Applying What You Know: Reading the Built Environment

Learning to read your built environment – your city – helps you to form tangible connections to where you live. In turn, your sense of place and community increases. You feel ownership and responsibility for your town or city, which allows for better planning and smart development. The longer you live somewhere and study, the better you get to know a place; the more you love it.

But what happens you go someplace new? How do you read the built environment if you know nothing about its history? Good question. The best part of learning to read the layers of the built environment is that you can gain a sense of place and understanding without needing to know its cultural history. How do you do that?  By observing and translating the elements of the built environment you see the development and changes.

Elements of the built environment include street patterns (gridded or not?), buildings (height, architectural style, materials), parking lots (where? garages?), sidewalks (width, material?), landscaping (trees?), bridges (type?), utilities (underground wires or telephone poles?), and more.

I want to share an example that I used in my recent Built Environment lecture. It’s simple, but a good place to start. Ready to play along? And, go!

Recently, I traveled through Prescott, Ontario, a town on Canada Route 2 along the St. Lawrence River. I stopped in what appeared to be the center of town. As a preservationist, I always enjoy getting out of the car and wandering for a few blocks to snap photos and observe the area, stare at buildings – that sort of thing.

Here is the view standing on the corner of Centre Street and Route 2. Note the historic building block on the right. On the left, however, is a large parking lot. Parking lots always raise an eyebrow for me – why is there a large parking lot in the center of town? Historically, towns were not built with parking lots in the middle. Let’s have a look around.

Slide1

Parking lot (left) & historic building block (right) in the center of Prescott.

 

Slide2

Top left: the same historic building block mentioned above. Right: tower and parking lot at the SW corner of Route 2 and Centre Street. Bottom left: The same parking lot as seen from the other end of it (note clock tower behind the tree).

 

You can see the photos above. Now let’s step across the street. These Google street views (below) show that SW corner (in the first photo I stood next to the clock tower).

Once I did a 360 observation of the block I had a few guesses. In the United States, if there is a hole (read: parking lot) in a town or city, I automatically think 1960s Urban Renewal era. However, this was Canada, so I wasn’t sure on Urban Renewal.

But, the drug store adjacent to the parking lot had a mid 20th century vibe (see image below). The general automobile culture (1950s/60s) often falls in line with demolition and parking lots for auto-centric businesses.

Slide3

Google Street views of the corner and drug store.

My guess? A historic building was demolished for the drug store and parking lot, and the clock tower built on the edge of the parking lot to “honor” the historic building. Classic, right? Always the preservation nerd, I did some Googling to see if I could find information about Prescott development. It took a while, but eventually I did find my answer!

Yes, there was a historic building there. This one:

Slide4

Prescott, Ontario 1876 Town Hall. The clock tower was a later addition.

According to this source, the town hall was demolished in the early 1960s due to neglect and lack of available funds in the town for repair. While I couldn’t find when the drug store was built, I have a pretty good guess that it followed shortly after demolition of the town hall.

While this was not the most uplifting example of reading the landscape, it is important to understand how our cities and towns are shaped by individual projects and decisions. And the lesson? When you see a large hole in the center, spin around and look around. It’s probably not supposed to be there.

Toronto Facadism

Toronto is an interesting city, and one thing is apparent when strolling through Toronto: so much of this city is new. And new as in post urban renewal. Or newer, if you saw the condo construction behind Roundhouse Park. Much of downtown Toronto and Toronto’s historic neighborhoods were struck by urban renewal, though churches remain scattered between their large-scale, large massed neighbors. And today, high-rise tower construction continues at a rapid rate. Redevelopment continues. New development has its place, of course. However, sometimes when new development takes over, crazy things can happen. Take, for instance, this building near the University of Toronto.

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What is your initial thought? Historic? Disney World? Building constructed around it?

Just a façade.

Just a façade. There’s actually a Starbucks in there.

You might be asking, what in the world? As was I. See that plaque on the left. Here’s a photograph of it:

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It says: John M. Lyle Studio, 1921.This façade was part of a studio designed by John M. Lyle for his architectural practice. Lyle, one of Canada’s most distinguished architects, trained a number of noteworthy Canadian architects at the studio and worked there until his retirement in 1943. The building was set behind the homes that fronted Bloor Street, and was accessed by a pedestrian laneway located at 230 Bloor Street West. A portion of the studio’s façade was dismantled and reconstructed in its current location as part of a residential development completed in 2011.

