to answer your questions and respond to your comments. 

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Tiny Chester, Vermont (pop. 3,154 as of 2010) is garnering national attention in their fight against Dollar General. A recent article in the New York Times states:

While Wal-Mart has managed to open only four stores in Vermont and Target still has none, more than two dozen Dollar General, Dollar Tree and Family Dollar stores have cropped up around the state. All three companies are thriving in the bad economy — between them, they have more than 20,000 outlets nationwide, selling everything from dog treats to stain remover and jeans to pool toys. Their spread through Vermont, with its famously strict land-use laws, has caught chain-store opponents off guard.

This case differs from battles with Dollar General in other Northern New England towns in that it is a green-field development. Across the border in Winchester, New Hampshire, Dollar General wants to demolish the historic Wheaton-Alexander House in order to build their mini-monster.

Generally, the application for demolition is where towns can prevail over Dollar General by denying them the ability to do so.  However, with a green-field development, the town cannot fall back on anti-demolition ordinances to protect their historical architecture.

Without the prospect of a demolition to galvanize the community against Dollar General, this battle has evolved into two distinct camps—the folks who want the economic development versus the Smart Growth folks who want to preserve the architectural heritage of the town.  Here is a run-down of the pros and cons:

PROS:

  • Preserving private property rights: The Dollar General will be built on a subdivided lot from the adjacent Zachary’s Pizza House—the owners must think this is a good deal and certainly have the right to sell their property. For more details, see this document from the Chester Development Review Board (pdf).
  • More retail sales/jobs and greater tax base: Vermont already has a tough time competing for retail sales against sales tax-free New Hampshire. A recent study (pdf) has found that Vermont annually losses a half billion in retail sales and 3,000 retail jobs to New Hampshire.
  • Higher property values: Enhanced local retail opportunities mean more choices and better prices. Also, in an age of $3 to $4 per gallon gasoline, traveling great distances to go shopping can get expensive which detracts value from more rural locations
  • Positive environmental impact: Closer retail means from less driving and gas consumption.
  • Restraint on trade and competition: Keeping Dollar General out would reduce competition in the retail sector which means local consumers will pay more.

CONS:

  • Overbuilding: There is already a Dollar General store in Springfield, Vermont which is less than 10 miles away.
  • Visual blight: The design will detract from the traditional New England architecture of Chester villages—see this slideshow for the visual impact (pdf)
  • Economic black-hole: Dollar General would drain sales from local businesses, take profits out-of-state and threaten the town’s overall economic viability. Many local businesses have been pillars of the community for years such as Lisai’s Grocery Store.
  • Negative environmental impact: The large surface parking lot, which is wastefully only used during store operating hours, will create runoff issues in an area prone to flooding. See this video on the flooding that occurred during Hurricane Irene before the store is built.
  • Lower property values: The presence of an undesirable chain store may discourage tourism and folks from buying second-homes in the area.

What do you think . . . did we miss any pros or cons?

Whichever side you fall on, Dollar General has seemingly won approval to move ahead with the project.  However, we hope that we can use this experience to better prepare for the next time. After all, Dollar General and related kin, Family Dollar, have already expressed their desire to further expand into Vermont and Northern New England.

Ultimately, a large part of the problem stems from how towns approach zoning. Current zoning practices are all about separating land uses from one another. This not only relegates form to the back of the line, but practically barred traditional, multi-use forms all-together.  Traditional zoning was, in part, an enabler of drive-everywhere suburbia.

One intriguing solution is to invert zoning so that form comes before use—called, appropriately enough, Form-Based Zoning (for more information see Form-Based Code Institute and this excellent article by the Michigan Association of Planning (pdf)). Unfortunately, form-based zoning is only now arriving in New England. A recent study on the history and challenges of form-based zoning in New England (pdf) found that:

Publicly-adopted form-based codes have gradually gained acceptance over the last fifteen years as an alternative to the principally use-based local zoning ordinances and by-laws that have dominated land use regulation in the United States since the 1920s. These codes were first adopted with the force of regulation in the south and west before they moved into other regions of the country. By and large, for reasons that remain open to discussion, the region with the lowest degree of penetration for form-based codes has been New England, where the first true form-based code was adopted only in 2005, and the total number of such codes in all six states is still in single digits. This article will discuss in detail three of the adopted codes in New England and three specific legal issues raised by those codes, starting with a review of form-based codes’ recent history and concluding that form-based codes are poised to enjoy wider acceptance in the region, which for the time being remains the nation’s “Final Frontier” for this alternative approach to land development regulation.