That is to say: the building was in the way of development, so the façade was moved and stuck on this new building. Not ideal preservation, huh? The good part is the plaque that at least identifies where it was located and why it was moved.

What do you think? Acceptable? Not? I’d say it’s a case of relocated facadism, and the historic integrity no longer remains. Still, it’s interesting. I’d love to hear your thoughts! Please share below.

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Freeways to Boulevards and Parks: A Brief Introduction

Transportation tells the story of our culture: how we travel, in what style, what mode and to where. Depending on the design and form of our routes, it tells our priorities and the purpose of the roads.

Consider parkways of the 1920s-1940s: scenic, winding, stone bridges and underpasses, grassy medians, low speed limits. These roads were constructed for an enjoyable ride, making the journey part of the destination. Now consider interstates of the 1950s – 1970s or later: wide lane with wide shoulders, limited access, high speeds, blasting through the landscape. These corridors were built for efficiency and speed, getting the traveling public from one place to another.

Why is there such a difference in road construction? Just as our tastes in fashion, design, food, and culture change, so do our theories and methods of planning, construction, and transportation. Theories and methods change to fit our needs and wants, as evident by the evolution of our roadways.

Take note of where major highways are located, and you’ll see that many hug the waterfront of cities. These roads divide the waterfront from the city dwellers, which seem to ignore the potential high-value real estate. Don’t the best cities embrace their waterfront? Why would we ignore that by constructing roads instead of boardwalks, beaches, and parks? There are a few important factors to understand (note these are not all-inclusive).

(1) Until the modern era, the waterfront often represented the industry of a city. Shipping ports were major transportation centers, where goods would come in or leave the city. Waterfronts were for business, not play. Even little Burlington, Vermont had  waterfront filled with railroad lines, oil tanks, the lumber industry, etc. It was much different than today.

(2) Since the waterfront was not a cherished place in cities, especially as industry changed in the United States, building a road along the shorelines seemed to make sense. Transportation was replacing industry, particularly the shipping and rail industry.

(3) Before the interstate were the low speed (relatively speaking) parkways were constructed (think early Robert Moses era), driving was recreation and leisure. A Sunday drive was leisure time to Americans, and driving on a scenic highway adjacent to the the water made for beautiful views and a lovely afternoon.

(4) Interstates often replaced parkways. And interstates caused devastation through cities across the nation. However, building the interstate along the waterfront often was a path of least resistance, as they would transport vehicles around the city at high speeds, avoiding the congestion of inner city loops. .

(5) Recreation and city planning changed. Whether a parkway or an interstate, this pattern of development left the waterfront divided from city dwellers. At the time when these roads were constructed, people were moving out of cities, not living in them. The effects to a city were less noticeable than they might today. When people began living in cities as opposed to living in the suburbs, city dwellers wanted to reclaim the empty waterfronts.

Half a century later and development patterns and planning theories have indeed changed. Today cities across the country are working to remove (yes, remove!) freeways and reclaim the waterfront by turning the roads into boulevards or parks. An article 6 Freeway Removals That Changed Their Cities Forever (Gizmodo) is an amazing collection of examples around the world. On the east coast, you might know the Big Dig in Boston. On the west coast, Harbor Drive in Portland, OR is a well-know case study.

6 Freeway Removals That Changed Their Cities Forever

Harbor Drive in Portland, Oregon BEFORE freeway removal. Click for source & article.

6 Freeway Removals That Changed Their Cities Forever

Harbor Drive AFTER freeway removal. Click for source & article.

And there are many cities with proposals in mind such as Syracuse, New York and Niagara Falls, New York. PreserveNet keeps a website by the Preservation Institute detailing freeway removal projects. These are not minor undertakings. They are an incredible feats, requiring major design shifts. Improving quality of life within cities by giving pleasant open space to all speaks volumes to how we view and use cities today. Gone are the days when people are fleeing cities to the suburbs and need the roads to get in and out of the cities as quickly as possible. Instead, we see the value in these dense, urban environments. Quite the bold revitalization, and an example of what good a dramatic change can accomplish.

What do you think? Anything to add?

 

Days Like This

To quote Van Morrison, “Oh my mama told me there’ll be days like this.” Why do I write that today? Well, some days the uphill battle of historic preservation feels incredibly steep. Sometimes it’s really hard being a preservationist in heart, soul, belief, and profession. Do you ever feel like that? Maybe you lost a preservation battle that you really believed in? Of course, every day cannot be easy and we preservationists like a challenge, but the big ones can weigh on your heart. Today an ongoing preservation issue gives me a heavy heart.

On Wednesday October 16, 2013, the brand new Wal-Mart opened a few miles outside of historic downtown St. Albans, Vermont. This particular Wal-Mart case began in the 1990s, and has come and gone a few times, fighting Vermont’s Act 250 law, among other issues. The Preservation Trust of Vermont (PTV) did its absolute best to work with Wal-Mart, hoping to have the store site itself downtown in a smaller scale, as opposed to miles away from the existing downtown core in farmland. See the design proposals that the Preservation Trust of Vermont had hoped to achieve. You might expect a statewide preservation organization to be opposed to Wal-Mart. However, that is not the case.  PTV is pro-downtown businesses and responsible growth and development. In other words, focus the development in appropriate areas and spaces.

Vermont is a very unique state, and a wonderful place to live for its scenery, its quality of life, its focus on the local economy, just to name a few. Part of this quality of life is a result of calculated development and land use planning laws that have protected the state from poor, sprawling development. Sprawl has been a threat and continues to be a threat to our downtowns and rural landscapes. In fact, the entire State of Vermont has been listed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “11 Most Endangered Places” in 1993 and 2004, both times at risk from an onslaught of big box, sprawling development (see below).

During the 1990s Wal-Mart located three of its four Vermont stores in existing buildings and kept them relatively modest in size. Now, however, the world’s largest company is planning to saturate the state – which has only 600,000 residents – with seven new mammoth mega-stores, each with a minimum of 150,000 square feet. Theses potential new stores may be located in St. Albans, Morrisville, Newport/Derby, St. Johnsbury, Bennington, Rutland, and Middlebury. Wal-Mart’s plans are sure to attract an influx of other big-box retailers. The likely result: degradation of the Green Mountain State’s unique sense of place, economic disinvestment in historic downtowns, loss of locally-owned businesses, and an erosion of the sense of community that seems an inevitable by-product of big-box sprawl. With deep regret, the National Trust takes the rare step of re-listing Vermont as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

With all of this, why does Wal-Mart keep succeeding? Well, it has deep pockets. Obviously. And yes, people want Wal-Mart in their towns. Not all people, but many do, because they believe the prices to be cheaper (which is only selectively true) or because they don’t understand what is at risk when Wal-Mart moves in. And let’s keep in mind, that any big box store can bring up the same issues; this example just happens to be Wal-Mart.

The difficulty we preservationists face is explaining to naysayers that big box sprawl outside of downtown will have negative effects on our local economies. Sure, any store is technically geographically local shopping (as opposed to online), but that is not the true meaning of a local economy. A local economy supports itself, buys and sells good and services made and used within the region, and keep more taxes in the economy. Money spent at a big box store is money not spent at businesses owned by our neighbors. A big box store of approximately 150,000 square feet of retail space is consequently 150,000 square feet of retail space taken away from other businesses. A new store is not going to spout new consumers; roughly the same amount of people’s money will be spent shopping. So where it is spent shifts. Is it all from small businesses? No, of course not. But a good portion of it is.

It is important to remember that preservation is not anti-development or anti-progress or anti-capitalism. Preservationists are pro smart development and land use, and are pro small businesses succeeding. This can be achieved through a variety of ways, but the American typical sprawling big box developments is not the answer, especially when there are other, better options.

The current opinion regarding this new Wal-Mart is that it will bring more people to downtown. Business owners are in favor of Wal-Mart, or at least are of the opinion that since it’s there, they might as well join and encourage all sorts of business. It’s a good attitude. Hopefully the restaurants downtown survive, the small businesses continue to grow, and sprawl does not increase around the new Wal-Mart. Only time will tell.

So, preservationists, what do you think? Will a Wal-Mart located approximately 3 miles outside of a historic downtown have a negative effect on the downtown economy and local businesses? It is worth noting that there is an interstate exit located (practically) adjacent to this Wal-Mart, and customers would not have to drive thru the downtown. The St. Albans Drive-in Theater is located across the street from the new Wal-Mart. (Remember that many drive-ins failed because of the value of their land.) Also, St. Albans is a wonderful downtown with great improvement projects (most recently undergrounding utilities, streetscape improvements, building improvements, etc.). Are there examples of Wal-Mart or any similar big box store locating so-close-yet-so-far from a historic downtown and both surviving? I hope, for the sake of St. Albans, that this situation is the exception to the rule.