From Michigan Association of Planning: Smart Growth Tactics (page 4). Click for source.

As shown in the picture, even Borders Bookstore can find a way to fit in under Form-Based Zoning. So imagine if Dollar General were going into a building that fronted Main Street, had 2 to 3 stories with office space/apartments, wide, shaded sidewalks, back-ended street parking and only a single curb-cut for overflow/winter/tenant parking and deliveries. Would there be less opposition?

At any rate, we’ll have to save all of the ins-and-out of Form-Based Zoning for another post. The concluding point is simply that the current form of zoning is inadequate to preserving the historical character of our towns and villages. More battles like Chester, Vermont are on the way to Northern New England so new tactics, such as Form-Based Zoning, need to be developed now.

Small, Public Spaces: Parklets

Many of our New England towns and villages have limited street and sidewalk space when you take into account two lanes of travel, parking spaces and/or lanes, sidewalks and even snow piles. A cafe with outdoor seating is lovely in the warm weather, but only feasible when there is enough space for seating and for pedestrians on the sidewalk. A typical sidewalk, five feet in width, is not going to be sufficient for all our desires. And even then, do we really want to sit outside if a car is going to park next to our lunch seats? Maybe not. And what about benches (street furniture), trash/recycling bins and landscaping? In a nation that mostly caters to automobiles and convenience, roadways and parking spots often call the shots.

How can we add some green space and public space to our villages and cities with narrow sidewalks? Perhaps old news to some, a concept called a “parklet” is called the next big thing by Governing magazine. The article in the June 2012 issue, “Parklet: The Next Big Tiny Idea in Urban Planning,” explores the concept and prototypes of parklets. What is a parklet? Simply put, a parklet is the conversion (temporary or permanent) of a parking space or a few sparking spaces into a mini-park. Parklets can be furnished with outdoor benches, tables & chairs, umbrellas, landscaping in movable planters and similar items. They are designated for public use, meaning cafes and restaurants cannot serve to these park lets, and people are free to come and go as they please. Check out the slideshow with the Parklet article for great parklet designs.

Parklets began in 2009 in San Francisco, CA by the Bicycle Coalition and continues to be supported through the San Francisco Great Streets Project. The website is full of information including transformative before and after photos, from parking space to parklet. See also the How-to-Guide.  According to the Governing article, businesses often fund the park lets, but cities will sometimes share costs. Each parklet costs around $15,000 – $20,000. In terms of infrastructure, that is a small investment for long term positive effects to a community. As far as winter season, parklets can be disassembled and stored until warm weather returns.

So, what do you think? Does your town or city desperately need more green space and seating space? I can think of many towns that would benefit from a more interactive street, yet do not have the sidewalk space. Real estate, whether for streets or buildings, comes at a high premium in our compact villages. Using space wisely is a fine art. And typically, parking spaces are not something that municipalities are willing to lose. But what if just one parking space could be a parklet outside your local eatery or civic building? People could pause in the parklet, gather or meet there, get a cup of coffee to go from elsewhere and enjoy it in that space.

A parklet isn’t going to replace your town park, but it can get people to linger longer in the business district and to enjoy the surroundings. When was the last time you stood and looked up at the second or third story of a building? Imagine sitting on a bench in a parklet and gazing at the cornice on a historic building. Or – okay – people watching if that’s more your thing.  And the storefront aesthetics will be improved by the change from automobile to parklet fronting the building.

Some questions that need to be answered: how will the pedestrians in the parklet be protected from traffic? How long will the parklet stay? Who will fund it? However, next time you are walking through your town’s business district: look around. Where can you imagine a parklet?

What do you think? Good idea in theory, in practice, or both? An idea here to stay or just a trend? Do you know of similar ideas?

Why Local Matters

Shop Local. Eat Local. Buy Local. Think Local First. Live Local.

If you browse community related or preservation related news, you have probably noticed that the concept and implementation of a local economy based on local businesses is a popular topic. Local, in this sense, tends to mean small business as opposed to local franchise or a chain store that happens to be in your locale.