And that is why I have a heavy preservation heart today. Sometimes getting people to see in the long-term view and understand just how special their town or state is seems like an uphill battle. What’s your latest preservation heartache? Care to share? And what do you think about this one?

Small Versions of Big Boxes

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A new Walmart Express in the southeastern United States.

Many of us are familiar with the debates of new Walmart stores (other big box chains apply here, too) and the effects that such development and business will have on existing business and surrounding communities. And then there is the dollar store debate as well, such as the example in Chester, VT. Relatively new to the mainstream discussion are smaller versions of these big box stores. Previously, they’ve been smaller versions in order to fit into the urban markets, such as the Walmart Neighborhood Market and the Walmart Express. A bit of information about the two from a USA Today article:

In the U.S., Simon said, Wal-Mart’s small stores, which range from 10,000 square feet to about 55,000 square feet, compete well with a broad variety of merchants.

Neighborhood Market store have generated a 5% increase in revenue at stores open at least a year for the first half of this year. That’s more than double the growth rate of the Wal-Mart’s average store.

Express stores are less than one-tenth the size of Wal-Mart supercenters and offer groceries, general merchandise like tools, and pharmacies. Neighborhood Markets are more than twice the size of Express stores and offer perishable food, household supplies and beauty aids as well as a pharmacy.

According to another article, 40% of new Walmart openings will be these smaller scale stores.

Clearly, these Walmart Express stores sound like many dollar stores and chain pharmacies. Is this just another name to the mix of such stores? Or is this something new to which community planners, preservationists, citizens, etc. should pay attention on a different level?

Will these stores be considered for historic downtown locations, rather than sprawl? The store in the image above demonstrates that some are a part of the chain store sprawl. And design review doesn’t seem to be in effect in that example. If a Walmart Express (or any similar store) were willing to fit into an existing building block, would you be more favorable to it than if it were simply sprawl? Or do you think that would simply be empowering these big box chains, creating a monopoly, and hurting Main Street and small business owners?

What would you do in your community?

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.

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?

Abandoned Vermont: Windsor House

This is a different vein of Abandoned Vermont; this house in Windsor is not found down a dirt road or in a small, sleepy town. Instead, it is easily spotted from US Route 5, located within the Windsor Historic District.

Abandoned house in Windsor, VT.

While it is not exactly abandoned (it is bank owned, I believe), this poor house is boarded up, vacant, a victim of fire, and left for further demolition by neglect – it seems. It has seen better days, obviously – days filled with historic integrity. Now it would probably be determined to be a non-contributing structure in the historic district.

Asphalt brick siding, asphalt shingle roof, replacement windows all contribute to a loss of integrity.

While loss of integrity to one building is a worthwhile discussion, there is a more important issue relating  to this house. What greater effect will the loss of integrity have on the character of the historic district?

What is the best option? Complete restoration of a historic structure? This isn’t a house (in my opinion) that someone will look at, love immediately and dream of restoring. Of course, that is not to say that a determined visionary could not take on the project. And who knows, removing that fake brick siding could help give the building a new face. Some buildings have the luxury of being loved, even in their most deteriorated states, but often such simple vernacular structures are not as fortunate. If it is determined to be a non-contributing structure, would demolition and sympathetic infill be the best option?

This house probably had a slate roof in its prime.

What was anyone ever thinking? Asphalt shingles made to look like brick? I have never seen this look good on a building.

Does this house stand a better chance of a second life because it is in a historic district of a larger town? Or is it more at risk for demolition? What do you think?

I can see it going either way. Rescuing and restoring a house in a historic district seems to have a better potential for property values. However, the property may be worth more than the structure as-is. Not knowing the state of the house interior, it is could be too far gone for someone to want to tackle.

Due to the loss of integrity, this could be a situation in which loss of a now non-contributing structure will not affect the historic district, but what goes in its place can have a positive or negative effect.

How often do you come across similar abandoned structures? What do you think about the fate of this building and the impacts to the historic district?

Changing the Use of Resources

Waterfront is usually an asset, yes? Property with water views and especially water frontage costs more than property a few blocks away. Yet, one thing I’ve noticed while living in Vermont is that few towns take advantage of their waterfront, which is most often riverfront. The river is in the background, but the town center seldom focuses on the water course. (Disclaimer: I have not been to every Vermont town, this is based only on my observations so far.) The exception is, of course, Burlington, whose waterfront (lake front) is a huge asset and draw to the city. The bike path, the lake access and waterfront park are some of the best reasons for living in Burlington.