On Sunday May 13, 2012, the New York Times ran an article titled, “Vermont Towns Have an Image, and They Say Dollar Stores Aren’t Part of it.” The trigger for this article is the current struggle in Chester, Vermont, where a dollar store is proposed. The article is excellent and worthy of discussion, as this is an issue that needs to be in the mind of everyone. Many residents are opposed to the construction and introduction of a chain dollar store to Chester, one of the quintessential Vermont villages that relies on tourism. Chester includes two National Register historic districts, the Stone Village Historic District and the Chester Village Historic District.

From the New York Times article (see block quotes),

Almost two decades after the National Trust for Historic Preservation put the entire state of Vermont on its list of endangered sites, citing big-box developments as a threat to its signature greenness, towns like this one are now sizing up a new interloper: the chain dollar store.

“While Wal-Mart has managed to open only four stores in Vermont and Target still has none, more than two dozen Dollar General, Dollar Tree and Family Dollar stores have cropped up around the state. All three companies are thriving in the bad economy — between them, they have more than 20,000 outlets nationwide, selling everything from dog treats to stain remover and jeans to pool toys. Their spread through Vermont, with its famously strict land-use laws, has caught chain-store opponents off guard.”

Dollar stores are typically much smaller than the large big box stores that have been the typical threat. Land use regulations and zoning weren’t expecting a struggle, as the article states. Presumably, a relatively “small” store such as a dollar store would not be a problem. However, the square footage of these stores can overtake the total square footage of retail of adjacent or nearby businesses. Dollar stores have the potential to sell very similar items to what is currently offered by those neighboring businesses.

“Most of the people in Chester now are people who have come from someplace else,” Mr. Cunningham said. “It’s like a lot of Vermont. Why come to a place like this only to have it turn into the kind of place you were trying to leave?”

An excellent question. People move to Vermont because it is such a unique place. Let’s try to keep it unique and special for generations to come. This doesn’t mean a moratorium on development; but, rather, smart development that agrees with the community’s wants, needs, and concerns.

Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, said opposition to dollar stores has sprung up in at least four other towns in the state. Mr. Bruhn’s group, which seeks to protect what it calls “the essential character of Vermont,” has been tracking the spread of dollar stores since 2010; it provides grant money to citizens’ groups that oppose them, including Mr. Cunningham’s.

“The dollar stores have proliferated in a way that seems a little extreme,” Mr. Bruhn said. “One of the things I think is crucial for Vermont, in terms of maintaining this very special brand that we have, is we don’t want to look like Anywhere, U.S.A. And homegrown businesses are a crucial piece of that.”

The spread of dollar stores has come during a period of decline of the general store, a Vermont institution that in many towns served as a meeting place and all-purpose emporium. This week, the Barnard General Store, not far from Chester, closed after 180 years. Its owners cited the twin blows of Tropical Storm Irene, which badly flooded parts of the state last summer, and a nearly snowless winter that kept skiers away.

In this article, Mr. Bruhn’s quote about not looking like Anywhere, USA and homegrown businesses effectively sum up the ongoing battles with corporate development throughout Vermont. Simply put, a place becomes Anywhere, USA when its buildings no longer reflect regional traditions and architecture, and when you can walk into a business and there is not an identity. A chain store may alter the layout and carry some regional varieties, but for the most part, if you enter a chain drug store, for example, anywhere in this country, it’s the same thing, whether you are in Florida or Wyoming. Although the article discusses Vermont as a whole (because it is an issue looked at statewide), there are threats to prosperous or recovering downtowns all across the country, from chain stores to poor development to sprawl. What do you notice in your community?

Why do some communities and some people fight so hard against chain retailers? Because a functioning, healthy downtown filled with locally owned businesses is not the norm in most places, and is at risk is most places where it does exist. Vermont is not a place that can be taken for granted. Living locally – meaning shopping, eating and spending locally – is not easy in every part of our country. I say this from experience, having lived in five different states. But, it is easier in Vermont than anywhere else that I’ve lived. Why? Because it’s a mindset of many. It’s common. Of course, not every item you need can be purchased locally, but with just a bit of additional thought, you can do pretty well in supporting your local economy. For those of us lucky enough to live in places like this Vermont, we be good stewards. Living locally will improve your quality of life because it keeps money in your community, which improves the entire community.

How good are your local shopping habits? Can you do better? What is difficult about where you live? What do you think is the biggest issue facing your community? Does shopping local make you happy?