Now, consider Montpelier, the capital city of Vermont. First of all, the face of the city from US Route 2 is far from appealing. While you can see the gold dome of the capital building and the Taylor Street metal truss bridge, the view is otherwise a few gas stations and the run down US Route 2 as it passes on to Berlin/Barre and beyond. Yet, if you drive by and skip turning onto Baldwin Street and State Street, you’ll miss the vibrant downtown, beautiful buildings and one of the prettiest cities in Vermont.  Between US Route 2 and State Street is the Winooski River. You can really only enjoy the river from a few spots in town: a restaurant or two and the bridges crossing back to US Route 2.

Many small towns and villages developed around the rivers and water bodies for obvious reasons: use of the resource for water, transportation, flat and fertile agricultural lands. Backyards and the backs of buildings face the river rather than Main Street. There are few places to sit at a restaurant and gaze at the rivers. I think of the extreme – the Riverwalk in San Antonio, TX – and wonder why Vermont towns are not vibrant river fronts. Perhaps it is because rivers were used for industry and business. And because they frequently flood. There may be research on Vermont development along and the use of water courses; but in this post, I’m just pondering.

For starters, let’s compare today’s resources v. historical resources. We no longer use our waterways for transportation and industry (well, it is certainly not the majority). Currently our culture values water mostly for recreation, tourism and associated quality of life. We cannot change our historical development patterns. Instead, we need to adapt our communities and incorporate the natural resources into modern planning and use. River fronts currently serve for community recreation paths and parks. In some instances it would make sense to improve or create paths along the river. As this summer taught us once again, building on the water isn’t always a good idea and protection from flooding requires intensive planning. Are we afraid of our rivers? I hope not. Sure, they are unpredictable, but living near a waterway keeps me from feeling landlocked.

Think about where you live. How are the towns laid out? What are the resources and does planning take advantage of it? How is it different today than historically? Would you rather live near a waterway or far away?

This Could Happen to You

Sprawl and poor development decisions pop up everywhere; infill that adversely effects its surroundings can happen almost anywhere, even in a historic district in picturesque Vermont.

Let’s use Fair Haven as an example. Traveling through Fair Haven, VT on VT Route 22A or VT Route 4 you’ll pass well kept historic buildings; the highways lead to a large open town green surrounded by historic commercial blocks, civic buildings, and significant homes overlooking the green, including two historic residences constructed of marble. This area is the Fair Haven Green Historic District, listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Standing on the edge of the town green.

While driving into town from Route 4A West, something jumped out at me. See below.

Fair Haven, VT. Dollar General has moved in next to the public library.

What? Dollar General sits next to the Fair Haven Free Library, a 1908 Carnegie Library. And on the other side is the Fair Haven Grade School – in another historic building.

Fair Haven Grade School, Dollar General, Fair Haven Free Library.

This is located in the Fair Haven Green Historic District – a nondescript modern strip mall type shopping building sandwiched in between two architecturally significant buildings and adjacent to many more. It’s like a slap in the face – and it’s not even my town!

It gets worse. Take a walk further down the green and this is your vantage point:

The Dollar General sign must be at the very edge of the property line. Talk about ruining the view shed. Click and zoom in for the full effect.

Taken out of context, this library now looks like it’s the owner of the Dollar General sign. How did this happen? Granted it is just a sign, but in a state that outlawed billboards and in a historic district like Fair Haven, it’s unfathomable. You could say that a sign isn’t a billboard, but if you consider relative size to the building it’s in front of, that Dollar General sign might as well be a billboard. And to clarify, I’d have the same opinion regardless of the sign in front of the building. This is not an issue of Dollar General, although I was ready to be up in arms about yet another Dollar General. However, Google Maps shows the street view as a Ben Franklin store in the same building with an equally large sign in the same location.

Unfortunately, I cannot find any information about the development of this lot. The questions to ask are: (1) How did this happen? (2) Was it a question of zoning? (3) Why did no one stop it? (4) Why wasn’t a better infill design chosen for this lot? (5) Has the Town fixed the problem so this doesn’t happen again?

I’d consider this a cautionary tale, especially as small scale sprawl continues to be a threat. Since it’s not a strip mall, it’s easier to slip through the cracks. Chain stores are not necessarily the main issue here – poor “architecture” is the bigger problem of the moment. Be on the lookout, because poor development results in adverse effects to historic properties and districts and a decrease in quality of life (it’s all connected).